The Great “Unpersoning”

In his classic novel 1984 George Orwell introduced a term both banal and terrifying: the unperson. An unperson was an individual who had defied the orthodoxies of the government and society, so any mention of them or their ideas was removed from the public record and news media in order to ensure community harmony. Sometimes these unpersons were killed, but they could also be left to live out the span of their lives with their words gone, their voices silenced, and their individuality erased.

There was once a time in America and Europe when such censorship was unthinkable, but we are now creeping uncomfortably close to the dystopian reality that Mr. Orwell described, one where the ideas of those deemed outside the mainstream are removed from public view in the service of “the greater good” (a term that that typically is used to introduce the most demonstrably “un-good” policies), in this case the suppression of thoughts and ideas deemed hateful or harmful by some.

The mild term now used to describe the closing of someone’s “offensive” account on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or other social media sounds decidedly inoffensive: That person is being “deplatformed”. Setting aside the obvious question of what criteria an anonymous group of corporate screeners is using to decide what is offensive and what is not, it must be remembered that free thought is intrinsically offensive to somebody. We would still be scratching at the ground with sharp sticks if “troublesome” individuals throughout history had not loudly challenge the accepted wisdom—often at great personal risk—and forced changes upon an unwilling world and its leadership. Progress is often dependent on the rebel and the malcontent, and human advancement has been slowed—or rendered nonexistent—during those periods of our history when one orthodoxy reigned supreme and dissenting voices were silenced.

There are, of course, ideas that are—and have been—harmful to individuals, society, and the world as a whole. Allowing those whose ideas are stupid the opportunity to publicly demonstrate their stupidity is a workable and effective response to nonsense that has ably exposed idiocy for many a millennia. Continuing to allow individuals to use their own brains to evaluate the merits of evidence and arguments presented by others—to, in other words, use their common sense—will work much better than employing armies of screeners and evaluators to shield us from the need to exercise our own judgments during the course of our daily lives.

Those who favor taking away the social media accounts and access of those who promulgate and promote foolishness often cite the most extreme examples to support censorship, and their legal and extra-legal efforts to ban that which they characterize as hate speech are informed by honest passion regarding this matter. However, one has to ask whether the examples cited by the censorship advocates to support their viewpoints actually make any sense when held up to the light.

Everyone who claims to love free speech—but actually does not—tends to eventually gravitate toward the example of Hitler and the Nazis to support their censorious attitudes. Wouldn’t it be better, they ask, if “people like that” were simply prohibited from spewing their hateful ideas? Conveniently forgotten is that the German government “deplatformed” Adolf Hitler for 264 days in 1924 by tossing him in prison after the failed Beer Hall Putsch—and turned him into a national hero, which helped to fuel his rise to power.

Prohibition of awful ideas does not necessarily cause them to disappear; it often instead drives them underground, where they can mutate into more virulent and dangerous forms that now have the cachet of the forbidden to make them yet more attractive to potential followers. As painful and difficult as it is to have to listen to insulting gibberish—and as problematic as this sometimes might be because the mentally unstable or morally malformed might be attracted to the words of hate mongers—we are far better off overall if crackpot speech and beliefs are exposed to our scrutiny and scorn.

Censorship is the tool of authoritarian governments; the power and legitimacy of democracy is predicated on a free and open discussion of all ideas and viewpoints. The recently adopted motto of The Washington Post, “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, refers to the oversight of government by an informed citizenry, but it could just as well describe the well-lit marketplace of ideas that is necessary for democracy to function to its fullest. Just as campus speech codes have damaged the liberal idea—and ideals—of higher education, so does the censorship of offensive or extreme ideas on social media damage that which enables and enlivens the traditions and practices of Western liberal thought: the opportunity to hear all sides of a debate and forcefully engage with the opinions expressed.

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Our “Godfather” Government

During the early 1950s, Americans were transfixed by hearings and investigations conducted by U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee.  Senator Kefauver laid bare the power and profits of organized crime in America, which generated massive income for mobsters through gambling, drugs, and pornography/prostitution operations that spanned our nation.  As a result, Americans supported a renewed crackdown on organized crime operations that sent many top mobsters to prison.

The scourge of organized crime still exists today, but what is truly odd is how many of the profit centers for the criminals of the past have been transformed into government-run agencies that generate jobs, grant political power, and allow states and the federal government to skim their cutin the form of taxes.  Even more oddly, more and more law enforcement resources are today devoted to destroying illegaloperations so that government can protect its growing monopoly on the profits to be made from human sin and weakness.  Woe to that misguided fool who tries to deal a little marijuana without first purchasing a state license to do so!

Government has, of course, always enacted sin taxesin order to finance its operations.  Taxes on whiskey helped to fund our new nation.  Revenue from the sale of tobacco and tobacco products have been mainstays of state and federal coffers.  Prior to the creation of the national income tax in 1913, roughly 1/3 of all federal revenues came from taxes on liquor, and when income tax revenues evaporated at the height of The Great Depression in 1933, Prohibition was rapidly repealed so that federal liquor taxes could again slosh into the U.S. Treasury.

This last exampleProhibition being repealed to fund a dead broke governmentis perhaps the most pertinent regarding where we are today.  Bedeviled by crumbling infrastructure, crushed by legacy retirement expenses, and faced with a shrinking population of active workers, government entities at all levels are desperate for whatever tax dollars they can find.  Therefore, virtually any human activity and enterprise now finds itself subject to more taxes, fees, and surcharges meant to fund local, state, and federal budgets that are awash in red ink.

It should, therefore, surprise few that government has increasingly legalized that which was once illegal in order to generate the dollars it needs to stay afloat.  As a result, the numbers racket of the 1950s is now the state lottery agency.  The demon weed dealer of the 1950s is now the licensedand tax payingmarijuana dispensary providing service with a smile.  The shady pornographer snapping photos in the seedier parts of town is now a web conglomerate with an army of attorneys watching out for its best interests.  What all now have in common is that what was once the illicit business of the criminal class has now become the revenue generator of the political classand each day new ideas for better marketing that will help to milk them for more taxes are considered.  I can only imagine the chagrin of a numbers runner of the 1950s if he could only see the ads blaring from televisions today regarding the size of this weeks Powerball prize.  State lottery revenues alone are now over $70 billion nationally each yearnot exactly chump change.

Many wouldand haveargued that is is better for government rather than gangsters to profit from vice.  Those who, for example, tout state lotteries as a way to (sort of) support public education see nothing but advantage from putting the neighborhood numbers runner on the sidelines.  Watching video slot machines sprout like daffodils after an April rain in my ownvery brokestate of Illinois, it is clear that looming bankruptcy is the mother of all moral compromise.  Politicians and civic leaders who are eager to increase funding for government programs and services they deem essential in the face of yawning budget deficits have no compunctions about taking whatever money they can by any means necessary.  A 2009 article entitled Paying With Our Sinsperhaps expressed this notion more unashamedly that most:

Here’s a better ideaand one that will help the federal and state governments fill their coffers: Legalize drugs and then tax sales of them. And while we’re at it, welcome all forms of gambling (rather than just the few currently and arbitrarily allowed) and let prostitution go legit too. All of these vices, involving billions of dollars and consenting adults, already take place. They just take place beyond the taxman’s reach.

This is the basic and succinct argument for turning dysfunctional and damaging behaviors into lovely tax dollars, and assessed upon its ruthlessly practical merits it makes perfect sense.  Is there, however, a hidden cost to all the money that might rain from the sky if we were take the governments propensity for profiting from human weakness, addiction, and desire to its logical and utterly amoral extreme?  Is turning human misery into tax money by legitimizing that from which government wasat one time long agoconstituted to protect us delegitimizing the very purpose of government and exposing millions to untold risk, danger, and death?

Politicians often seem befuddled about the publics low opinion of them.  Why should this not be the case?  Do we admire the player, pusher, or pimp?  Are we supposed to sing the praises of those who instead of wanting a chicken in every pot propose a prostitute on every street cornertax identification numbers ready in hand?  Given that so many of our leaders seem just fine with throwing any shred of morality out the window in pursuit of a tax dollarand the campaign contribution sure to shortly follow hard uponit should be little wonder that a sense of absolute betrayal and disgust aimed at our elected officials seems so baked into the very fabric of our society at the current time.  

Over the course of a single human lifespan, we have descended from aspiring to raise individuals higher so they can escape the clutches of human frailty to pushing them lower so that we can turn a profit for the government from their flaws.  To hear a contemporary American politician speak of honor and integrity when they are complicit in a system as damaging to individuals, families, and communities as ours is today is learn what the meaning of mendacity truly is.  We need changeand soonbefore we finally choke on the bile of so many official lies.

The Perils Of Perfectionism

The history of humanity has been the history of the elusive quest for perfection.

This has been a great benefit to us in many ways.  Our tinkering with technology has vastly improved our lives by driving the development of machinery and devices that have taken us from standing agog at the sight of a fire to a blasé use of computing technology that is very close to magical.  Our desire to perfect business systems and industrial processes has led to greater productivity and cost savings.  Our wish to make a perfect meal, plan a perfect birthday party, or find the perfect gift provides a great deal of happiness to many and is a natural outgrowth of our love and friendship with one another.

However, the search for perfection has its dark side as well.  It can lead to obsession or cause unbearable and avoidable tensions in the home or workplace.  A dangerous rigidity of thought or purpose can result if the desire for perfection is not balanced by alternative viewpoints or common sense perspectives, and the search for perfection can cause some to fanatically embrace imperfect methods that cause great harm others in the process.  Perfection is a laudable goal, but we should recognize that humans are inherently imperfect and must sometimes be forgiven for words or deeds resulting from a lack of foresight, expertise, or experience rather than neglect, stupidity, or malice.

There is an old adage that perhaps also illustrates a problem that occurs with those who believe wholeheartedly in their own interpretation of what would constitute perfection: If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  The belief in our own infallibility causes us to sometimes hammer away at those who disagree when we should instead be listening carefully to why their ideas differ from our own.  

This maladaptive tendency to insist that we are right when we should instead be learning why we might be wrong causes an unsurprising amount of conflict, and this explains at least part of the reason why so many necessary discussions descend into a nonproductive exchange of insults.  If we and our beliefs are perfect, those who believe differently are imperfectwithout a doubt.  The end result is arguments between parties that can never end in a resolution because for each only their own perfectoutcome is acceptable.  This my way or the highwaymindset, which by definition excludes any possibility of compromise, creates a great deal of the nightmarish gridlock that infects our governmental processes today.

This mindset is also, unfortunately, leading to a revisiting of history that focuses on flaws in human character and behaviorwhich are always easy to find with the least little effort. Every one of the heroes of history had their heaping share of human foibles, and rapidly changing social, cultural, and legal norms leave individuals and accomplishments from our past exposed to revisionist interpretations that strip them of their former glory.  

Is it appropriate to judge a 18th century historical figure such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson by 21st century standards?  Are the pyramids not as wondrous because they were built by a conquering empire?  Was the fire that recently consumed Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris any less tragic because Christians have in the past forcibly converted or murdered those who did not share their faith?  Should we tear down all monuments to Martin Luther King Jr. because his less-than-welcoming views on homosexuality would now be considered hateful?

Human history is flawed because the humans who made it are flawed.  The desire of some to censure our celebrations of any historical figure or event that exhibits imperfectionsall of which we can easily spot with the benefit of 20/20 hindsightwill eventually leave us adrift in a world where we have no heroes or heroic acts.  Only miserable gradations of villains and villainy will remain as the heritage upon we must build our future.  

As bad as the past was on occasion, the actions, beliefs, and values of our ancestors bequeathed us the world in which we live today, and we should continue to recognize their mistakes and build upon their successes.  The many imperfections of the past can inform our judgments today, but we still need to recognizeand honorthe aspirations and achievements of those imperfect people.  The men and women who built our world were sometimes brutal, duplicitous, and unfairbut the best among them tried to rise above their own imperfections.  

It is both petty and shortsighted to castigate those who tried their best by focusing exclusively upon the worst that they did, and we need to remember that the most perfect of all human abilities is our capacity to forgive the flaws of others.  Tearing down the past is not the path we need to take as we too strive to rise above our human imperfections and create a better future for ourselves and the many generations to come.

Why Do We Lack Empathy?

Recent academic studies that have purported to show we are far less empathetic than we once were are, like all social science research, open to question.  Any attempt to measure our feelings is naturally rife with possibilities for error, misinterpretation, and researcher bias.  

However, there does seem to be a lot of anger and frustration running through our nations interactions and discourse right now, and few would argue that the desire take the time to understand the viewpoints of others is at a shockingly low ebb.  Like punch drunk boxers in the ninth round of a tough bout, we seem preoccupied with delivering an exhausted knock out blowmostly with words, thankfullyto those with whom we disagree, and many apparently are convinced that those who think or act differently than they do are evil, stupid, or both.

Why is this so?

Empathy obviously tends to diminish when people slip into survival mode.  Given that so many Americans never quite managed to recover from the Great Recessionand many more were struggling even before the financial system melted down in 2008it should not be a surprise that some are saving their concern only for themselves and their loved ones.  

Given the startling and ever-increasing costs of healthcare, housing, education, childcare, and almost all basic needs, the task of just staying afloat can wear down even the nicest people among us.  Add to these economic pressures the extraordinary personal stresses now afflicting so many individuals, families, and communities, and it is easy to see that worrying about others might be a luxury that some simply cannot afford.  To take an extreme example, the novel Night, Elie Wiesels horrifying account of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, strongly suggests that human kindness could well be an acquired habit rather than an inborn trait, so we might not be at our most empathetic when we are under the most duress.

Moreover, although we have managed to slaughter one another with clockwork regularity and precision throughout human history in spite of (and sadly sometimes because of) organized religion, over the past couple of thousand years it has at least attempted to act as a bulwark against our basest instincts and provide a mechanism for moral thought, communal charityand empathy for those who are suffering.  Communities of faith have established and maintained hospitals across the globe, led worldwide movements to abolish innumerable human rights abuses, and been there to comfort the most afflicted in their darkest and loneliest moments.  

The educated elite might sneer at religion, deeming it a vestigial artifact of our cave-dwelling ancestors fears and superstitions, but it could be plausibly argued that modern secularism is leaving a grievous and damaging void in the hearts of manyone that cannot be filled by opioids, hook ups, or huge flat screen televisions.  

Learning that life is about more than sensations and material possessions is a road many have traveled, and a yearning for caring connections with those around usempathy, in other wordsis baked into the fabric of a faith-based life.  Efforts to teach empathy without faith in God or at least an emphasis upon a spiritual connection between us all typically resort to empty appeals to self-interest, which tends to diminish the impact of these lessons.  

If empathy for others is presented as a mere transaction—“If I am nice to you, you will be nice to me”—this rapidly curdles into yet another form of selfishness that later becomes the bitterness many will feel when their kindnesses are not enthusiastically reciprocated.  It is little wonder that cultural, social, racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender tribalismthe identity politicsthat now plague usis the rage-filled rage today.  This futile attempt to find comfort among your own kindperversely becomes the fuel for the continuing anger that leads to yet more need for refuge based upon our desperate self-labeling.  Dante Alighieri wrote of the circles of hellin Divine Comedy, but our current circular and self-reinforcing daily hellstoked by social media posts and shortsighted politiciansis much worse than what he imagined.

A lack of interest in the lives and needs of others is, unfortunately, likely self-perpetuating.  After we form the harsh habit of privileging our own needs or the needs of the narrow group with which we identify, it is difficultif not impossibleto ever learn to love all of humanity and care for its needs as well.

Love For Sale

Recently I had a couple of my college English classes working on an essay assignment where they compared and discussed contrasting viewpoints regarding the flavor of the month in progressive American politics: legalizing (or at least decriminalizing) prostitution, which its proponents describe as sex work.

My studentsviewpoints concerning this idea varied greatlyas their essay titles made clear.  Some saw sex work as just another job and the decision to do it as a sign of personal choice and agency (Its My Body) while others were frankly frightened and appalled at the prospect (Your Legs Should Not Be Open For Business).  Many landed somewhere in the middle, not wanting to encourage prostitution but wishing to make life a little safer for those who need to sell their bodies to earn money.

I assigned this essay because we now have at least two politicians vying for the 2020 Democratic nomination for President, Kamala Harris of California and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, who have suggested this is a topic worthy of consideration.  This idea has also been the subject of many serious and weighty commentaries and academic studies that support a legal framework for legitimizing what is widely known as the worlds oldest profession.  Given that prostitution is now legal (sometimes with restrictions) in approximately 65% of 100 countries recently examined, the laws of the United States are an outlier insofar as legal prostitution is now permitted in only a few areas of Nevada.  Public opinion polls in the U.S. seem to suggest that roughly half of Americans favor fewer punishments and more protections for prostitutes as a matter of basic fairness and compassion.

Sympathy for those perceived to be victims and a rush to shrug off the shackles of conventional morality are the two most prominent features of progressive social thought todayand these two ideas neatly dovetail when it comes to supporting the cause of sex workers.  However, the liberal-minded disinclination to ever discuss values or moralitywhich implies making a judgement of another and is therefore forbiddenlends a certain unreality to the logic of those advocating for prostitution as a legal and legitimate form of commerce.  If we reduce physical intimacy to the level of the bland and unemotional directions that we use to build a bookshelf (Insert Part A into Slot B and press into place), discussions of the wearying physical and emotional toil involved with daily swapping bodily fluids with strangers can be conveniently set aside in pursuit of the rightto turn flesh into cash.

In addition, you cannot help but wonder what framework of laws and regulations will spring into existence to manage the inevitable collision of sex work and a society that will suddenly be confronted with the friendlyand now legalprostitute on the corner.  If a father expresses anger at a sex worker or sex worker supervisor who seems to be recruiting his daughter, could he be hauled into court and charged with harassing a local business owner?  Will we be paying the salaries and benefits of state employees tasked with inspecting the safe installation of the sex swings hung from the ceilings of the local brothel?  Will Washington lobbyists now be advocating for federal tax breaks for National Sex Work Incorporated?  I cannot wait to see how the I.R.S. handles the development of a depreciation schedule for lingerie or the decision regarding whether governments cut of the business should be classified as a Service Fee or Entertainment Tax.

In addition, given that our society still struggles at times with showing proper respect for women, one has to wonder how the status of womenwho will certainly make up the vast majority of this new industrywill be affected by a new reality where it would be legal to rent a female orifice for your personal pleasure.  It does not take much imagination to see a future where women are even more objectified than they still often are and teenaged girls and young women will be regularly and cruelly scrutinized as a potentially lucrative commodity.  I am certain the job interviews will be interesting.

I pity the 3rd grader who, should this dystopian future actually come to pass, finally figures out what mom does for a living; realizing there is no Santa Claus will be a minor trauma by comparison.  I also pity a nation where ideas as hare-brained and injurious as this regularly fly from the mouths of supposedly responsible leaders.