Lately I’ve been pondering how difficult it is to have a grown-up debate in this country. By “grown-up,” I mean a discussion where people logically discuss an issue without flying off the handle after being offended that someone actually disagrees with them…
It seels like more and more people are apt to take views personally then are quick to either insult the other party or bring up an anecdotal account of their own suffering that is, in some tangential way, vaguely related to the issue at hand. The person making the original argument is forced, though social pressure, to concede to the “injured” party or risk coming across as a giant asshole.
Since logically debating an issue doesn’t seem to get anyone anywhere, people are instead falling into who-is-the-bigger-victim contests, where the person who can tell the sadder stories wins.
Sadly, the liberals seem especially prone to this type of argument. I say “sadly” because I’m quite liberal myself, yet find myself increasingly frustrated by my team’s penchant for always favoring the underdog, regardless of any factors at play.
Sure, the conservatives have been giving it their best shot with the “War on Christmas” drama, but they remain true amateurs at pulling our heartstrings, what with all the wealthy CEO’s whining about how poor people wouldn’t feel as poor in the Third World.
And now we have the rise of a new term: microaggressions. “Microaggressions” are small, unintentional insults that supposedly degrade a socially-marginalized group of people in the grander scheme of things.
I can appreciate the thinking behind this term. People have variously assumed I was a secretary, nurse or ballet dancer, for example, on the basis of nothing but femaleness, and one time at college, when a group of students was playing an icebreaker game in which you had to tell two truths and a lie, most people were more apt to believe that a black student was Magic Johnson’s first cousin than a pre-med student (he was a pre-med student).
However, I also think it’s quite dangerous to decide that every time anyone is offended by anything, no matter how unintentional, it represents a grand insult not only against that person but their entire group which implicates another entire group. There’s a lot of potential chaos hinging on how a random person perceives someone else’s behavior.
On that note, I saw an article recently in The Atlantic that talked about this culture shift. It’s an interesting read.
In a nutshell, the article talks about how society deals with perceived slights. Centuries ago, people operated under an “honor culture,” where they considered insults an affront to dignity and might have a duel or fistfight to sort it out. The downside to this, of course, is violence. The upside is that people probably didn’t react to minor slights and knew they were inviting violence with major ones.
Then, the article says, our society progressed to a “dignity culture,” where violence is forbidden and you use legal means instead, but only for major slights (like theft, murder, etc). Minor disputes were handled by the affected parties themselves, who would either work it out or avoid each other. Independence and reluctance to involve authorities was valued. This is supposed to be the way we handled things in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Now, according to the authors, we live in a “victimization culture,” where being a victim gives you power. In this environment, people appeal to authorities (and the public) to handle every slight, no matter how unintentional or frivolous, considering it symptomatic of a larger problem. Under these new rules, anyone who has suffered more or comes from a background of greater oppression calls the shots.
So, what do you think? On the one hand, I think it’s important to give marginalized groups a voice. We need to be able to discuss racism, sexism, classism, and what have you, and need to talk about the bad things that happen in order to do so.
But on the other hand, I’m nervous about our society’s diminishing ability to have a logical discussion that focuses on the issue at hand. Because we seem to focusing debates instead on where your ancestors came from and how sad or angry you are.
For example, a couple of months ago, a friend of mine posted on Facebook about how depressed she was about the recent shootings of black minors. I responded to her by saying I was sorry she was feeling that way and that I hoped things would improve, that our kids or grandkids would live in a better world someday.
I got a pile-drive of angry responses to my comment, all saying that it was just “lip service” and that someone who really cared would be putting their lives on the line to change things right now (not from my friend, but others). I was told I had no place in the discussion, which seemed odd since it was public.
I was pretty taken aback, since I only meant to be supportive, and found myself wondering how any unity could be achieved if even supportive comments were shut down. Of course, as a white person, I’ll never understand what it’s like to be a black person facing these issues, but how will we change society if we can’t even talk to each other?
Another example: there was a web article out recently which talked about how French parents raise their kids differently, and how some of their methods led to kids sleeping better through the night, being less disruptive in restaurants, and eating healthier food.
The comments section (as in most) was largely an explosion of defensive anger. People said things like, “I hate French people and French kids grow up to French adults!” Or, “How can anyone ever criticize any children anywhere? You should be ashamed!”
What struck me was the fact that no one seemed capable of discussing child rearing methods and their relative pros and cons. The majority of commenters didn’t logically digest the article. All they took was: Someone said French parents are better so you should insult French people because they are wrong for making you feel bad.
Is this where we are now? Are we at a point where we judge everything by how flattering it is to us personally, and judge people not by their ideas, but by what group they represent?
I don’t know… I think it’s important to care about feelings, to an extent, but I’m a pragmatist at heart, who sees no point in airing grievances without some practical ideas about how to fix them.