Amid the growing insanity of the world around us, I’ve often felt that our little community here provides a much needed respite from the polarization, social anger, and “cancel culture” that has lately infected all of Western Civilization.
I’m not simply referring to my own articles and content, but to the work of all of the members of this site who contribute on our Forum and in the Comments section here. Anyone who has taken the time to review the combined contributions of the brilliant, engaged, and deeply thoughtful people who have offered thoughts and opinions about a broad range of subjects knows just how amazing those contributions have been. We should all be proud of this.
In theory, I have editorial control over all this content. Now, when it comes to the Forum, the practical work is done by the Moderators, without whom we would not have a functioning forum at all. As most of you probably realize, it’s impossible for me personally to act as a practical day-to-day moderator. There is way too much going on. However, when there are problems that arise, which happens from time to time, I am typically alerted and I step in to try to calm things down when emotions get too high.
It’s different regarding the Comments section on the main site here. Since the beginning of this website in the Spring of 2018, there has been one person who has been responsible for reviewing, approving, and replying to all comments, and that’s me. On a very few occasions, Tracey or Kirsten have helped out, but the three of us agreed that going through all the content of those comments is really my job. Every day, I review an average of 30 to 40 comments. There are times when the best I can do is to skim the content, but usually I read them all the way through and always try to reply when possible, which is pretty often. Of the thousands of comments that now exist on this site, I am the one who has reviewed nearly every one of them. So when a comment of yours is published, you can know that I was the one who personally clicked the “Approve” button and actually read what you had to say.
I haven’t kept track, but I estimate that of all those many comments that now exist under all of the posts of the past two and a half years, I may have withheld or deleted a total of less than ten of them. Whenever I have done so, it has never been because of the actual opinions being offered, but always because I believed the author of the comments had gone too far, whether in the form of personal attack on someone, or in rare cases when they made blanket statements about some group of people they disliked.
Those instances are so rare that in practice everyone’s comments here and in the Forum get published. Relating to the Comments section, it may sometimes take a day or even two days for me to review and approve a comment, but that’s always a function of my own time management successes and failures. I sometimes read comments in which the author believes that I might want to censor what they are saying, and I would like those people to know this is a non-issue.
I don’t believe in censoring people’s opinions, and that includes many instances in which I strongly take issue with those opinions. It even includes a few times when the author of a comment expressed rude or even occasionally hostile statements to me personally (although I don’t allow this when it’s directed at anyone else). Generally speaking, I don’t take offense when someone directs anger at me, and if you actually want to offend me, you are going to have to put some genuine effort into the endeavor.
From time to time, people have asked me to exercise more control over the comments that appear here. I always resist these requests, but I do want those people to know that I am always trying to strike the best balance between having a free flow of ideas and at the same time fostering a welcoming environment for everyone. I do have my lines, and they appear at the point of invective, insults, or personal attack.
I’m writing this not because I think there is a problem with the Forum or Comments section, because basically I don’t. I think the system we have here is working very well.
But I do think it’s helpful for all of us to remember that free speech, surely one of the most prized possessions we have in this world, begins to break down when subjected to a climate of hostility, anger, and invective.
As many others in our world have pointed out, free speech is the ultimate self-correcting mechanism of our world. In any society, it’s inevitable that people are going to disagree about virtually everything that matters, everything of importance. Especially now, when we see the world going through a political, cultural, social, and technological revolution, there are genuine outcomes at stake.
Yet, how we deal with those disagreements matters. There are three ways we can deal with them. You can ignore, you can discuss, or you can fight. And by fight, I mean fight, not argue. Those are the basic choices.
In my own life, because I have to pick my battles, most of the time when I find myself in disagreement with somebody else, I usually ignore. It’s not always worth it for me to take the time to debate every single person with whom I disagree. There are only so many hours in a day. Thankfully, this was a lesson I learned back in the 1990s, during the UseNet era when I first engaged the Internet as it existed at the time, and saw the waste of time that flame wars inflicted on all those who participated.
But of course there are times when we feel the need to engage, and when we ought to engage. That is why we have rules of engagement. These are the rules of civil society. Civility exists for a practical reason. It’s so we don’t murder each other.
You don’t have to like the person with whom you are debating, you don’t even have to respect them. Let’s not fool ourselves about the matter of respect, which is always something that must be earned, not given out of hand. It can’t be faked. You don’t need to respect me, and I don’t need to respect you. It’s nice if we do, but it’s not the necessary ingredient. But if we are to engage in free speech with one another, we do need to maintain civility. Civil discourse means following certain rules, rules I think that all of us implicitly know and understand.
The stakes are very high. Because when civility goes away, that’s when we begin to dehumanize our opponent, to smear them, to take them down personally in some way or another. When that happens, we make it more difficult for free speech actually to work the way it needs to.
The entire point of free speech is so that we can learn from each other. I don’t have all the answers, and neither do you. We all make mistakes, and the beautiful thing about freedom of speech is that it allows us the opportunity to test our ideas against others, and hopefully to learn about our mistakes when we are wrong. But if we are to do that, we need to be able genuinely to listen to the other person. And of course we’re not going to be listening to someone if we have already concluded that they don’t deserve to be heard because of some opinion or feature about them that we have decided negates their value.
That’s when free speech breaks down, as we see over and over again in our world today. When people don’t have the opportunity to talk things out, they fight things out.
In most of the western world, people have become so used to benefiting from a world of genuine civic order that they have taken peaceful outcomes for granted. Sure, our society has seen protest movements for many years, and they have sometimes been violent. But compare that to the violence that has occurred in many other regions of the world, and it’s clear that the people of the West have been very, very fortunate. That’s all beginning to change now, and we should be very concerned about that.
It’s not that I don’t understand how people can be angry. But the problem that we all face, and I include myself here, is not that the facts or data we bring to an argument are necessarily wrong. They are just usually incomplete. Even when you may actually be right in your argument or opinion about something, it’s probably not by a ratio of 100% against 0%. There is usually a valid point of view that your opponent has which, because we now increasingly live in our own private little bubble universes, we simply fail to see or recognize.
Recognizing opposing points of views is not an easy thing for us to do. Hell, it might not even be natural, because there seems to be a universal psychological aversion for us to want to do that. Once again, this is what makes freedom of speech so important. It forces us, almost against our will, actually to listen to other points of view and to learn from them.
I don’t have much confidence that things will get better in our society anytime soon on this important matter. Historically speaking freedom of speech has hardly ever existed in human society. We have only really formally tried cultivating it since the American Revolution, which enshrined it as a fundamental right of people. Today, is under attack and on the defensive, not only in the western world but everywhere. There are important reasons for this, which I and others have discussed many times in the past.
While the global retreat continues, there are islands of safety and sanity that continue to exist. I think of this website as one of them. And I just want all of you to know that I am personally grateful to see the quality, diversity, and civility of opinions that are expressed here.
Most people aren’t happy when they encounter the opinions of people they disagree with or dislike. That’s because we live on Earth, not in Heaven. We are human beings, not angels, and we all have our own intractable set of insecurities, resentments, and panoply of psychological issues, the likes of which we never even suspect, but which nearly always operate in darkness. Eckhart Tolle suggested that more than 90% of our own thoughts are probably harmful to us. As he put it in The Power of Now, “you are not your mind.” When I first encountered this idea, I found it very challenging, but over time I have come to understand it (and would like to come back to this in a separate entry one day).
For now, however, I believe we are doing a great job here. We live in an upside down world, and I remind myself that change is everything, and nothing is final. Whereas I do believe we are moving toward a completely new stage of human existence, the likes of which fill me with definite angst and trepidation, I do believe there is a future, and that somehow people will find a way to adapt as best they can.
And here, meanwhile, we still maintain our own island of sanity and freedom. Thank God for that.