A friend of mine passed me an article about millennials and George Orwell, which claimed that young people on the internet are bullying others mercilessly who are out of step with the dogmas of the left. This is hardly a new claim about millennials, as many since the 80s have said that “political correctness” is oppressive and invoked 1984. While I agree that militant dogmatism is found on both sides of the aisle, I think what irked me most about the article was the comparison to Orwell and claims of censorship regarding heated exchanges online between free individuals. At a time when many are confusing arguments and boycotts with fascism, I feel that a distinction needs to be made between opposition and oppression, between argument and censorship.
If someone argues with you, and continues to argue with you, they are not censoring you. They are speaking with you. They are opposed to your beliefs, but not necessarily opposed to you speaking. They may not be good at listening, and they may give you little chance to speak, but they are engaging you in a conversation, even if it is a terrible one. Often, they are hoping to hear the reasons you won’t change your mind, to change your mind, and then hear you say that your mind has been changed. When I receive critical comments, I am irritated, but I have not been censored. Nietzsche said that one should appreciate one’s enemies, as they help one to grow stronger, which I find to be an inspirational strategy for getting the most out of one’s beliefs.
As the news was unfolding about protests in Ferguson, Missouri yesterday, I was reading my Ethics students’ papers about social issues, including racism. One of my students shared a personal story that was powerful, and I asked her if I could share it with future classes. I am going to share it with you all as well.
As a student in college years ago, she took a job at the college gym. Her supervisor told her that if anyone came into the gym who looked like they did not belong there, she should walk over and offer them a tour, as this often discouraged trouble makers. As a black woman, this troubled her, as she had many experiences feeling unwelcome and suspect, and she asked her supervisor what qualified people as “not-belonging”. Her supervisor told her that she would just know. Feeling uncomfortable with this task, she opted out of the job.
Weeks later, she returned to the gym to exercise, and a student-worker stopped her and asked her if she wanted a tour. When she became angry, and demanded to know why she was being stopped, the worker called the campus police, and she was barred from the gym.
Her protest was seen as proof that she did not belong.
Many people believe that there are exclusive and separate human races and that some races are naturally smart and kind while others are unintelligent and mean. This is all mistaken, modern day mythology. There is more genetic variation between individuals than between ethnic groups. There is no genetic evidence that some ethnic groups are smarter or kinder, and individuals can increase their intelligence and compassion throughout their lives regardless of their genes.
The interactions we have with others create categories and frames in our heads that mislead us into thinking that certain types of people are smart or unkind and mislead us into treating them as separate types of people. Neuroscientists have shown that within milliseconds we identify others by ethnicity, gender and age, before we have a chance to think or speak. This can negatively frame our thinking, communication, and interactions. We naturally show frustration and negative emotions when we consider someone a threat, and this reinforces these reactions in ourselves and in others, including children, whether or not we’re aware of it. Psychologists have shown that we are all somewhat racist, the privileged and disadvantaged, some of us more so, and some less so. We are all imprinted with negative attitudes towards ethnicities who share our common culture, even if we actively ignore it in ourselves or live where racism is far more covert than overt, more thought to oneself than spoken out loud.
As Europe rose in wealth and power over the last five hundred years, Europeans dominated Africa and the Americas and labeled Africans, Latinos, and Native Americans as savage and inferior. We’re still dealing with this today. In our diverse society, it is mentally and physically healthier to talk about our problems rather than ignore them and to discourage the idea that we are on opposing teams. When we focus on not making mistakes, this has a negative impact on our thinking and the perceptions of others, but when we focus on having a positive and open interaction, this is good for thinking and communication. Positivity helps us see each other as individuals and not as categories. Understanding that our thinking and personalities are not fixed, but can be enriched and developed, helps us to identify with each other and thrive.
Confucius said that if you put yourself with any two people at random, you can take their strengths as a model to follow and their faults as a warning. This is wise advice, as we all share similar strengths and faults. Intelligence and compassion are human virtues. Ignorance and brutality are human problems. We can see these are valued and useful yet difficult to develop in all human cultures, ancient and modern. Just as genetics shows we are actually one race with a variety of interrelated ethnicities, we share one culture with many cross-pollinating branches of subculture. We can draw on excellent and terrible examples from all of humanity to become better people. While this may seem obvious, it is easily forgotten.