I’m getting the sense that my generation, and the ones growing behind it, don’t truly understand tolerance anymore as it applies to speech.
As we watch an endless parade of people run out of jobs for contributing to causes unpopular with some, and a plethora of personalities who are run out of their careers for a careless word taken without chance of explanation, I think that we’re collectively becoming a culture of cowards.
Naturally, there are people who say offensive and caustic things. There are people who hold opinions that cause us to question their ability to reason while experiencing cognitive dissonance.
There have been people like this always. Upton Sinclair, who wrote a lot of books despite what I suspect is a surprising lack of oxygen being supplied to his brain; Sam Kinison, who made a career of saying awful things because it gave vent to an ugly cultural spleen no one wanted to admit existed (and honest disclaimer: I thought was funny); Joan Rivers as well, who died shortly after a dust-up for saying the same offensive sort of thing she said about everyone, but about the “wrong people.”
Of course, the Internet gives people more opportunity than ever to say those things in a larger forum than before. Things that were said at parties with the like-minded, or in dinner conversation that was later debated, are now said in public.
Since they are said in public, they also give opportunity to those who would find courage behind a screen. Since they have no need to show empathy, or mercy, they don’t.
If we are truly champions of diversity and our goal is to include an infinite combination of thought, then we need more courage to let things go, regardless of how awful we think they are.
What happened to the idea that if you didn’t like something, you could just “change the channel”? The Internet gives you ample opportunity to do this. Let’s take, for instance, Twitter.
When someone makes asinine comments repeatedly, I sever the connection and move along. It’s a fairly simple, non-confrontational reaction. I’ve consciously blocked only two or three accounts in my years using the service, and it was because those people behaved like total asses.
(Note: The exception is that I keep the connection if I have built a relationship with the person, or came into the online connection with a real-life relationship established already. As with any human relationship, there is valuable context to someone when you know them reasonably well.)
I conclude that we are afraid of the forum of ideas we always said we wanted. We want to use the forum instead as a court to bludgeon and bloody a few sacrificial lambs to keep the rest quiet. The message is received, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s the one that was intended.
The message seems to be that if you don’t think like Group A then Group A will belittle and attack you and/or seek to destroy you, where Group A is a variable for “Group of loud, opinionated people who feel validated by participating in an online witch hunt, because they view themselves as not only correct by morally compelled to destroy thinkers of thoughts they deem offensive.”
Oh ye Internet Warrior, you are not the pillar of intellectual strength you believe. But know ye this, that the sewer forum you’re creating is the one in which you will also drown. Even if you are today validated, tomorrow your opinions must change lest ye too be fed to the culture sharks who will eat their own. There is no time for consideration or logic when you must be willing to update your belief systems within 24 hours to be accepted by your online clan. Just ask Bill Maher.
And in such a world, I have to wonder who then is the true champion of thought, and how do the original thinkers are appointed. It seems to be that I must cede that choice to the savviest person who knows someone who writes for Huffington Post or some other service bent on shaping opinon.
What then is our purpose but to act as the fanged enforcers of the self-elected ministers of culture? We are the willing pawns in the war between the bloviators and the supercilious.
The End Result
It’s despicable and it’s cowardly. I don’t know how else to say it.
I wonder if we’re really so securely happy with how things are in this world – the big picture things – that we should be spending our time running strangers out of jobs just because they said things we don’t like. I’d like to think that aiding the homeless or maintaining your neighborhood safety would rank higher.
I’d also like to know how truly secure someone is in their beliefs if the first reaction they have to something that challenges them is to attack and eradicate that challenge.
I’ve made a proud point in my life of being friends with people regardless of their political or philosophical bent. There is always common ground to be had, if you’re a decent enough person to find it. And if your own opinion is that you can’t tolerate those who might disagree with you in the slightest, then God bless you and keep you, because I can’t imagine how dreary a life like that is.
Free Speech is more than a Constitutional Amendment. It’s a general code of conduct for a healthy and society. Brow-beating “wrong thinkers” is not just horrendous it’s literally what’s been done by every group seeking power in history. And those beating the brows would be the spiritual forebears of the Internet mobs.
So when someone says something with which you disagree, try to give them the benefit of the doubt, and remember that the person you’re tearing to pieces is a person, not a random assortment of bits.
To be as succinct as possible, which is possibly ironic at this point, think of the aunt who talks crazy at family get-togethers. You don’t then follow her to her job and try to get her fired. You talk to her, maybe even try to change her mind. If you cannot change her mind, you move on and understand that not everyone will think like you.
In the beautifully complex world in which we live, not everyone must. There was even a Twilight Zone about this called The Mind and the Matter. If you’ve not seen it, I encourage a viewing.
Let’s keep talking. If someone says something offensive to you, think about how you’d speak to a friend. I bet the conversations are so much better when we all do that.