I have sometimes been described as loud and sometimes described as disagreeable. In my life I have had many passionate disagreements with many different types of people, some causing me to crumble under my anger, others that made me go away and think for weeks about the discussion that I have had.
Growing up in a household full of opinionated individuals, I was encouraged to speak my mind regardless of how much it would send the thermometer upwards.
In this day and age, now that I look back, many of those early learnings or encouragements would be categorised as reprehensible.
Speaking your mind about things that don’t necessarily fit other peoples world view based around gender, identity, politics and race are now avoided at all costs for fear of being of cast on to a lepers island. One genuine fear for many people is that we must avoid thorny topics and that in light of such a polarising environment, dissenting opinion should be discouraged. In fact, an extensive study carried out by More in Common in 2018, a nonprofit dedicated to healing political polarisation in the United States and Europe, found that between 51 and 66 per cent of Americans agree there is “pressure to think a certain way about” sensitive topics.
“Ask yourself this question, is there something that does not fit your world view or that is deemed politically incorrect, would you feel comfortable talking about it?”
I was at a bar the other day. I had a discussion with an acquaintance about a thorny topic; I made a statement that she didn’t agree with rather than disputing this idea and having a passionate discussion about why this didn’t fit her world view, I sat quietly for 10 minutes while being berated lightly about the intended virtues of the topic.
This was for two reasons:
– She raised her voice disproportionately using my first name as a cursor for her motion.
– I realised that if I kept encouraging my line of thinking, I might be branded insensitive or even worse a bigot, which is heresy in this day and age.
I can only speculate that the narrative that she was sold was that if it’s wrong, shut it down. If it doesn’t help her, don’t feed it. This isn’t the first time I have felt this type of existential coercion. I have experienced this on several occasions wherein a discussion led environment, I have felt there is no room or flexibility for dissenting opinion. Ask yourself this question, is there something that does not fit your world view or that is deemed politically incorrect, that you would feel uncomfortable talking about?
If my opinion does not fit the mainstream left or right channels, does this mean I am outdated? Or does this mean there is a moratorium on free speech?
I am concerned about speaking out about things that upset me. This is not a problem just highlighted on college campuses. This is a global problem, and I feel it is perpetrated by big tech companies such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter and by and large media corporations.
Part of the problem is that it feels as if we repackage and product discussion, we commercialise free speech for the benefit of a few. As Sam Harris points out in his latest provocative podcast episode, “All information has become performative and weaponised. We are incapable of coming into reality.”
To my displeasure they own most of the conversations taking place, they are the jury, judge and executioner when it comes to free speech. They present you a smorgasbord of opinions and provoke you into choosing one. When you see a polarised world, that is the product of a tightly wound, algorithmic, sensationalist diet set to gaslight you. Or as the conservative NY Times journalist Bret Stephens says, “The quickest route to huge profitability is to serve up a steady diet of high-carb, low-protein populist pap.”
Why are so many companies boycotting Facebook at the moment, perhaps it’s because they understand this sentiment and they are sick of encouraging it. Social media companies set up the platform, trend nuanced conversation, then say they are impartial moderators – one of the great subversions of the 21st Century. One hundred years from now, we might see that companies such as Twitter and Instagram, even large news organisations such as News Corp. and Viacom are held mostly accountable for this type of moral panic.
All of this has forced us into a myopic bubble where you feel that the left and right are fortresses upheld by staunchly ideological people. This means that should your opinion not fit their values they will have you.
“The point is not whether I agree or disagree with Black Lives Matter or whether I believe Donald Trump is a godsend or not. It’s whether I am allowed to disagree or allowed to have the discussion in the first place.”
The point is not whether I agree or disagree with Black Lives Matter or whether I believe Donald Trump is a godsend or not. It’s whether I am allowed to disagree or allowed to have the discussion in the first place. And more importantly, what are the consequences of my disagreeing. As Bret Stephens again, rightly points out, “Intelligent disagreement is the lifeblood of any thriving society.”
The biggest problem today for me is not COVID-19, it’s not cancer, and it’s not our climate, it’s that we have barricaded ourselves behind what we think is right and wrong. We are not able to come out from these fortresses and look at each other in the eye to hold up some type of civil disagreement. Democracy allows us this right to disagree; the real question is, do you still want to live in a democracy?
Written by Ari Stein, founding editor for 52 Insights