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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Diversity And Its Discontents

One of the main insights of Sigmund Freud’s classic of modern psychology, Civilization and its Discontents, is that a major tension—and source of dissatisfaction—with our modern world is that the will of the individual must be restricted by communal norms in order to create a harmonious society. Therefore, we are trained from infancy to obey authority, restrain our impulses, and look out for others before we attend to our own needs.

This process, which sounds rather dark and unnatural when described by Freud, sounds suspiciously like the normal development of maturity and empathy as we proceed from child to adult, but we know many have now decided that the key to their personal happiness is to not give a hoot about what others think or need. It could, in fact, be persuasively argued that the signal feature of life in much of the developed world today is that many people have decided that to do and say whatever you want is the key to happiness. Communal norms have likely never been so weak and ineffectual, and many laws are, in fact, now written with the express intent of denying any effort to reassert past controls over behavior or attitudes.

However, communal control is still exercised, although in a distorted and unfortunate manner, through the ruthless and regular public attacks on those whose viewpoints or ideas suggest a distinction between that which is right and that which is wrong. Given our prevailing cultural milieu and desire for absolute individuality, to make a judgement of any kind for any reason is, by definition, to be hateful and intolerant—so you must be punished by the herd.

It, of course, makes perfect sense that increasingly diverse nations would admonish—or actually sanction—those who express disapproval of others. One of the reasons that President Trump grates on the nerves of many is that his persona and pronouncements are a clear and unmistakable repudiation of decades of efforts to promote tolerance—and he is, for many, a gigantic trigger warning with a tan. However, the often cruel cudgel of virtue signaling that flies right behind the imperative to be “tolerant” also has a tendency to cause reasonable conversations to spiral down into accusatory personal attacks that are poisonous to discussion and inquiry. Logic and evidence are no longer necessary in the marketplace of “ideas” in our world today. A clever and nasty put down is now considered all that is necessary to “win” an argument.

A misguided attempt to promote social harmony and cultural understanding by adopting an ever more censorious attitude toward individual disagreements and innocent misunderstandings has resulted in a world where every thoughtcrime is a felony. If someone displays a swastika in their living room and builds their life around quotes from Mein Kampf, it is entirely reasonable to question their actions and motives. However, if someone prefers to marry someone who shares their own religious background or avoids certain ethnic foods because they don’t like the taste, it is wrong to accuse that individual of harboring hateful attitudes before immediately launching into an attack. If we insist on punishing people for their natural diversity of opinions or values, we are creating a world where unending anger is the norm.

It is, of course, preferable that individuals be comfortable with a range of people, experiences, and ideas. However, we cannot condemn others simply because they prefer that which is familiar to that which is not. A great many wonderful Americans are still hanging around with the same friends they have had since elementary school, populating their Spotify with the same songs they have been listening to forever, and craving the same casseroles that Grandma cooks for Thanksgiving each year. To insist that those who revel in routine and regularity are racists is more than a little overboard, but it is not unfair to ask everyone to try their best to be open to new ideas, experiences, and people and resist the urge to automatically reject that—and those—which are unfamiliar.

Education, which until World War II was seen primarily as a mechanism for transmitting core academic skills along with a hefty dollop of cultural norms on the side, has been seen—especially since the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960’s—as the mechanism through which progressive educators could create citizens of the world and promote understanding. I still remember the elaborate presentation on the African nation of Zambia I did for my fifth grade classmates and the day we sampled the “cheeses of the world” in my seventh grade Social Studies classroom. Our multicultural experiences were, of course, greatly limited and designed for a much more innocent and parochial era. Today’s technology has opened up a range of possibilities that were simply unavailable in the slide rule and rotary dial telephone days of my youth, and students can now enjoy a range of culturally immersive experiences that can broaden both their perspectives and understanding.

Consequently, our political, educational, entertainment, and business worlds have never been so welcoming to the full richness of humanity. So why are so many convinced that bigotry of all types still runs rampant in America today—and violent and virulent speech is the necessary cure for those hatreds they see all around?

It could be the case that the unyielding dogma of “tolerance” and the messy reality of diversity might be a more combustible combination than we tend to realize, particularly when the 21st century disease of self-interest and self-absorption—turbocharged by the inherent narcissism of much social media usage—is added to the equation. If one believes that happiness depends upon acting with as little restraint as possible—“Hey, don’t oppress me!”—and we can now instantly lash out to either our circle of friends (or a worldwide audience) when we feel our experiences or opinions are not granted sufficient deference or respect, the end result is going to be a lot of outrage driving yet more outrage in return. If one is determined to create a world that respects diversity, it could be the case that we all must learn to be comfortable with the inevitable outcome: a diverse society that will have to accommodate a diverse—and sometimes judgmental—range of opinions.

Humans have always—and will always—disagree about every aspect of life. We cannot long survive if we insist that ideas that differ from our own must be attacked, suppressed, or outlawed altogether. Were Sigmund Freud alive to update Civilization and its Discontents for the Age of the Internet, I wonder what he would identify as our main source of discontent and where he might see civilization going in the years ahead. Can any civilization long survive if our passions are powered by the most powerful technology ever made available, and we are ready to use that power to defeat the “enemies” so many now seem to see all around them? This is an uncomfortable question for an uncomfortable age, and we are still groping toward personal and communal mechanisms for balancing our desires to express with our urges to attack.

Groupthink Gridlock

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 seemed to many the final triumph of Western liberal thought over a system known for its rigid adherence to doctrines driven by theory, the suppression of dissent, and demands for soul-crushing intellectual conformity by the nation’s elite leaders. A new golden age characterized by freedom of expression, a renewed faith in the value of free and open debate, and decision making based on facts rather than wishful fantasies had triumphed, and all the old divisions would be set aside in favor of a world run by a benevolent and tolerant meritocracy. Go, go Western democracies!

If you had told the celebrants who were gleefully demolishing the Berlin Wall that their futures would be characterized by crippling political polarization, public shaming of dissenters, and academic and political elites that ruthlessly enforced an intellectual orthodoxy that still somehow thrived despite ample evidence of its disastrous failures, they might well have put down their sledgehammers and gone home that day.

The liberal belief in a godlike global state that would be managed to peak efficiency by appointed bureaucrats managed to do little other than engineer a massive transfer of wealth to the super rich while insisting upon a zillion pettifogging regulations for the rest of us that neither protected our futures nor improved our daily lives. Our global elites instead enhanced the power of perhaps the most universally hated group on the planet—lawyers—because their expertise at navigating newly created mountains of arcane and contradictory bureaucratic mandates was now critical to every aspect of our now thoroughly regulated existences.

The steadily rising economic anger of the ruled against their rulers has now led to the election of Donald Trump in America, the revolt against the European Union that has pretty much ended the political career of its greatest champion, Angela Merkel, and the rise of populist leaders most everywhere else who have surfed to power on tsunamis of rage and outright revolt against the deeply dysfunctional status quo. The reaction of the new global elite to this new and unwelcome reality has been both predictable and depressing: Those who don’t appreciate our sage guidance are a bunch of ignorant and misguided bigots who fear what they cannot understand. Therefore, what we need now are new and enhanced powers to monitor and manage this unruly and ungrateful herd.

The self-serving outrage and smug insults of those leaders and their supporters who are angry about the vicissitudes of democracy isn’t likely to win back many of the disaffected. Here in the United States we are regularly treated to apocalyptic gabfests and learned commentary regarding why our governing structures are suddenly too weak to stand up to the scary “white supremacists” who are now diligently engaging in the one action that is characteristic of all budding domestic terrorists: casting a vote in an election. Democracy kind of sucks when those whom you deign to rule tell you to shove off.

However, despite their unwilling efforts to better understand the peculiar motivations of those whose lives revolve around work, faith, and family, the mainstream media and Beltway insiders have mostly fallen back on that old standby strategy familiar to despots the world over when faced with a revolt: We need to reassert our control by crushing dissent. Hence, we hear and read repeated calls to censor the dissemination of opposing viewpoints, incitement of the harassment of those who question the status quo, and the launching of daily ad hominem attacks on the values and morals of those deemed enemies of the statist solutions. Aided and abetted by those in academia equally concerned about the yearnings of many Americans to slip the leash of government-approved behavior and beliefs, we are regularly warned of the hell lying just ahead unless these ideas—and those who hold them—are destroyed and their rights to free speech are suppressed.

The problem is, of course, that neither the globalist or nationalist viewpoint is correct 100% of the time. Just as some matters are best left to individual nations to manage for themselves, so are some problems large and complex enough to warrant a response coordinated by an international body.

A thoughtful explanation followed by a reasonable suggestion is still more than able to sway opinions when the necessity arises, and the 2018 elections should be proof enough that democracy still has sturdy powers of self-correction despite breathless predictions of its imminent demise. However, those who lack faith in the wisdom of the governed are still anxious to hand power to unaccountable authorities who can more easily override the wishes of those who are obviously too stupid to manage their own lives or the planet without leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

New ideas are neither inherently dangerous nor destructive, but the ongoing effort to silence those who want to change the current direction of our nation and world will simply frustrate the legitimate aspirations of many and promote yet more of the theory-driven groupthink that has landed us in the mess we are today. Any refusal to listen is ultimately more harmful than the idea being expressed, and we might find that even those supposedly ignorant and bigoted masses who are not properly credentialed to rule have many ideas worthy of consideration. In the final analysis, those who do the working and the sweating will always understand more than those who devote their cloistered lives to study and judgement—so the voices of the people should be treated with far more respect than they often are today.

Opinions Will Always Vary

I have been puzzling over the stark and seemingly insurmountable political differences that divide our nation these days, and I see some cause for hope—as faint as it might sometimes seem—in the current crop of more moderate candidates running for office across our nation today. Perhaps we are finally growing weary of shouts and insults as a proxy for policy discussions.  Accusing those with different views than your own of all manner of moral and intellectual failings—in the most caustic terms possible—tends to excite the excitable, but it also forestalls any opportunity for the sometimes inelegant compromises that keep the wheels of our nation going round.

There are obvious differences between the policies of our two major political parties. The clashes between the capitalists and socialists, those who favor open borders and those who do not, and the advocates of Big Government vs. fewer rules and regulations are both never ending and necessary.  The debates between diametrically opposite points of view sparks the synthesis that provides the solutions that we need to solve our problems.

However, our focus upon surface differences often ignores the morals, values, and judgments that inform our individual opinions.  Characterizing others as either “good” or “bad” based solely on the degree to which they agree or disagree with us neatly avoids the messy and occasionally maddening business of discussing the ethical, religious, and personal values that inform our decision making on a range of matters.  This failing enables the facile insults that now are the most prominent feature of our daily political and social discourse.  The shocking ease with which we demonize those whose ideas differ from our own often seems more like the rude and immature chatter in a middle school lunchroom that a discussion between reasonable adults.

Although we are often far from agreement on many issues, perhaps we also sometimes fail to understand how our differing priorities both divide us—and also have the potential to bring us together.  Think of a great many hot-button topics, and you will find the debate typically falls along familiar lines: Liberals will focus more on “rights”, and conservatives will be more preoccupied with “responsibilities”.

However, rights and responsibilities are simply two sides of the same coin because every right comes with an equal responsibility to use that right wisely and reasonably.  When we recognize this fact, we can better attempt to search for common ground regarding a variety of issues—and hopefully engage in a dialogue that will lead to less rage and more actual discussion.  Whether we are talking about issues as varied as law enforcement, housing, immigration, healthcare, education, military spending, or pension security, we can possibly have more polite and productive conversations that can lead to policy proposals that will solve problems rather than prompt yet more discord—if we remember the linkages between our rights and responsibilities.

There is also one further connection between rights and responsibilities than warrants our attention.  We have the right to disagree with others because our own values, priorities, and judgments lead us to different conclusions; however, we also have a responsibility to respect opinions and ideas that are different from our own.  We may believe what we do with all our heart and soul, but there is a very good chance that someone believes otherwise.  Their opposing ideas are not a signal that they are evil or deluded—or a ready target for our anger.  We are instead face to face with an immutable fact of life: Opinions will always vary.

We are welcome to advocate and attempt to swing others to our viewpoint through reasoned discussion and debate if both parties agree to engage, but we must resist the human urge to heedlessly denigrate—or ruthlessly attack.  We live in a big nation within a far larger world, and sometimes we are going to need to live by rules that conflict with our own because we assume certain responsibilities as members of a broader society.  We have the right to dissent, to support political candidates whose ideas align with our own—or even run for office ourselves.  However, we must always be keenly away of our responsibilities to others—and be aware that there is no “right” to be selfish, self-centered, or sneering.  This might be a tremendous disappointment to those who enjoy attacking others, but perhaps these are precisely the sort of individuals who are deserving of far less of our support and attention in the future.

Code of Silence

It was not a surprise to hear this, but a comment one of my students recently made in class seemed to neatly sum up our anxious and antagonistic national mood: “I really don’t like to express my opinion about anything because people just attack you for what you think.”

Yep. That pretty much nails it.

I am not one of those who believe that our major news outlets are part of some liberal cabal out to subvert America. Watching the sense of shock suffuse the faces of the pollsters and pundits on Election Night in 2016, it was obvious that the results had them completely gobsmacked. Having spent the previous couple of years in animated discussion with one another, they were convinced that anyone with a lick of intelligence thought just the way they did, and all of the national polls served to provide ironclad proof that we would be toasting President-elect Clinton’s landslide victory when the dawn broke.

One of the reasons more and more “experts” are so confused by the current state of our nation is likely that fewer and fewer Americans have any interest in serious discussions that extend beyond a small circle of close friends or immediate family. My student is absolutely correct that talk too often leads to trouble in our hyper-vigilant and hyper-sensitive environment. I sometimes feel the same way when I receive flaming ripostes regarding my blog commentaries. Principled disagreement based on values, judgment, knowledge, and experience has been relegated to the scrap heap of representative democracy. Now the focus is on “shutting down” those whose views are different from your own. Given the very high probability that your opinions will be misrepresented, misinterpreted, or mischaracterized, many now consider it a mistake to ever express what they think on a topic or issue of the day.

This problem harms our nation in three distinct—and important—ways.

First and foremost, open and fearless debate regarding the issues facing our nation is the very lifeblood of democracy. The moment that citizens start to shut up in order to avoid being “shut down” by angry partisans on either side, the possibilities for discussion leading to consensus are diminished. We may not always like what those who believe differently have to say, but we cheat ourselves and our nation if we do not listen to the doubters and dissenters who may see a problem or flaw that has been overlooked—or simply ignored—by those who are absolutely, positively certain there can be no legitimate viewpoint other than their own.

Moreover, there can be little doubt—particularly after the 2016 election—that silence produces suspicion. All those Trump voters flying beneath the radar resulted in the never ending—and never proven—narrative of Russian collusion that has poisoned our political discussions ever since. Although it is certainly true that the mainstream media chose to ignore the many signals that Hillary Clinton’s coronation was far from assured, it has also been well-documented that many Trump voters kept quiet in order to avoid the ire of family, friends, and co-workers—as well as the scorn of total strangers. In retrospect, more frank and open dialogue would have benefited everyone by perhaps diminishing the shock of Donald Trump’s victory and avoiding the creation of a thriving industry of conspiracy theorists who cling to a self-comforting and self-defeating saga of election fraud rather than doing the hard work of converting more voters to their causes.

Worst of all, any nation in which a few loud and angry voices are allowed to dominate is fertile ground for extremists of all stripes. The eye-rolling, smirks, and sneers that accompany so many of our debates today empower those who present the angriest denunciations of people whose only crime is to hold to a different belief or set of values. Moderation and accommodation is impossible when your opponents are considered twisted, evil, or deluded. Those who vilify others tend to attract a crowd, but that crowd—who are primed for the attack—readily becomes an angry mob intent on driving diversity of opinion down into the dust.

The fragmentation and fulmination of our political sphere today is frightening. Our innate human differences have now become deep and immutable divides that reduce us all to either friend or foe, which leads to yet more insularity and ignorance that will further erode our already damaged and dysfunctional civic culture. We must do better: More listening and less insulting would be a good place to start.