Listening So Hard That It Hurts
When I was very young, and was first introduced to science fiction, I read a lot of things that objectively (and metaphorically) hurt my feelings and outraged my received opinions.
… Most things I read, actually. It’s part of what attracted me to science fiction, the ability to put myself in another situation where the givens I had in my world weren’t the same, and therefore I could sometimes see the logic of the other side. And sometimes I could see why the other side wasn’t being logical, which is just as valuable.
It’s not necessary, precisely. If you’re going to live your entire life in one region and among one circle, your life might be best optimized by retaining the opinions most common among your friends and never questioning the way things are done. However, you’ll also have to be lucky in your choice of time to be born and die, particularly now a days, because we have a whole lot of disruptive technologies changing our every day life every year. And that in turn changes opinions and how people view the world.
Years after I started reading SF, I was an exchange student, and the experience is very similar. Even between two technically western cultures, you find that are enough differences, between how you react, how you talk, modes of being in the world, that either your host family is offending you or getting offended by you, for no reason you can figure out. And yeah, some of the things they tell you will be hurty. (Did you know in my generation in Portugal no one wore deodorant. Yeah.) But if you don’t run home with your tail between your legs, at the end of the year, you find you have an enhanced view of the world and you can see both places clearer.
Although ultimately I chose to return to the US, the truth is that going back to Portugal (for the four years in between high school and getting married) I found I could fit in better than I did before coming to the US. you could “back engineer” what you’d done to fit into the host country and do the same back home.
By the way, I found that the most irrational bits of your culture are the ones you hold onto buckle and tongue. Because if you don’t you feel like you’re coming apart. Say, the way you dress for certain occasions. The way you think people perceive you. The “accepted opinions” that are taken as revealed truth in your circles.
Much of the science fiction I read growing up was like that: very hurty, much feelings bruised. Interesting. Sometimes fascinating. But it challenged a lot of my base assumptions, and not just because it was mostly written by and set in anglo-saxon countries. It was also because a lot of it made me question what I was being taught. No one, truly can defend “equality of outcomes” when they just read Animal Farm, or the idea of forever improving/scientific rule over men when you’ve read Brave New World. And please, let’s not even talk about the number Martin Caidin’s The God Machine did on my young and stupid’s brain certainty that we’d get computers that would run everything perfectly.
Now, I’ve been known to shut down idiots on my blog, particularly ones that are so stupid as to ask me who runs society and insist SOMEONE must run society (by which he means everything that gets thought, written, etc.) or the ones who start calling names, brandishing religious passages apropos nothing in my general direction (though did appreciate the one who dropped by to inform us we were born condemned because something or other with the Pope a hundred years ago. Seriously. I mean, we couldn’t do anything about it, but I suppose it was in the nature of a PSA? I think?) or the ubiquitous name-changing troll who answers with out of the blue one sentence idiocy. All in all, I think in my total time running a blog I’ve banned 20 individual people. (More IPs though.)
And on one memorable occasion I banned someone by mistake as he seemed to be posting out of a known “bad IP” then unbanned him when he emailed me and proved he was a real person. He’s become a regular.
My banning is done very carefully. Sure, my blog is private. So I can ban whomever I want. But some of the most memorable moments on my blog, not to mention some regulars acquired came from someone coming in breathing fire and holding a different opinion: then staying around, honestly, to debate.
I only ban people when they become a detriment to conversation and are the equivalent of a drunk uncle at a wedding, feeling up all the bridesmaids. Then they must go so the rest of the regulars and invited guests can enjoy themselves.
I’m not going to report on what started this post, because someone else has asked for the rights to cover this for MGC. I’m going to mention the precipitating incident is mentioned here, and that I found the proximate cause and it’s stupider than even I, myself, could imagine. At least it’s stupider, unless they were intending to Truesdale the young man. If they were indeed planning to do that, then well… what they did is only logical.
However, I made the mistake of going to the convention page and reading the comments. Yes, yes, I know. Never ever ever read the comments. I’ll also point out that the comments are what is culled after they delete everything “hurty.” A friend of mine had commented extensively and politely, citing the philosophical and legal difficulties with what they were doing, and was not only banned, but every comment erased. (And my friend doesn’t even know the gentleman at the center of this. I know him and he’s in mine “he’s young” file. Heaven knows I went through a lot of twerpitude before arriving at my only somewhat less twerpy state now. But the reaction to him is completely out of proportion.)
And what set me off were all the comments saying things like “there are limits to free speech” and “some speech must be banned so we feel safe.”
Speech is not a physical attack. Feeling “hurty” doesn’t mean you’re actually hurt. Your feelings don’t bleed, no matter how much you think they do.
Those who say “free speech is important but–” have earned themselves the medal for most stupid statement of the century. Free speech is important, PERIOD and I’d thing people devoted to an often misunderstood and misrepresented branch of literature would know that.
NO ONE, not even I, needs protection for speech everyone agrees with. If I say the sun rises in the morning, some of you might quibble about “not during an eclipse” or about the term “rises” because, let’s face it, you’re geeks. But you’re not, any of you, going to demand I be shut down for “the sun is bright” and “I love chocolate” and “I like cats.”
The only speech that needs protection is that speech which offends a vast majority of those who hear it. Speech like, once upon a time “Black people are as human as the rest of us and shouldn’t be enslaved.” Or “Women aren’t any stupider, on aggregate, than men, and they should have the right to suffrage.”
If you shut down speech that hurts because it violates the “codes” of your group, your family, your society, you’re shutting off a safety valve.
Every human group and society can spin off and become… well, weird. Societies, large and small develop blind spots. You need the outliers and their pointing out — now and then — that the king is naked.
Yes, a lot of the outliers are twerps. What, you thought that the type of personality that defies societal rules was sweet and well adapted to social approbation? What have you been smoking?
But if you shut down your gadflies, your questioners, the people who say things you find obviously reprehensible, you are shutting down the mirrors that inform you there is something in your blindspot (sometimes not even the thing you think is there.)
And when the environment around you changes — and it will, particularly now — and your daily life changes, you’ll be stranded, incapable of adaptation and lost.
Tolerating the outliers and the gadflies is what makes for an adaptable and vibrant society. We hear a lot about the vibrancy of a million skin shades, but guys, seriously, under the microscope, the difference between the palest of scandinavians and the darkest person from deepest Africa is virtually non-existent. As a species, and coloration notwithstanding we’re remarkably uniform. To pretend otherwise is a form of insanity that both sides of the political spectrum are prone to.
HOWEVER when it comes to the head equipment, the opinions and the ideas? There we can be very different.
And while I can — hey, I write SF, okay — envision a future in which being very pale or very dark makes a huge difference to survivability, I can GUARANTEE that it’s more important to have different ideas, different approaches, different means of tackling a problem because those can solve even a lack of/too much melanin.
We need free speech, not just as artists — or in my case a more or less competent crafter — but as people: as a complex society of barely functional apes, we need free speech.
Sure, those who speak truth (real truth) to power (real power) or even popsicle to zapadeedo are usually going to come across as completely insane. They have put themselves completely outside our circle of comfort. And what they say hurts.
You can choose not to associate with them, not to break bread with them, and even not to read them.
But it is not your right to shut them down. Once you start talking like it’s best to shut some people down, you’ve lost track of what an important mechanism free speech is.
That way lies not only madness, but the inability to correct your course. For a group, a family, a field of endeavor, a nation, a culture, that is the beginning of the end.