Science fiction writer David Gerrold wrote the following on Facebook, and I thought it too good to just scroll off people’s timelines to be forgotten. It is reposted here with the author’s permission.
It pertains to some common themes – should we debate, should we engage, should we even bother to express our opinions. It argues in favor of engaging, not because any individual voice can have a great influence, but because it is through the argument that the zeitgeist emerges, that a rough popular consensus that is in line with reason and ethics emerges.
David retains copyright.
Let me add this to the discussion of censorship and political correctness.
The way that we advance — as individuals as well as a culture — is by participating in the frestorm of debate. The discussions are often irrational, even irresponsible, but when the flames die down a bit, we can poke the ashes and see where the logic of the situation remains.
Twenty-five years ago, there used to be an online place called Compuserve. It had excellent discussion forums — part of the reason for the excellence was that the company had active management. Discussions were monitored and managed. Trolls were “elfed.” (Given an L-flag, locked out.) Name-calling was discouraged. Sysops were empowered to give gentle warnings.
The result was that most Compuserve forums were hotbeds of serious and useful information and insights.
Even the politics and issues and religion forums were useful because stripped of the opportunity to bully each other, people had to frame their arguments in the most grownup manner they could.
At that time, the prevailing conversation about LGBT people was either “snicker-snicker, the perverts want special rights for their perversion” or “you’re a sinner, damned to Hell.”
A small group of very courageous men and women were able to convince a forum-owner to set aside a section for Gay/Lesbian issues. This was supposed to be a safe place for gay men and lesbians to discussion their own concerns. But it often became a target for divebombers (seagulls who shit-and-run), drive-by shouters, the unayappers of the world, and the occasional proselytute as well.
One of the things that happened was that most of the members of the group, feeling that their space had been invaded, began to answer back. Over a period of two-three years, a library of information began to grow. People did research and posted links. People learned from each other. And after a while, it became obvious that there was an honest and appropriate rebuttal for every half-assed argument.
Example: “…blah blah blah, homosexuality and bestiality and pedophilia are all the same, blah blah blah….” “If you can’t tell the difference between sex with a consenting adult and the rape of an animal, perhaps veterinary medicine is not a good career choice for you.” Or “If you can’t tell the difference…stay the hell away from my son.”
What was truly important about the process is that in that microcosm, LGBT people not only trained themselves to fight back, they trained themselves to win the arguments with logic and compassion. When someone would patiently explain why gay people should not be allowed around children, let alone adopt, a certain high-verbal, single gay adoptive dad with a special needs son, would post his own story, coupled with reliable statistics about adoption in America, and how there weren’t enough qualified heterosexual couples willing to take on the challenge of special needs adoptions.
Anyway, because of this continuing process, by the mid-nineties, in certain forums, it became clear that expressions of homophobia were no longer socially acceptable. And then one day, a phobe dropped in, dropped his turds in the punch bowl, and had his arguments politely and meticulously deconstructed — by all of the straight people in the forum. By the time the LGBT people noticed the thread, all of their carefully researched arguments had already been stated.
And my point is that this is how social progress occurs. Not by indignation junkies, not by the outrage committee, not by mobs with torches and pitchforks chasing the monster up to the top of the mill and lighting it on fire — but by talking the thing to death until everybody is so exhausted that the appearance of understanding and consensus is vaguely achieved. But somewhere in that muddle, the people who have accepted certain cultural aggressions as normal have begun to see that those same cultural aggressions are not really acceptable, they’re hurtful, and need to be left behind. This is how progress occurs. One step at a time. One person at a time.
I knew a woman in a different online discussion environment — please note the past tense — who had (probably still has) an impeccable moral rudder about some of the most touchy political issues of the day. She was learned, lucid, and passionate. Too passionate — when someone showed up in one of her domains who might have been educable, she’d scream and leap. She ripped heads off. She flamed. She roared. She invented curses so marvelous that I’m still jealous.
But what she did by that behavior was taint the discussion. More than once, there were people who were polite and rational (even if I disagreed with what they were saying) and who, I felt, would have benefited from being exposed to rational rebuttals with facts and research and links. (The same way we had done it on Compuserve.) But with the harangutan onboard, that wasn’t possible. She’d go nuclear and chase away anyone who wasn’t living up to her definition of “sufficiently evolved” before the grownups could even warm up their keyboards — and in so doing, she tainted everyone else in that forum with the perception that they too were trolls and hate-mongers. Eventually, there were people coming to that forum just to poke the bear and see how crazy they could make her. Her behavior — as moral as she believed she was — was not only self-destructive, it destroyed the venues in which she was participating. (Ultimately, she was banned from half a dozen forums, but by then it was too late. While she wasn’t the sole author of discord, she was notorious across that entire system for her behavior.) The point is, instead of forwarding her issues, she tainted them.
I know that there are overt aggressions, covert aggressions, and micro-aggressions in our culture. I’m not aware of the ones I’m not aware of — not until someone who feels hurt speaks up. When a transgender person says, “I don’t like the word ‘tranny,'” I make a mental note to drop that word from my vocabulary. It doesn’t matter how I experience the word — what matters is that trans-people are sensitive to it as a micro-aggression, and when I make a serious effort to look at it from their side, I can begin to get some sense of why it would feel that way. Along the way, I also begin to get some sense of how cis-gendered people have still failed to understand what it is like to feel you were born with a body at odds with your gender-identity. (There’s a whole genre of gender fiction that still has not been written.)
Likewise, there are other micro-aggressions in our culture. Blacks, Jews, gays, lesbians, Muslims, the disabled, the overweight, autistic people, you name it — we’re all targets of each other’s ignorance. Most of us, myself included, are downright sloppy in the way we treat others.
(For those who still have not understood why I can say this in one post and then ridicule a particularly stupid comment by a political leader in another comment … it’s this simple. When you are in a position of power, a position where you are leading people, a position where you have the potential to cause harm — when you say something ridiculous, that remark deserves to be ridiculed. And if you are persistently ridiculous in your political assertions about minorities, you waive your right to demand respect in return. People of good will deserve good will in return. People who profit from pain-mongering? Well, what you sow is what you reap.)
I have no problem with anyone in a public venue expressing their beliefs — no matter how stupid, insane, or embarrassing their assertions might prove to be.
Once upon a time, the idea that two men might marry was considered a stupid and ridiculous assertion. Once upon a time, the idea that women should vote was considered stupid and ridiculous. Once upon a time the idea that the slaves should be freed was so abhorrent that the nation ripped itself apart in a civil war over the question.
But it was the honest and open discussion of issues that created the environment for progress. Yes, there’s heat, but there’s also light. And if sometimes the inertia of the past must be confronted, it can be confronted with compassion as well as courage. When it’s necessary to hit the streets to create change, there will be people to hit the streets — but the real change occurs not through violence and not through violent language, but through reaching out to the hearts of others.
So when I see a lie, I see it as an invitation to tell the truth. When I see a misrepresentation, it’s an invitation to post the facts. A discussion is not an invitation for opinion as much as it is an obligation for rationality and compassion. As I’ve said elsewhere, the best answer to hate speech is more speech — accurate speech, rational speech, compassionate speech, truthful speech, thoughtful speech, careful speech.
I learned a long time ago, just how much power you have when you LOWER your voice.
I don’t have a problem with dangerous ideas, whether they’re outmoded relics of the past or impatient demands from the future. I do have a problem with people who are unwilling to allow the rest of us to hold those assertions up to the light and examine them for secret messages.
My two cents.