What should you do when you hear something you don’t want to hear?
There are many human strategies to deal with uncomfortable truths. Some people just stick unwanted speakers into the category “evil”. One online commenter on my articles said, “I am willing to bet you are a Bernie Sanders supporter as I truly believe you are in fact a socialist maybe communist?” All bad things to him, but apparently all the same thing. If I am one of those, then it’s safe to ignore anything I say.
Others use the slippery tactic of changing the subject, often in capital letters: “WHAT ABOUT X?” X is not related to whatever is being discussed, and possibly not even true, but attention is distracted from what that person didn’t want to deal with.
Anyone who writes in public gets responses like these, no matter what side the writer is on. Many come from the trolls who lurk in virtual corners waiting for anyone to say “Obama” or “climate” or “Israel” or “immigrant”. But these tactics are also used in our daily lives, when the conversation gets too personal, too close to old injuries and disputes.
I just read a sad and funny book about aging parents whose title encapsulates such avoidance: Roz Chast’s “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” Sometimes avoidance seems like the best short-term strategy, but it’s rarely good over the long term.
Another useful strategy has been to silence the speaker of unpleasantness. This is always a preferred response by undemocratic governments, from the “Off with his head!” of kings to the disappearances of critics by modern tyrannies, left and right. Democratic impulses can also advocate silencing. In Germany, it is illegal to show Nazi symbols or say Nazi things. I appreciate the source of these laws in recent German experience, as well as the relative silence of the right-wing crazies when I live there. But I prefer our freer system, which does not allow the government silencing of even the vilest racists. Silencing doesn’t work anyway, it just forces words underground, so they pop up unexpectedly, like poisonous mushrooms. In the long run, I believe it is healthier for a community to take responsibility for all of its members, and to use outspoken social disapprobation to call out and deplore speech which insults groups.
With the virtual disappearance of the “N-word”, exemplified by my inability to publish it here, verbal aggressions are less obvious.“Micro-aggression” was coined by Harvard psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to refer to less easily identified daily insults directed by whites at African Americans. Pierce was the target of untold micro-aggressions as a black student and athlete, while growing up on Long Island and studying at Harvard. When he was the first African American college football player to play in 1947 against a white team below the Mason-Dixon line at the University of Virginia, he was the target of many aggressions, not all of them “micro”, not on the field, but from the fans.
In response to social criticism, aggressors and their defenders have developed their theory of “political correctness”, using the classic strategy of changing the subject. Rather than deal with what it means to call a black man “boy”, an adult woman “girl” or a homosexual “faggot”, the aggressors quote the Constitution and claim that minorities are too sensitive. Rather than wonder, “What does it feel like to hear what I just said?” they assert their right to keep saying it.
There will always be disagreement, however, about where to draw the lines among insult, uncomfortable truth, and sincere belief. A new version of silencing has recently emerged, first on university campuses, now spreading through the culture. The phrase to note is “trigger warning”. The idea is that potential listeners should be warned if a phrase or idea will be spoken which might make them uncomfortable. This is accompanied by an expansion of the definition of micro-aggression to include such things as opposing affirmative action, believing that the US is a melting pot, or flying the Confederate battle flag. As often happens, what began as a label for genuinely bad behavior has mushroomed into a response to everything someone doesn’t like to hear.
Ways of avoiding uncomfortable realities are often labeled left and right. The right says that leftist political correctness fanatics want to police people’s speech against the American tradition of free speech. But people are properly concerned about the implications of speech, because another American tradition is racist and sexist speech. Inevitably the impulse to protect those with less status and power will lead some people too far. We will never get rid of micro-aggressions of all kinds. We all do it every day. As long as there are human disagreements, they will be asserted in ways which make somebody uncomfortable.
The left says that right-wing loonies refuse to accept proven realities, scientific and otherwise. Not accepting the other side’s “facts” is as old as human argument itself. There will always be organizations like Heartland Institute, massaging climate evidence for money until it produces what they want. There will always be arguments about what the facts are.
Galileo won his argument with much more powerful forces because he was right. Let’s have faith in the facts, even when they make us uncomfortable.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 4, 2015