Thursday, October 1, 2015

The perils of emotional over-sensitivity

The Observer has a very interesting article on the dangers of trying to protect everyone's feelings.

[Ray Bradbury's SF novel 'Fahrenheit 451'] begins with Guy Montag burning a house that contained books. Why? How did it come to be that fireman burned books instead of putting out fires as they always had?

The fireman have been doing it for so long they have no idea. Most of them have never even read a book. Except one fireman—Captain Beatty—who has been around long enough to remember what life was like before. As Montag begins to doubt his profession—going as far as to hide a book in his house—he is subjected to a speech from Beatty. In it Beatty explains that it wasn’t the government that decided that books were a threat. It was his fellow citizens.

“It didn’t come from the government down,” he tells him. “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no!”

In fact, it was something rather simple—something that should sound very familiar. It was a desire not to offend—of an earnest notion to literally have “everyone made equal.” And it’s at the end of this speech that we get the killer passage:
“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? … Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, to the incinerator.”

And before you get offended, let’s clarify what Bradbury means by minorities. He’s not talking about race. He’s talking about it in the same way that Madison and Hamilton did in the Federalist Papers. He’s speaking about small, interested groups who try to force the rest of the majority to adhere to the minority’s set of beliefs.

I don’t mean to cherry pick. I see no need to one to pile on college students as being particularly responsible for the “coddling of the American mind”. (Great piece, read it.) Though I do find it ironic that we require kids to read this book in high school and just a few years (or months) later, they’re leading the charge on exactly the kind of well-intentioned censorship Bradbury was talking about. I don’t mean to say that these examples come close to the kind of overt censorship that every reasonable person dreads. But I do mean to say that they come from the same place—and very alarmingly—ultimately end together in a much worse place.

In the 50th anniversary edition, Bradbury includes a short afterword where he gives his thoughts on current culture. Almost as if he is speaking directly about the events above, he wrote: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running around with lit matches.”

There’s that saying: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. When it comes to censorship, one might say that the road to thought and speech control is paved by people trying to protect other people’s feelings.

It’s important to realize that today, we have a media system paid by the pageview and thus motivated with very real financial incentives to find things to be offended about—because offense and outrage are high-valence traffic triggers. We have another industry of people—some call them Social Justice Warriors—who, despite their sincerity of belief, have also managed to build huge platforms by inventing issues and conflicts which they then ride to prominence and influence. One might call both of these types Rage Profiteers. They get us riled up, they appeal to our notions of fairness and empathy—who likes to see someone else’s feelings hurt?—without any regard for what the consequences are.

Of course, the real and fair solution is much less politically correct but effective. It’s to stop trying to protect people’s feelings. Your feelings are your problem, not mine—and vice versa.

There's much more at the link.  I don't agree with all the author's views, but he poses important questions and makes us think about an important subject.  As far as I'm concerned freedom of speech is just that, freedom, even if it offends me:  but today that position is increasingly under attack from those who used that freedom in the past to popularize opinions and positions that were out of step with 'conventional' views, and who therefore should know better.

Highly recommended reading.



Rev. Paul said...

Your commentary, and the passages you quoted, are spot on.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that the people most vocal in speaking against "banned books" themselves are highly likely to ban books, they just don't call it that - like you say, they refer to offense, separation of church and state, or other alternative sayings to avoid admitting that they themselves ban books.
Every list I have seen of so called "banned books" omits the most banned book in the USA - The Bible.

Clayton Wrobel said...

Anonymous said...

Indeed. Why did Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel take time out from a busy schedule at the UN Gen'l Assembly in NYC to put the thumbscrews on Mark Zuckerberg... to delete "anti-immigrant posts" from Facebook in Germany? (Vid clip on Youtube)

Because she doesn't believe in free speech, that's why.