Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Spaces Between Tolerance, Authoritarianism, and Complacency

One statement I hear a lot is that it’s healthy to let people into your life who see the world completely opposite from you. The idea is that you can learn from each other. While that can be true, it varies from situation to situation. Depending upon what your worldviews are, there are times in which that can be harmful—or at least frustratingly pointless.

There’s a theory that if people on the left create “echo chambers,” then those on the right are limited to doing the same by default, because we deprive them of our perspective. (I’m not strictly dividing everyone into two camps. There are those who identify as neither conservative nor liberal, although I do think most lean at least slightly more toward one than the other.) But entering into a friendship with someone for the purpose of trying to change them can be dishonest—no matter where your beliefs stand. It's reminiscent of a religious person befriending an atheist just to “save” them. It’s also not as if there are a great deal of conservative people who want to be friends with liberals and we are callously rejecting them.

I can be friends with someone who differs from me on some fundamental topics, but not if they’re diametrically opposed in nearly every way. People of different ideologies can be friends, but it can be draining to communicate with someone whose moral values are the polar opposite of yours. Particularly if you belong to a disenfranchised group which they believe should not exist. It’s tiring and painful to have to repeatedly defend your humanity. You get enough of that from the world; you don’t need that from friends. It creates problems to keep somebody around who wants to change everything about you.

A few years ago, I had a sort-of friend who was one of the most conservative people I’ve ever known. I wouldn’t comment on his page—I had unfollowed him—but he would comment on almost everything I posted. He would often become condescending and sarcastic. Other times he claimed to want a dialogue. But there was never a point in which he seemed to be considering my point of view. He just listened for the sake of trying to pick apart my argument, having already decided to reject it. I did the same with him, so I was partly responsible for that. Most of the conversations consisted of us talking at each other, talking to ourselves, and trying to persuade the other. I got tired of him telling me I had no right to reproductive rights, that people of my sexual orientation have an “agenda,” and that people with disabilities are acting entitled when we want the legal right to aid and accommodations. I was called too emotional when I couldn’t speak with detachment about such issues which profoundly affect my life. That kind of communication isn't productive. A friend is not a person who expects you to jump through hoops to prove you deserve rights. In such discussions, each participant acts as though they have valuable new information to offer. But the truth is that I’ve already heard everything he had to say. I grew up in a home that relied almost exclusively on Fox News. I know conservative social Darwinist arguments back to front. My left-wing worldview isn’t due to a lack of exposure to anything else, and neither is his conservatism. We both chose the approaches we preferred.

When you believe that certain opinions reflect an overall status quo, then a perspective no longer seems like a lone opinion. Some opinions don’t exist in a vacuum. Even if a person with a bigoted belief holds no particular power, their hate is part of a larger trend. That’s why I think an individual viewpoint makes at least a slight difference to our culture.

That being said, I will always support freedom of speech—even if the thoughts being vocalized are abhorrent. Most people who share my perspective seem to agree on that. But unfortunately, within some social justice circles, there is support for a type of legal censorship that concerns me. Voicing some concerns about social justice culture isn’t disloyal to the culture in itself. It’s important for critique to come from within, because it will be expressed with more knowledge of and respect for the community. Otherwise all the criticisms will be from social conservatives.

I have heard a few far leftists reject capital punishment in all other forms, except when used against anti-leftists. Maybe they are unusual, but I have heard similar thoughts from some others on the far left: that people should be arrested for writing conservative blogs. That anyone at a right-wing protest should be imprisoned. It’s unsettling that those who hold this perspective see no difference between supporting a legal right to free speech, and supporting the speech itself. Sometimes these same people will say in an argument, “I’m not limiting your free speech. You legally say what you want, but that doesn’t shield you from social consequences and I’m not obligated to provide you a platform.” That argument is entirely right, but it becomes weakened if the one using it wants others to be arrested for what they say.

If somebody goes to jail or faces other legal repercussions for expressing specific viewpoints, that doesn’t always change their stance. They might be less public about it, but their beliefs could be further cemented by a newfound martyr complex. Most people don’t want to renounce their opinions after being made to suffer for them, because they don’t want to think they suffered pointlessly. Facing legal punishment will fire up their supporters, and could garner sympathy they wouldn't have otherwise had. Also, forcefully removing a person’s public platform (such as a blog) could bring their rhetoric into the private sphere and allow it to operate and spread unseen. When someone has a verbal outlet, it allows them to blow off steam, and they may lose motivation to take physical action. Pull that out from under them, and that hatred could manifest physically—even more so than it already does.

I fully support the ban of violent threats and the willful spread of slander if it is provably untrue (for example, it should be illegal for a school to teach its students that the Holocaust was a hoax or for a person to burn a cross on somebody’s lawn). But some types of hate speech are subjective. If hate speech is defined as anything perceived as insulting or anything that makes a person feel threatened, then we could be censored for telling a person that what they said was racist. We know that’s not a hateful or threatening thing to say. But if they take it as such, then we could be penalized. There's also a difference between saying "I hate X person or group" and "I think we should kill X person or group." I hate certain members of our government, but I'm not going to go bomb the Senate. When one says "I think that person should be killed," that would be crossing a line because it could be interpreted as inciting violence.

I wonder how these limitations on speech would be enacted. If it involved the government monitoring conversations and instructing people to report on family members and friends, that would be a great violation of privacy. It wouldn't just affect bigots; it would affect everybody.

This is why, if I say that someone should stop expressing certain ideas, I don’t mean the government should silence them. I mean they should make the personal choice to do so. I’m more in support of providing counter-voices and counter arguments than removing the original source. Of offering more dissenting voices, rather than removing the voice they’re speaking against.

A common criticism of liberalism is, “You preach tolerance, but you don’t tolerate people you think are bigoted.” They are right that if you promote the tolerance of all viewpoints, then it’s inconsistent to not tolerate certain ones. That’s why I try to promote anti-white supremacy and anti-misogyny and anti-LGBT phobia, rather than a blanket form of tolerance. It follows this reasoning: I respect your right to have an opinion and your legal right to voice it, but I don’t have to respect the opinion itself.

Not all opinions are respectable. “Different races shouldn’t mix” isn't a respectable opinion. “Women should have no bodily autonomy” isn't a respectable opinion. “Federal laws should be based on religious scripture” isn't a respectable opinion. Legally allowable, yes. But that doesn’t mean it should be legally affirmed or socially encouraged. (An example of legal affirmation: I mean a business owner can believe that homosexuality is wrong, but they shouldn’t be permitted to refuse gay customers.)

I’ll talk to someone who has an overall worldview that disturbs me. I’ll explain to them why I see things differently, but I won’t have a close relationship with them.

Maybe all of this makes me politically intolerant, but not politically radical. I’m all right with occupying that space.