Disturbing Ideas

IMG_20170924_115301Should someone get fired from his job because he expressed an opinion that others find offensive? Should the answer to that question depend on whether I agree with that person?

Let’s consider two examples. First, Google Engineer James Damore, who circulated an essay arguing that biological differences are the reason why more women don’t pursue engineering jobs. He was fired from Google as a result.

Second, Colin Kaepernick, the football player who takes a knee during the playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality against African Americans. Donald Trump just suggested that players who demonstrate in such a manner should be fired.

I happen to disagree with Damore’s arguments. And I happen to agree with what Kaepernick stands for, and fully support his right to peacefully protest.

I should pause to say that right now, writing this, I feel I’m balancing on a tight wire. I understand that if what I write is interpreted as offensive by the wrong person, I could become another product on social media’s conveyer belt of outrage. I have to make sure that my progressive friends know that I faithfully mark all the boxes on the list of acceptable positions on matters of race and identity, so that I can be deemed an “ally.”

I’m not thinking so much about the rightness of a particular opinion as I am thinking about how we treat people whose opinions we strongly disagree with. I worry that we are beginning to apply the filtering behaviors we take for granted in social media to real life. I am concerned that we have begun confusing exploring a wide range of opinions, some of them vile, to “giving a platform” to vile opinions.

Last year, an African American teacher in Wisconsin was suspended after assigning an essay in which students were asked to defend the Ku Klux Klan. Just to avoid any ambiguity here, I hate everything the KKK stands for. The Klan burned a cross in my maternal grandfather’s front yard when he was a boy because his family was Catholic. I’d love nothing more than to see these bigots disappear from the face of the earth.

But the fact is, they continue to exist. And since they exist, doesn’t it make it easier to oppose what they stand for if we understand what is they stand for? When I heard of this teacher assigning an essay defending the Klan, I immediately started thinking of how the assignment could deepen one’s understanding of how backward, stupid, illogical, unfounded, and flimsy the Klan’s putrid world views truly are.

Damore’s opinion offends me. Kaepernick’s does not. Should the consequences of their airing their opinions depend on how those opinions make me feel? If I can successfully argue that somebody who makes me feel unpleasant with their sexist or racist opinion should lose their job, can’t it also be argued that somebody who makes someone else feel bad by burning a flag or opting out of the Pledge of Allegiance should lose theirs? What if the offended person happens to oversee the Justice Department?

To those who argue that certain ideas are so dangerous that the people who express them should be silenced, I’d ask: how is it that you’re not turned into a Nazi/racist/homophobe when you hear these opinions? What’s the secret to being exposed to vile opinions without being converted to them, and can you share that secret with us more weak-minded people? Has the recent exposure of Charlottesville and other incidents of racist bullshit led to more neo-Nazi recruitment or to more impassioned, active, and committed resistance to these ideas?

As a product of the Watergate/Cold War era who was taught to question authority and challenge the witholding of information, it alarms me to see people take it upon themselves to decide what information is acceptable for other people to consume. I’m a firm believer in shedding light on information rather than keeping information in the dark. Nothing makes me want to read something more than being told I shouldn’t read it. I continue to believe that obscuring or hiding certain opinions makes them tremendously more powerful than they would be if they were revealed and dissected by the light of reason.

In the end, these questions lead us to our core beliefs about how other people think and behave. Are we ultimately rational and good, or are we ultimately irrational and corrupt? Herein lies a moral choice. Either accept that propaganda works and that we need to be protected from it, or have faith that individuals are strong enough to resist it. I, for one, am not prepared to relinquish that faith.

How are we to punish those with whom we disagree? Let’s start being more explicit about what we think should happen to people we disagree with. Should Damore be denied employment indefinitely? Does he deserve health insurance? Should he be denied the right to publish his opinions? Should there be a monetary penalty he is compelled to pay?

Is there a difference between living with the consequences of expressing an opinion and being punished for expressing an opinion?

As a writer, I have never felt more terrified to express myself. I’ve written stuff over the years that some consider disturbing or provocative, and there has been a cost to this. I consider literature to be something of a bomb disposal unit of horrific ideas, a place to blow things up within the protective covers of a book so that they don’t do more damage outside of it. My first book, a collection of stories called The Littlest Hitler, came out in 2006. The stories often take a demented premise and see it through to an absurd conclusion. The title story is about a fourth grader who dresses up as Hitler for Halloween and discovers greater empathy. While writing many of the stories I was disturbed by the compliant, herd mentality that allowed our country to get swept into the Iraq War. I’m ashamed to say this, but today, I’d hesitate to publish this book at all, out of fear that it would be narrowly interpreted and endanger my livelihood by seeing the light of day.

Last night, at my parents’ house, I picked up a copy of the hardback edition of The Littlest Hitler and realized something that startled me. The cover, which I have always loved, was designed by a woman named Nicole Caputo. She started with an empty, vintage Halloween costume box. The idea was to make it look like a Hitler costume you’d buy at a store, so she found a mask and adhered a Hitler mustache to it, put it inside the box, and photographed it. What most people don’t realize is that the mask she used was a mask of Donald Trump. At the time, this didn’t mean much of anything.

If we start to accept that we deserve to live in a world where we are never exposed to ideas that upset us, I fear that we will also lose the capacity to fight those very ideas after they’ve mutated and grown more powerful in the protective confines of their ideological silos. We strengthen our immune systems by taking doses of the antigens that would threaten those immune systems. I believe that the same holds for ideas. We must see them, understand them, and deprive them of their power by confronting them, not hiding from them.









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