Towards a More Civil Society

I have a concept I would like to discuss.

The general premise is this – if I feel bad and I have no discernible physical ailment, it must be someone’s fault!

Not mine, of course, because it would be totally irrational to believe that I would willingly undermine my own sense of personal well-being. Someone has surely upset me and they must be held to personal account.

Now let us more closely examine the cause of this “upset”.

I have usurped the right to nominate “offense” and “upset”. It is my prerogative entirely to declare I have been hurt in this way. I have abrogated any sense of personal agency on my part.

What about intent? Does that matter?

When I am walking along the footpath and I am alarmed by being struck by someone only to find an old person has stumbled and grasped at me to prevent a fall, am I likely to berate that person?

It is not likely that I should do so.

But if someone says something that I interpret as offensive and they had no intention of offending me, will I forgive them? There are many fragile souls that wouldn’t. This is because somewhere deep in their psyche they have learned to become victims and seek out victimhood in order to assuage their fragile egos and to alter my behaviour to suit their (often mistaken) purposes. And in this respect, counter the example I gave above about an assault on the body, their minds are more fragile than their bodies and they will not tolerate any oppositional thought at all.

Activists have striven to sidestep the issue of intent by declaring that bigotry is only about impact (as they define and manufacture impact). If someone via their own interpretation chooses to feel offended or oppressed then that is deemed enough to define the perpetrator of the dissenting ideas as a bigot, a fool or a provocateur!

As Nelson Mandela taught us:

When we dehumanise and demonise our opponents, we abandon the possibility of peacefully resolving our differences, and seek to justify violence against them.

Now this gross error has been perpetuated through the tribalism associated with identity politics. More and more this phenomenon is exaggerating what differentiates us as human beings –gender, race, politics, etc. – and disregards our inherent commonality. This exacerbates the tendency to extremist classification of our fellow citizens to those like us and those who are not. And this differentiation quickly results in seeing those that are not like us as enemies or, even worse, immoral.

As a result anyone can be publicly shamed for saying something well-intentioned that someone else interprets uncharitably. Social media allows individuals to retreat into what academic authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, who co-authored The Coddling of the American Mind, have described as “self –confirmatory bubbles”. This reaction usually results in a tendency to cast “outsiders” as deliberately hurtful.

Even worse, because we have conflated words and ideas as being hurtful, these fragile souls accuse those, who might speak or think in a manner contrary to the conventional wisdom of their particular tribe, of violence. And in this convoluted manner determine actual physical violence as justified in shutting them down.

But one wonders, how did we get to be so fragile? It is easy to understand how someone subjected to physical abuse might feel pain. Our central nervous system sensibly registers pain as a signal to withdraw ourselves from something harmful. But if I am subjected to an idea, a thought that challenges me why should that be hurtful? Being physically threatened certainly warrants an avoidance response in preservation of the organism.  Being intellectually challenged on the other hand is beneficial to the organism. It facilitates intellectual growth.

Unfortunately these aberrant tendencies seem now to have ensconced themselves in our universities with concerning consequences. Freedom of speech has consequently been greatly curtailed. The identity politics activists have come to dominate many of our tertiary institutions. When opinions contrary to their own are voiced, their antagonists are publicly humiliated. When speakers are invited to speak on their campuses who challenge their ideas, those speakers are harassed, insulted and threatened.

One would think a tertiary institution in its desire to stimulate learning would expose students to a wide array of ideas. But that is not the case. Through such responses, and often the complicit support of the university itself, ideas counter to the conventional wisdom of the various tribes that political correctness creates, are not only never heard but on the rare occasion they are allowed access to campuses are aggressively shouted down.

Lukianoff and Haidt (quoted earlier) write:

Teaching people to see more aggression in ambiguous interactions, take more offense, feel more negative emotions, and avoid questioning their initial interpretations strikes us as unwise, to say the least. It is also contrary to the usual goals of psychotherapy.

Let us take a little while to try to understand how this pernicious trend of closing our ears to divergent opinions might have commenced. It is largely a case of good intentions gone awry.

Economist and journalist, Henry Ergas, wrote recently;

Revolutions may therefore come when their work has largely been accomplished.

For example, feminism has largely countered the major discriminations that disadvantaged women compared with men. But many feminist activists continue to campaign vociferously regarding rather minor issues and some imagined indignities.

Gender based political activists have achieved beneficial results in largely removing the stigma and the social disadvantages suffered by homosexuals. But they continue to fight assiduously to promote the causes of various minority gender classifications which they seem to have largely created to give them something to fight for!

And the restrictions on free speech that we see permeating our universities and elsewhere were not manufactured perniciously but resulted from an overly paternalistic concern for the welfare of young people.

You might just say in reference to Ergas’s assertion that the pendulum inevitably swings too far.

It is hard not to conclude that much of this aberrant behaviour can be related back to parenting. Our natural instinct as parents is to keep our children safe. But we often overdo it to the detriment of their development. We don’t let our children climb trees anymore. Playgrounds have become sterile with swings and slippery-slides downsized. “Helicopter” parents stifle children’s autonomy. When such cloistered children finally end up at university they are ill-equipped to deal with the real world and seek our protection, not so much for their physical safety now but for their psychological and emotional safety as well.

Now all this has been exacerbated by the self-esteem movement that has prevailed since the 1960’s. The ethos of the self-esteem movement is that everyone must win. There should be no losers in society. Parents and schools try to find ways to affirm the specialness of their children and students. Everyone gets an award, however inconsequential. Parents and teachers go to great lengths to ensure there is a prize for the most abstruse qualities and achievements just to make sure no one is left out.

Now from these two approaches to parenting, young people arriving at university will be both fragile, mostly never having been exposed to difficulty, and with a sense of entitlement because it has been reinforced in their malleable minds over and over how special they are.

Now I am not trying to apportion blame here. These parent and teachers are no doubt acting out strategies, which to the best of their knowledge, are beneficial to the young people involved.  The young people being conditioned by these ideas and practices are behaving just as you would suppose they might with such conditioning. Having been inculcated with their own sense of fragility it isn’t any wonder that they should be asking for “trigger warnings” and seeking out “safe spaces”. Lukianoff and Haidt call this tendency towards overprotectiveness, “Safetyism”.

(Remember, as the good Dr Phil tells me, there are no bad people only bad ideas and most of us are doing the best we can in the face of our social and biological circumstances.)

In the educational setting it is worth remembering the principle espoused by the American historian of Renaissance and Reformation political thought, Hanna Holborn Gray. Gray maintains:

Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is a means to make them think.

There are other societal influences that are tending to make our young people less robust.

Jean Twenge, a psychologist  at San Diego University studies intergenerational differences. She coined the term iGen (internet generation) for the generation that was born in 1995 and subsequently. She maintains that iGen are obsessed with safety and their definition of safety extends beyond physical safety to include psychological and emotional safety as well. Twenge maintains that the deprivation of face to face contact exacerbated by the proliferation of social media is part of the problem. She points out that in the last decade or so the incidence of depression and anxiety in young people in many Western societies has been on the rise. (This is particularly the case for girls. As I pointed out in a recent essay human beings are social animals and deprivation of personal contact by substituting indirect contact by social media is bound to be harmful.)

Furthermore, social media promotes the various tribes of identity politics without significant challenge. So our emotionally threatened young people can (in anonymity if they wish) align with various groups where they won’t be unduly challenged and at least feel some sort of affiliation which they are craving for.

Social media enables people to be shamed without any real rationale. Unfortunately status is often awarded to those who shame or punish such alleged offenders who take issue with the beliefs of the “insiders”. This is one reason why social media can be so transformative. There is always a substantial audience of like-minded people cheering on the shaming and adding their contribution. Those that are vulnerable to this disapprobation live in constant vigilance and fear and are consequently reluctant to speak up to oppose the common wisdom espoused by any of the identity tribes.

But the outcome of this aberrational thinking is unhelpful for a democratic society. These fragile people, cloistered in their tribes, enjoying the satisfaction of their dubious affiliations, are enabled to shrug off any sort of challenge to their convenient beliefs by ignoring or shouting down contrary views. And worst of all, the most egregious examples of these aberrations occur in our universities who purportedly encourage free speech and the contest of ideas.

Let us now return to the proposition I put at the commencement of this essay.

“If I feel bad and I have no discernible physical ailment, it must be someone’s fault!”

Well this again is an avoidance strategy. If I feel bad and I have no discernible physical ailment, it is generally because I have an aberrant world view.

What’s more if I analyse why I feel bad it is normally a choice I make (often unconsciously) to get my own way. I choose, or more likely, have learnt, to display suffering so that others might act to reduce my perceived pain in a manner that serves my perceived interest. (I refer you to a book by Narciso and Burkett called Declare Yourself. I have explained on a number occasions how they describe “get my way behaviours” one of which is suffering. Taking offense is a major example of such behaviour.)

So let me summarise the principal elements of this societal problem.

Because of our parenting and the widespread impact of social media our children who have been molly-coddled and overly protected are having problems dealing with the real world. Those that go to university will often find that university administrators are complicit in the problem. Young peoples’ fears go way beyond mere physical safety. They are psychologically and emotionally fragile as well, to the extent that many can’t afford to have their ideas challenged which constitutes a major impediment to learning. Social media has vastly reduced one on one social interactions to the detriment of psychological robustness.

But despite the ubiquity of social media, as human beings we still have a need to belong. Thus identity politics has become influential. An individual can manufacture some sense of belonging by affiliation with one of the many issues groups. We seek admission into one of the many tribes promoting such issues. The issues can be many and varied, for example mainstream political groups, devotees of gender politics, global warming protestors, republican or monarchy proponents, secular and religious groupings, those protesting our immigration policies, and so on.

Now because of their psychological insecurity, once aligned with such a group many such supporters close their ears to any contrary viewpoints. They can only afford to hear arguments in support of their own beliefs. And in order to avoid confronting opposing ideas many will take the easy way out of accusing their opponents of being ignorant or even immoral.

Lukianoff and Haidt remind us:

There is a principle in philosophy and rhetoric called the principle of charity, which says that one should interpret other people’s statements in their best, most reasonable form, not in the worst or most offensive way.

Surely if this principle was followed we would have a far more civil society.

So identity politics, with its increasingly vociferous tribes, each signalling its own righteousness, is drastically dividing our society. Debate over opposing ideas is largely curtailed by shouting down and belittling our opponents and ensconcing ourselves in echo chambers that constantly reinforce our ideas without question.

And when we come back to the basics we find that the principal weapon that is used to promote these parochial causes is based on emotional blackmail relying on a psychological fallacy. The fallacy is that other people’s word and ideas are offensive. The truth is that taking offense is a manipulative strategy for people to get their own way. Many people use this strategy unwittingly. It is learned quite early and repeatedly demonstrated, reinforcing its power. The underlying fallacy is that somehow other people are responsible for how we feel.

Mostly it was started early in our lives. Our parents used such manipulative strategies. They said things like, “When you failed you exam, I felt so depressed.” There are many variants of such statement but in essence they are teaching us that somehow we are responsible for how other people feel. When we learn such a lesson early in our lives it is likely that we will replicate that strategy. So it is not surprising that I should say to someone else “When you say that, you hurt me.” Yet I know without any doubt that how I feel is entirely due to my own state of mind.

Marcus Aurelius purportedly said:

Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.

Lukianoff and Haidt quote the progressive activist, Van Jones as saying:

I don’t want you to feel safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity.

Good advice, indeed!

So what are the antidotes to this pervasive and dysfunctional state of affairs?

I am sure it would help if we gave our children more autonomy and allowed them to deal with appropriate risks. They must learn that it is OK to fail occasionally, that in the real world they are not particularly special and that learning is facilitated by having our ideas contested in a mature way.

It is also important to learn that while we value diversity there is more that we have in common than what separates us. We have forgotten the lesson that Martin Luther King sought to teach:

I look to a day when people will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.

(Only we need to take this to a broader realm and include alongside “the colour of their skin”, their gender, their religion, their nationality, their politics or whatever.)

Or consider the words of Pauli Murray. Murray was a lawyer, an American civil rights activist, an advocate of women’s rights and an Episcopal priest. In 1945 she wrote:

I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. …When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout out for the rights of all mankind.

Now that is the sort of ethos we need to counter the parochialism of identity politics!

Finally we need to counter the emotional blackmail implicit in shutting down dissenting voices. I have written about this in previous essays because I feel it is an essential element in understanding human behaviour. Essentially you need to understand you are not responsible for how other people feel. As I have asserted many times before, people take on suffering (for example taking offense) in order to make us feel guilty and change our behaviours to suit their own purposes (as Narciso and Burkett put it, indulge in “get my way” behaviours). A broader understanding of this principle would go a long way to promoting more effective behaviour, real debate and problem solving.