“Except for extreme physical abuse,” avers Epictetus, “other people cannot hurt you unless you allow them to. And this holds true even if the person is your parent, brother, sister, teacher, or employer. Don’t consent to be hurt and you won’t be hurt.” Like all Stoic philosophers, Epictetus places responsibility for offense solely on the shoulders of the offended listener.
Twenty-first-century progressives tend to be equally immoderate, but in the opposite direction. For instance, Sarah Mei recently tweeted: “Blows my mind that there are still people in the world who don’t understand basic stuff like: your intentions don’t matter. If someone thinks you were mean, you were mean – even if you didn’t intend to be! – and you should work to make it right.”
If you’re offended by something, it’s always good to consider the possibility that you’re the problem. Taking that possibility off the table categorically, as Mei does—“If someone thinks you were mean, you were mean”—is a recipe for bad communication. Because the way I feel isn’t necessarily a fair or accurate reflection of reality. The fact that I think someone is being mean to me doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re actually being mean to me. Maybe I’m just sick. Maybe I’m just tired. Maybe I just misunderstood what was said.
I was very sick with the flu and strep throat a few weeks ago. It made me extremely grumpy for a few days. I took everything the wrong way, snapped at everyone, and thought everyone was being mean to me. But of course they weren’t being mean; I was just being unreasonable and uncharitable. Thank God I didn’t have someone like Sarah Mei around to enable my crazy!
Human communication is complicated and misunderstandings abound. If we’re going to figure things out together, speakers need to be as clear and sensitive to their audience as possible, and listeners need to be as charitable and self-aware as possible. Placing all of the responsibility for reception on the listener or the speaker is decidedly unwise. Both ways lead to badness.
Whenever you get a group of people together who share certain basic assumptions, there’s a natural tendency for the group to gravitate toward the most uncompromising positions. Social psychologists call this tendency group polarization. It explains why Trump’s victory came as such as surprise to the kind of people who listen to NPR, watch CNN, and read the New York Times; just as it explains why the Bush Administration invaded Iraq without an exit strategy. At a certain point, the neoconservative ideologues running the show, people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, stopped inviting people who disagreed with their assumptions, people like Colin Powell, to the planning meetings.
Group polarization also explains the breathtaking stupidity of Lindsay Shepherd’s inquisitors at Wilfred Laurier University. These people speak, as someone rightly observed on Twitter, “like people who are used to standing up in front of a class and talking for a long time without being challenged or interrupted.” Surrounding yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear is toxic. Sweet as it sometimes sounds, the siren song of the safe space must be resisted, lest ye be shipwrecked on the rocky coast of the Isle of Impotentia.
There’s no harm in group polarization if you’re just having fun or brainstorming. But if you actually want to change the world, if you actually want to communicate and be relevant, it’s a tendency that must be actively resisted. In The Righteous Mind (2013), psychologist Jonathan Haidt maintains that the best way to resist group polarization is to actively cultivate viewpoint diversity. Talk to people who you disagree with on a regular basis. You don’t have to agree with them. But you should at least listen to them. Bite your lip if you have to. Be respectful. Be charitable. And—for God’s sake!—avoid conversation killers like: You’re a racist! You’re a libtard SJW! You’re a Randroid! You’re a feminazi! You’re a regressive leftist! You’re a rape apologist! You’re antisemitic! You’re Islamophobic! You’re a de facto defender of white supremacy! As the Lindsay Shepherd fiasco makes clear, shouting people down, silencing them, resorting to name-calling prematurely (e.g., You’re transphobic!)—these things just alienate people.
If a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality, and a liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested, a Lindsay Shepherd is a middle-of-the-road moderate who’s been called a white supremacist by a thousand strangers on Twitter. Just as the violent suppression of the labor movement pushed a lot of good people into the communist camp in the 20th century, I fear that the outrageous attacks on nonconformists like Jordan Peterson and Lindsay Shepherd may radicalize a lot of middle-of-the-road moderates. As Malcolm Gladwell makes clear in David and Goliath (2014), when you crack down on terrorism by demonizing an entire community, you invariably end up strengthening support for the terrorists; and when you crack down on the civil rights movement in a draconian fashion, you invariably end up strengthening support for the civil rights movement. What’s happening on the left at the moment is striking similar. Demonize everyone who seems to disagree with you and you’ll invariably end up strengthening support for those who actually disagree with you.
Telling people off and preaching to the choir can be fun. But it’s a dangerous kind of fun. Because you get intellectually lazy. Because you start speaking in a specialized jargon that no one outside of your safe space can understand. Because you develop a contempt for everyone outside of your élite group of cool kids that frequently leads you to dehumanize those who disagree with you. Live in your little bubble long enough, and you’ll become downright delusional, like that ill-clad emperor in the Hans Christian Andersen tale.
This is especially true if you and your little possé of likeminded homies become powerful (e.g., by winning an election, taking over a department, capturing an important institution, etc.). As Aaron Haspel rightly observes in Everything (2015): “The less you are contradicted, the stupider you become. The more powerful you become, the less you are contradicted.” Wanna change the world? Stop preaching to the 20% who agree with you and arguing with the 20% who disagree with you; focus, instead, on the 60% who aren’t sure.
—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)