The New Thought Police
This will come as a shock to no one, but I am more than a guy who writes. Part of the reason I started this blog was to create a place where those who were interested might come and take a peek inside my mind– a place where I might reveal a bit more of my personality and worldviews than I do on my websites and Facebook pages.
Today, I am going to muse upon something completely unrelated to my books– something potentially controversial, and something that may cause many of you to think twice about my writings, and even me as a person. Be prepared.
Without any of us particularly noticing it, a new form of Thought Police has arisen here in America (although I suspect those of you outside the U.S. might recognize the same influence in your own culture). Right here, in the land that values freedom of speech as its primary right, free speech– and independent thought itself– is being systematically squashed.
And it isn’t happening where you probably think it is. Bear with me. A lot of you won’t like this one bit. I apologize in advance.
Near where I live, a university professor was recently fired for teaching what he is paid to teach and for expressing, when asked, a personal opinion about it. The university explained their action by stating that “the courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought”.
Let that sink in a bit.
Can you smell the irony? Apparently, “public discourse” and “independent thought” can only occur when they are completely homogeneous with the prevailing worldview. Dissenting opinion, no matter how respectfully presented, cannot be tolerated. Let’s ignore for the moment what the professor’s unacceptable opinion might have been. Is this defensible? Are we so feeble-minded that the mere expression of an unpopular opinion is utterly unacceptable?
The New Thought Police is usually not embodied in an institution, however. It is usually a citizen brigade. Often, this consists of only a single person, but a person completely assured that they are backed up by an unstoppable tide of moral superiority. Examples:
A few weeks ago I was at the park with my kids. I met another couple who were there watching their own children. We struck up a conversation and they were very likable. Then, however, the conversation turned to politics. The couple talked freely about how horrible people of a certain political persuasion are, how stupid and evil they are, and how they must be stopped and silenced. I became very sad at this, because they were talking about me. They did not know it, of course, and I did not tell them. Maybe I should have, but I was embarrassed and intimidated. I liked them. I was sad because I realized that if they knew who I really was, they would obviously hate me, and probably not even speak to me.
Only a few days ago, I was telling some friends about a discussion I would be attending with a particular author. One person interjected that I should be very wary of the author’s “insane political and religious views”*, and that he himself could never attend a discussion by such a person. I am not entirely sure what this author’s political and religious views are, but what if they happen to be the same as mine? I really like the man who said this to me– he has been very helpful and encouraging. Now, I am faced with the fact that, if my political and religious views are not his, he would likely shun me just as he would the author we were speaking of.
So of course I didn’t say anything. I am a people pleaser. I want to be liked. And yes, this shames me.
There are more examples of this than I can recount in this blog. Most of the time, the oppression of the New Thought Police is felt simply as a pervasive social pressure– an unavoidable prevailing wind that insists you simply cannot think outside of the norm: “only stupid, insane, hopelessly uncool people doubt or disagree with X. Obviously you agree with us. If you don’t, make sure you keep it to yourself, at least if you mean to keep your friends, your job, your social status, and even your freedom.”
It reminds me, most of all, of the scenes in George Orwell’s “1984” that deal with the “two minutes hate”. During these interludes, nothing was acceptable but absolute unanimity of expression. Any deviation from the norm was cause for suspicion, alienation, and even imprisonment.
I do not understand the mindset of the person who assumes that everyone else agrees with them, who by their enthusiastic degradation of anyone who might disagree, utterly squashes any potential for discourse. I am pleased to know that I have friends from all across the political and religious spectrum. I respect the differences. I relish the conversations about those differences, and I have them frequently. These conversations both sharpen and refine my own beliefs. I am better for them.
Knowing this, how is it healthy for a society at large to actively obliterate the expression of any opinion that deviates from the politically correct norm? When has this ever been a beneficial course for a community? How well rooted can any of our worldviews and belief systems be if we insist that NO contrary opinion ever be voiced?
We probably agree on this, right? Now comes the difficult part.
What if the opinions being squashed and outlawed are ones you yourself dislike? What if the professor who got fired for expressing an opinion was blackballed because his opinion was that the Catholic teaching that homosexual acts are a sin is true? Can you still defend his right to express that opinion in a free society, even if you find it reprehensible?
What if the political view being deemed evil and stupid is the one that you strongly oppose? Will you still defend the idea that right-thinking people can have respectful debate on the topic? Or will you be content in that instance that those holding that view should be shut down and intimidated into silence?
The classical view of tolerance is one worth revisiting. In the modern world, tolerance means accepting without question or debate the popular and prevailing worldview. Any dissent with that worldview– indeed, even holding an unspoken opinion of dissent– is considered intolerant and deserving of censorship. The classical definition of tolerance, however, was stated by Voltaire as “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Are we as individuals big enough to live up to that ideal? Or do you disagree completely? I’d love to hear from people who might defend the idea of shutting down the voices of those who express unpopular opinion. I won’t think you are stupid or evil for disagreeing with me, but I will be happy to debate you. By doing so, we will all sharpen and hone our beliefs.
Shouldn’t that be what any free society, respectful of intellectual pursuits, engages in? Or are we all too truly intellectually lazy to allow even the expression of an opposing perspective?
That’s a question I really am asking. Give me your thoughts, all.