2014: A Year of Outrage

"Freedom go to hell"
By Voyou Desoeuvre (Flickr: "Freedom go to hell")
It it getting increasingly difficult to find actual news on the Internet amidst all the outrage media and clickbait. Some of the websites I used to visit regularly (e.g., Salon.com) seem to have largely abandoned even the pretense of journalism, fully embracing the over-the-top sensationalism of outrage media. Or maybe they were always like this, and I've merely grown tired of it.

Nearly every story now seems like little more than a thinly veiled attempt to manipulate the emotions of the reader. Informing the reader has taken a backseat to inflaming the reader's passions. And since I'm not interested in paying the price of outrage, my response has been to tune out many of these sites and seek information elsewhere.

Will 2014 be remembered as the year of outrage, as some have suggested? Social media has certainly embraced outrage and hashtag activism. This was happening before 2014, but it seems to have become the primary function of social media in 2014. Still, I'm not sure this fully captures what was different about 2014. It is tough to put my finger on it, but it does seem like 2014 was the year that a particular phenomenon that has been building for some time finally reached critical mass. And what phenomenon is that?

What I have in mind here is the primacy of subjective experience in the sense that how one feels about something has become at least as important - if not more so - than any sort of objective reality. One's "lived experience" has become all important, and one's feelings about any subject have come to determine its meaning, importance, and even reality. And the primary implication of this is that it is okay to suppress ideas deemed objectionable or offensive, without regard to their merit, if doing so will preserve positive feelings. I know this is not new, but it seems to have reached new heights on the Internet this year. In 2014, outrage culture has become impossible to miss.

We now see widespread irrationality from many of those who promote themselves as champions of freethought, skepticism, and social justice. The particular form it takes should be cause for concern for anyone who is seriously committed to freethought because it amounts to the use of social pressure to stifle dissenting viewpoints. Certain ideas (e.g., particular feminist ideologies, the conflation of atheism with humanism) are given privileged status as being off limits to criticism or debate. Those who ask too many questions or criticize flawed aspects of these ideas are branded with negative labels in much the same way some religious believers respond to blasphemy. Not only are they branded, but social sanctions are brought to bear against them (e.g., public shaming, doxing, attempts to get them fired). This behavior is not indicative of freethought, and it should not be something in which freethinkers participate.

The expression of bad ideas - regardless of the form they take - should not be suppressed by freethinkers. And yes, I'd include truly awful ideas like creationism, racism, and Holocaust denial here. Suppressing the expression of these ideas does not eradicate them; it forces them underground where they continue to influence behavior without us being able to detect it. Does anyone really believe that scolding a true misogynist into silence will change his beliefs? He simply learns not to express his opinions in front of certain people.

But this isn't even the most serious problem with which we must contend. As difficult as this is for some of us to admit, we are not infallible. We can be wrong about some of our most cherished ideas. There could even be a few good aspects of some of the ideas we consider to be bad ideas (e.g., political ideologies with which we largely disagree). And some of the people who hold truly bad ideas in one area might still make worthwhile contributions in other areas. By silencing the expression of the ideas we consider to be bad ideas and the people who hold them, we lose the opportunity to improve our own ideas. We give up considering the merits of various ideas and end up in dissent-free bubbles where we fall victim to all sorts of biases that lead to irrationality. We must allow ourselves to be offended by bad ideas if we hope to engage in anything like freethought.

I suspect that I will remember 2014, at least in part, as the year that efforts by the left to suppress free expression and silence dissenting opinions became intolerable. I find myself agreeing with those who have suggested that free expression is a human rights issue and that efforts to use not just state power but social pressure to suppress the expression of ideas they find objectionable are committing crimes against humanity. That is, I find myself abandoning some of the positions I have previously held on issues like "hate speech" and the use of social disapproval to minimize it. I have come to recognize that I have erred on the side of promoting positive feelings at the expense of freedom of thought and speech. This was a mistake on my part, one I need to explore in 2015.

I'll close with a relevant example of why I believe this topic is so important, as I recognize that some of what I have written above will strike some readers as overly vague. Most of us living in the U.S. recognize that racism is a problem. At the same time, we find ourselves in a situation where it seems impossible to have reasonable discussions about it because of the intense emotional reactions and widespread irrationality tied to the subject. Consider what you have seen on social media about Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York. How much of what you have seen is helping? And if much of it isn't helping, then how do we make real progress here?

Don't we need open, honest, and rational discussion? Don't we need to be able to talk to one another without fear of reappraisal? Isn't that at least a necessary starting point? The application social pressure (e.g., public shaming) to suppress opinions with which we disagree because we find them offensive is not only not getting us anywhere; I fear that it virtually guarantees that we won't get anywhere. We cannot continue to let outrage - even understandable outrage - replace meaningful communication and the quest for viable solutions to the problems we face. The future of our society depends on it.