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A drawing of four men in wigs (lawyers or judges) at a bench. From Ballads of the Bench and Bar; or, Idle Lays of the Parliament House, 1882.

unpopular opinions masquerading as acceptable outrage

With emotionally fraught issues like politics and religion, people, I have noticed, often skirt around the crux of their opinions and disguise their frustration as being about something more general and less controversial. For example, a controversial law passed after receiving a majority vote in a popular election. This law was later overturned as being unconstitutional. I heard people who had voted for the law saying they were outraged that the will of the people had been ignored. Being frustrated about the failure of democracy seems generally acceptable; however, that really wasn’t the crux of their frustration: it was that this specific law which they had voted for had been overturned. Since the law was controversial, it was not socially acceptable to voice support for it, especially after it had been declared unconstitutional.

The people (apparently) upset about the will of the people being ignored had never to my knowledge ever brought up this issue before. This wasn’t some pet issue of theirs they were passionate about. They weren’t outspoken about the necessity of elections and voting. They had been vocal about voting for this specific law though. I would guess that had the circumstances been reversed and the law had been voted down, the supporters of it would not be outraged at all should a court have declared the election somehow unconstitutional and ruled that the law should still go into effect. If these voters had gotten their way in the end, they wouldn’t be outraged about the will of the people being ignored. The issue was never the general idea of democracy—it was this specific law.

The main example of this phenomenon (disguising a specific controversial opinion as a more acceptable, general opinion) I am currently seeing is with the issue of freedom of speech. When public figures voice controversial opinions and receive backlash, people who share those specific opinions complain that such negative consequences infringe on freedom of speech. But freedom of speech is not the issue—it is the specific opinions that receive backlash. These people who are apparently so concerned with freedom of speech do not consistently defend the right—they often want public figures with different opinions from their own to just keep quiet, and they complain about protests against their own beliefs.

A specific example: the leader of a business voiced some controversial opinions and as a result, the business was boycotted. Customers who had actually agreed with the leader then fought back by visiting the business en masse on a particular day. Someone I know posted a picture of a long line at the business with the caption “Defending freedom of speech.” But this wasn’t about freedom of speech—it was this specific opinion. I would bet if a business leader voiced an opinion different from this person’s, they would totally support a boycott of that business.

This leads me to my next concern. Not only are people disguising their support for controversial views as a general concern for free speech, they are also using the term free speech for a different, incorrect idea.

Freedom of speech is a constitutional right. Since it is constitutional, it is concerned with the government and legal system. You have the freedom to voice your opinions, no matter how controversial. You will not be punished by the government for them. You will not be imprisoned. You are not prevented from saying what you want.

What freedom of speech is not is the entitlement to an audience and protection from any negative feedback. But this seems to be how many people are using the term. If someone says something and another person disagrees or picks apart the argument, the first person or their supporters will often shout, “Free speech!” Yes, free speech: the first person had the freedom to say what they wanted to say. But those other people also have the right to disagree. They too have freedom of speech, and they can use it to disagree!

There are so many platforms people have to speak: they can stand on a soapbox on a street corner, write a letter to the local newspaper, print their own newsletter, make a blog, post on a forum. Often though people are confusing freedom of speech to the right to a captive audience, or an audience of specific people. There are so many places to voice your opinions, but is not guaranteed that anyone will agree or even listen. You have the freedom to speak, but others have the freedom to ignore you.

Discussion questions

1. Have you seen this phenomenon at work?

2. How would you define freedom of speech?

3. What is a misunderstood/misused term you have noticed?

A shadowy humanoid figure with an owl head and wings chases a little girl down a hallway. The caption says "The Bogey-Owl."

les fleurs du mal

I think childhood stories about Good and Evil can do society a great disservice. They are misleading and oversimplified. I realize that media aimed at children is most often simplified, but often ideas of Good and Evil aren’t portrayed as simplified, but as the simple truth, as in a truth often looked at as more complicated than it actually is. And even if children do somehow recognize the ideas presented as simplifications, they often still treat them as bedrock truths on which they build their developing world views as they get older.

The main idea that I think is neglected in children’s entertainment is that we are all human and that “villains” are just humans too, not some special breed of human. “Villains” are not as obvious and noticeable as they are portrayed in stories for children. And villains are often not universal—different groups consider different people villains. Heroes and villains are not two neat categories on which everyone agrees. I mean, on which every good person agrees, of course.

When I imagine a stereotypical cartoonish villain, I have an image that immediately materializes. He is tall, dressed in black, with a long cloak, and a curly moustache. He speaks in grand, carefully enunciated phrases. He has a vaguely foreign accent, perhaps from somewhere in England. Now, I’m probably combining several different villainous characters. They don’t all have cloaks, for example.

But notice that appearance: starkly different, with subliminal symbols like dark colors to connotate evil. Also, very importantly, a markedly different and foreign way of speaking. Why do so many villains have foreign accents? I don’t think it’s even as complicated as marking certain nationalities as “enemies;” there have been villainous characters in American media throughout the past century with Russian accents, for example, but not in every case, and it’s not as if every story featuring a Russian villain was overtly political, where it would be relevant.  There are many villains in American media, after all, who are merely British, and the UK is an ally and not really seen as villainous (unless the story is set during the American Revolution, of course). So, I think the main reason for giving villains accents is just to distinguish them as not like us. Showcasing the way someone talks is an easy and classic way to just say “they’re different from we are.”

I think it is a frightening truth to a lot of people to realize that every “evil” person in history has been human, and since we are human too, we have the same potential for cruelty. So we create ways to separate humans into different groups to protect notions of our inherent innocence and virtue—or, in other words, the idea that we could never do something as heinous as that. People don’t want to think that if they themselves were born at the same time, in the same place, and under the same circumstances as some historical villain, they themselves could have committed similar crimes.

The main example of this idea that stands out in my life is an occurrence at a lecture I went to on a specific women’s concentration camp in Nazi Germany that has since been turned into a museum. The lecture highlighted how apparently “normal” the female guards were: they had social gatherings, got their hair done, were interested in new fashions. But they were also Nazis enforcing genocide and torture. A main idea that the current museum on the camp’s site also emphasizes is how these women were merely human. This is not said to lessen the seriousness of their acts in any way—it is said to emphasize that cruelty and terror is a human problem, not a problem confined to certain groups or types of people.

I think that is such an important point, and a necessary one to acknowledge, especially when discussing why the Holocaust could even happen and how to prevent persecution, prejudice, and oppression now and in the future. However, one particular woman in the audience of the lecture was aghast when confronted with that assertion that the Nazis were human. She repeatedly spoke out, saying things like, “No, these women were monsters! We can’t call them anything less!” She insisted that it was just incorrect and even offensive to label them as similar to you and I.

I don’t know who that woman was, I don’t know her background or history, and I don’t know what experiences or preconceived notions she was bringing to that lecture; I’m not making a statement at all about her as a person. I see her ideas though as very widespread and prevalent. Fear of “evil” is really fear of humanity, but it is often masked and covered up. Even the word “evil” is evidence. It is seen as a separate, even tangible and external thing that we can name and point out.

I don’t say all this to be pessimistic or make the doom and gloom rain down. I just think it’s most helpful and healthy to just acknowledge the reality and act accordingly. Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away. I think we can address humanity’s potential for evil, but it requires really accepting it first.

Candles on a candelabra flickering in a dark room

sage advice so often scorned

I wonder what the percentage breakdown is of people who need to hear the “traditional wisdom” (don’t settle, always look for ways to improve yourself, raise your standards, etc.) vs. people who are harmed by it, whose self-esteem is made worse by it because the opposite message would actually help them?

I ask this because I believe I have often been in this latter group. Ever since I realized I actually needed to hear the opposite advice (take time to recognize your strengths, accept yourself where you are instead of offering yourself conditional acceptance once you become someone else), I’ve wondered why the prevailing advice/wisdom is tailored to a different sort of person.

(Note: I do think these two sorts of messages can complement each other and can go hand in hand. From what I’ve observed, however, the idea of accepting yourself and considering your strengths seems to be given so much less attention and weight, as if mentioning this idea will just cause everyone to give up any effort toward self-improvement.)

Does the majority of people really need the message most often dispensed? Are there really more people who are lazy and arrogant? Or is that the only “help” people know how to offer, so it’s a case of “when all you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail”? I think we all can always find ways to improve, but it’s actually discouraging and antithetical to progress to only dwell on what you lack and shame yourself for who you are. It seems like a case of fearing one extreme so people stick to the other.

In church, I took every sermon and lesson to heart. I absorbed the message that to say an exhortation didn’t apply to you was the height of arrogance. Really, the people who said they didn’t need to hear a certain lesson were in fact the ones who needed it most!* (*Apparently, according to the speakers I listened to.) Every call to be more charitable, offer more service, be far more strictly obedient, focus on the godly more than the worldly, etc. I interpreted as being aimed at me.  Now, it’s not that I thought, “Well, no-one’s perfect, so theoretically everyone could always have room to grow with any of these habits.” No, I thought I was in desperate need of improvement on all of these things. I was in dire need of being corrected so that I could become more grateful, in surrendering my will to god’s, etc. 

In avoiding the extreme of thinking advice didn’t apply at all, I think I thought it applied too much. It would have been much healthier to acknowledge, “Hey, I’m actually pretty good at this already. This isn’t something I need to focus on more. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m already doing.” But I never did 1) because this was connected with arrogance in my mind and 2) honestly, this concept—to accept yourself as you are—was never discussed or taught, to my knowledge. I don’t have any memory of hearing the idea, and if I actually did hear it and just don’t remember, then it was because it was one small speck of an idea compared to multitudes of more prevalent ones.

A note on what I even mean by “accept yourself as you are.” By ‘accept,’ I mean ‘recognize your inherent worth regardless of faults.’ It means seeing the good in yourself and seeing that you are worthy of love. It does not mean thinking that you are flawless or better than other people. I’m not sure why, but I think that people are confused about self-acceptance and do think it’s that last idea. I’ve seen people scoff at the idea of self-acceptance because they point to people who are arrogant and say, “Heh, they don’t need to think any more of themselves!” Self-acceptance is not arrogance!

It’s one of those paradoxes that in order to make progress, I think it’s best to have a good measure of self-acceptance. Or in other words, in order to change, you have to like the way you are already. When you don’t feel that your worth depends on changing, it is easier to change.

Now, back to the subject at hand. I would have liked it a lot better and been a lot more well-adjusted had the message of unconditional self-acceptance been taught alongside and in conjunction with ways to improve. But self-acceptance, let alone unconditional self-acceptance, was absent. 

I suppose if I had asked certain church leaders why it was never emphasized, they might have said that if they taught the principle of being satisfied with one area and seeing no immediate need for improvement, then people who actually did need to work on it would use it as an out and say they’re fine as they are. The people who didn’t need that advice  would actually end up applying it to themselves inappropriately. Well, plot twist, that exact thing still happened. The people with low self-esteem who didn’t need the message of “be constantly vigilant of ways to improve!” applied it to ourselves.

This isn’t just me. I have talked to so many people with similar experiences. And this isn’t just a religious thing. I have a good friend who is similarly sensitive to the suggestion that he desperately needs to step it up and clean up his act. He had a critical boss who only told him what he absolutely needed to do better. The friend already had plenty of self-doubt and worried about his perfectionism. If anything, he probably needed reassurance of the good hew as doing so he could focus on continuing to do it (instead of being distracted by worrying about other things). Even if he could work on something (because no-one is perfect), it would be a lot more manageable thinking there are just a few things in need of improvement combined with a solid foundation of capability. Without any positive feedback though,he thought he needed to work on everything.

A major stress appeared when the boss told the employees that they were carefully monitored on the security footage to see if they were working hard enough. Were they dawdling? Standing around? chatting? The camera would catch it. 

Now, people have different learning styles and respond differently to rewards or punishment. To some people, the threat of punishment, via being found out by the security cameras, would motivate them to work harder. Others, like my friend and I, are thrown into a spiral of stress and shame. This boss was treating everyone like they had the same issue and psychological perspective.

Perhaps a key is that people see a problem and they want one objective solution they can apply to everyone. It’s harder to actually get to know people and learn their motivations and perspectives. It is (by far) easier to just give everyone the same generic advice. 

I think of people as a garden. Different plants need different amounts of sun vs. shade and specific kinds of care. Imagine planting a huge garden with all kinds of plants—trees, flowers, shrubs, ground cover—but putting them all in full sunlight with the same amount of water. Lots of plants would just die. There are temperate zones and deserts where succulents thrive. There are rose gardens and tropical forests. There are hydrangeas that change color based on the pH of the soil. Not everyone needs the same counsel. we are more complicated than that.

 It might be coddling to only tell people their strengths and that they’re flawless, but it’s cruel to limit feedback to their flaws. Your perception becomes warped when you don’t see all of the factors at play in your personality and behavior. We need these two perspectives, what’s good already vs. what needs improvement, to see traits and skills and weaknesses in context.

Discussion questions

1. Do you think most people need to hear the “be more ambitious and work harder” advice? Or is that just what people think they should say? Or another option?

2. What would you have liked to hear more as a child/in your formative years?

3. What advice has actually been beneficial to you?