Grasping for Decency in 2017

Like many of you, I visit daily the desolate wasteland we call the Modern Internet.

Down south, Donald Trump continues to do his best Joffrey Baratheon impression. In an impressive commitment to political dichotomy, Twitter eggs assure me that I owe Antifa my support, unless, you know, I’m some kind of fascist. Middle-aged, middle-class micro-bloggers sound the alarm on the nebulous bugaboo of “identity politics”.

“That’s great, Fabian, but what are you even talking about?” Right. Right.

A few weeks back, I was sitting on my couch eating potato chips and scrolling through my phone, like a horrible millennial. Through one rabbit-hole or another, I came across a Time Magazine transcript of a Trump speech in Phoenix. “Yes, reading this will certainly be a good use of my time,” I said to my couch.

The speech included a foreshadowing of the Arpaio pardon and the traditional lampooning of the national media, but I don’t recall anything that was patently absurd or remarkable. What was most memorable about the speech was its style. Every conclusion Trump made about the media’s intentions, or the Democrats’ ultimate goals could, ostensibly, be reached through a rational process. However, these conclusions would only be reasonable if operating from the starting assumption that every political opponent had an absolute lack of integrity. Trump’s arguments made perfect sense, if premised on the belief that every critic and every opponent lacked any shred of logic, justice or goodness.

“Assume the worst of others, at all times!” is probably not the healthiest way to live. Although that perspective is undoubtedly shaped by my upbringing in which it was safe for me to not assume the worst of others, I believe anyone who has watched the Game of Thrones season finale would comfortably agree with my stance. (“My sister asked you a question!”)

Unfortunately, not all others feel this way, or acknowledge their starting biases with consistency. This was made harshly clear to me in a recent encounter with the CBC comments section. Don’t ask why I went there, it just happened.

CBC’s Aaron Wherry wrote an excellent article on whether Sir John A. MacDonald deserved to have his name celebrated on public schools. I wouldn’t say it was “balanced”, as it had an obvious slant in favour of renaming the schools, but the focus of his article was that it was an important question, upon which reasonable people could disagree, but should discuss.

Yet the top comments are consistent in their theme: “stupidity”, “communism”, “thought police”, “political correctness”, etc. In fairness, I offer a shout-out to commenter Marko Novak, who made the following noble offer: “Please send all those disgusting $10 bills with the representation of Sir John A. Macdonald to me. I will dispose of them for you.”

These two examples are not unique. They demonstrate an ongoing unwillingness to understand. And while I chose two examples of the “right” reacting to the “left”, it is a problem that cuts across the increasingly irrelevant linear political spectrum. Much digital ink has already been spilt in finding causes, sources, and origins of these sharp divisions. I want to leave you with a premise and some suggestions.

One important starting point: no one can be prevented from having opinions. They can certainly be prevented from sharing those opinions, for reasons good or ill, through social pressure. As we’ve seen in the United States, the resulting sentiment of ideological suppression can manifest itself in dramatic and troubling ways.

The two examples I described above have repeated themselves in my own personal life. Rather than engaging with a critique, I hear friends dismissing concepts and ideas simply because of their source, or because of the ideological group with which they are associated.

A common frustration with the “left” refers to who does or doesn’t have “permission” to speak on certain subjects. I find this idea to be rooted in very reasonable grounds (if we truly want to hear about what a certain group’s experience is – we should listen to that group), but I think it could use some modifications.

First, for those who have held power traditionally in society and generally continue to do so – men, white people, those from affluent backgrounds, etc. – it is not unreasonable to take a step back and to listen to the perspectives of others. I recommend that you do this out of personal choice, rather than because social pressure is demanding you do so. Do not withhold your opinions simply because you are an X, Y or Z, internally simmering in resentment, but approach each situation uniquely and reflect about whether or not someone else might have something to add. If, after consideration you feel you have something to add – then do so.

To be utterly silent because you hold a certain aspect of privilege is impractical and not particularly useful, but to consider what you could or should add to a conversation is a useful and considerate endeavour. As a notorious blurter, I should probably consider following my own advice. If dominant groups more readily and sincerely opened intellectual space, possibly there would be less friction with groups trying to claim that space.

Secondly, there is value in open, analytical discussion. As a great Massachusetts fashion icon once stated: “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” By suppressing ideas, we allow them to grow, but exposed to the sunlight of open discussion, those least worthy will die off.

Finally, good discussion requires some willingness to be wrong. I see people worry about what beliefs they should have, not based on the merits of those beliefs, but on their public perception. Even putting forth this thesis, I’ve had second thoughts about whether I should publish; concerns about what people will or won’t think. “Am I alienating this group? Am I not supportive enough of that one? Am I being too moderate? Not moderate enough?” Restraint should be sourced in intention, rather than fear of critique.

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