In the early 1960’s, as I remember, the American comedian, Stan Freberg, was quite popular and his recordings were regularly played on Australian radio stations. One such piece (which I think was taken from his radio show in the US) was a bit of a spoof of him attempting to sing the Jerome Kern standard Old Man River from Kern’s popular musical Showboat. It had of course been made famous by that legendary bass, (also actor, human rights activist and sometimes communist), Paul Robeson.
In Freberg’s version he is just about to start when somebody by the name of Tweedly interrupts and announces he is a censor from the Citizen’s Radio Committee and has been sent to monitor the performance. He announces that he has a buzzer which he will sound when he hears something untoward at which time Freberg must stop and make an appropriate correction.
Freberg begins to sing the lyrics.
“Old man river, that old ………………”
But, of course, the buzzer goes off immediately and Tweedly insists that the word “old” is inappropriate and one which elderly people might take offence at. Freberg is compelled to change the lyrics and resumes singing.
“Elderly man river, that elderly man river ………..”
And so it goes with the pernickety Tweedly continually interrupting and demanding corrections until Freberg gives up.
We all thought this was mildly amusing back then. But now it seems that what we had laughed at fifty odd years ago has now come to fruition. Often as not, people with very little justification, are able to censor our utterances because they maintain our speech has offended them.
In our misguided desire to preserve the sensitivities of others, both our customs and our laws are preventing us from saying anything which might give offence. What’s more, it seems it is the aggrieved person who has the sole right to determine whether the words are offensive or not and consequently confected offense has become the easiest way of avoiding confronting ideas that the person might require to think about to substantiate their personal beliefs. This prevents the learning that occurs when ideas compete against each other.
Philosophy is the discipline that has evolved to help us seek truth. The most famous technique for approaching truth is the so-called Socratic method named after the Greek philosopher, Socrates.
Here is a brief summary of the Socratic method as outlined by the Swiss-born contemporary philosopher, Alain de Botton.
- Locate a statement confidently described as common sense.
- Imagine for a moment that, despite the confidence of the person proposing it, the statement is false. Search for situations or contexts where the statement would not be true.
- If an exception is found, the definition must be false or at least imprecise.
- The initial statement must be nuanced to take the exception into account.
- If one subsequently finds exception to the improved statements, the process should be repeated. The truth insofar as a human being is able to attain such a thing, lies in a statement which it seems impossible to disprove. It is by finding out what something is not that one comes closest to understanding what it is.
- The product of thought is superior to the product of intuition.
But how can we reliably test our truths if those holding contested ideas will not admit the possibility, even for the purpose of debate, of contrary ideas? We are cut off from even reaching the second stage of the process.
As de Botton writes:
The validity of an idea or an action is determined not by whether it is widely believed or widely reviled but by whether it obeys the rules of logic. It is not because an argument is denounced by a majority that it is wrong nor, for those drawn to heroic defiance, that it is right.
In many areas of what should be contested belief we are prevented from having a reasoned debate because some of the proponents will not admit the possibility of a contrary point of view! Now the shutting down of inconvenient opposing ideas is a gross invasion of our freedom of speech. But it seems we are also being assailed by more subtle and nuanced restrictions.
I was somewhat alarmed to learn of the existence of “trigger warnings” and wrote an essay about the insidious culture of victimhood (see Educating for Victimhood posted August 22 2015). My alarm has been intensified by reading a recent article by Frank Furedi in The Australian who explained the phenomenon of “micro-aggression”.
To help me understand what Furedi was talking about I found the following definition:
Micro-aggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership (from Diversity in the Classroom, UCLA Diversity & Faculty Development, 2014).
The document helpfully provided guidelines and examples of the offensive speech that should be avoided and Furedi instanced some of these in his opinion piece.
One such example was that it was deemed inappropriate to ask of someone, “Where are you from?” The rationale for this prohibition was that such a question intimated that you are obviously not one of us and that somehow would be offensive!
Alternatively if you should proclaim, “There is only one race, the human race!” that was deemed inappropriate too because you were denying the significance of the person’s racial experience and history.
Consequentially, taking offence seems to have no logic, but even if it had the discussion is off-limits because someone’s real or confected offence seems to be enough justification to shut down the debate.
The performance of outrage is a central feature of the moral crusade against micro-aggression. There is a mushrooming of micro-aggression websites where like-minded victims are encouraged to air their grievances and broadcast their concerns to raise the awareness of those who are blind to the pandemic of micro-aggression enveloping the world.
Further, and even more insidious, as Kenan Malik has written:
The predicament runs far deeper, however, than formal regulations or prohibitions. The real problem is that we have internalized those prohibitions. We have come to accept censorship not just because of external proscriptions, but also because of internal ones, because of a moral horror at the thought of offending others.
All of this is to me intolerable. The good Dr Phil has frequently counselled me that there are no bad people only people with bad ideas. Therefore it is incumbent on us to properly examine and debate all ideas of consequence. It is not good enough that someone can legitimately curtail debate by effectively saying, ” I am offended by your questioning of my ideas”.
So what really is happening here? It seems to me that too many in our society have such a poor understanding of who they actually are that their sense of self is unduly tied up in their beliefs. Don’t get me wrong I believe that it is important for us to develop values and belief systems to guide our lives. But importantly we need to come to those rationally. Far too many of us merely assume the beliefs of our peers, our families, our cultures without any great consideration of the alternatives. If my sense of self is inexorably tied to such beliefs then it is indeed a psychological threat to have those beliefs questioned. And because I have largely acquired such beliefs mindlessly they are very hard to defend.
The pathetic defence mechanisms that have evolved to prevent such questioning (eg trigger warnings, micro-aggressions etc.) reflect a fundamental insecurity emanating from an uncertain sense of self. It is in fact a basic indicator of immaturity.
It reminds me of one of my beloved grandchildren who, when she was smaller, often tried to get her own way with me by throwing a little tantrum. In response I would look at her sternly and say, “Are you sooking again?” This would generally disarm her and within a few minutes we would again have a productive relationship. I can’t help thinking that those resorting to such avoidance behaviours are adopting the same childish defence.
There are many controversial issues arising in our society that require considerable thought, deliberation and debate. I would instance freedom of speech itself, the rise of Islamic terrorism, global warming, and same-sex marriage and so on. These are ideas that deserve the full examination of the Socratic method. But the debate is going to be severely hampered by the fact that proponents want to avoid scrutiny of their ideas by confected offense. Might it be appropriate for me to ask, “Are you sooking again?”
But I suppose some contemporary version of Mr Tweedly will accuse me of micro-aggression. So, what can I say?