Yesterday I started talking about the tension I notice whenever “hot topic” issues like transgenderism, abortion, or racial differences come up. I have seen in these instances how I go through mental gymnastics, trying to sanitize everything I say, terrified that I will utter something that other side will demonize me for. I live in fear of coworkers, friends, and even family members, often deferring my opinions because it seems there is so much to lose by expressing my convictions. And while I know that not everyone is the same as me, I’m sure that if I’ve had these feelings, there are probably plenty of others who have as well.
And this is a real problem, because it is imperative that we be able to have these conversations as a society. In fact, even more important than talking about than the important issues of our day is having the ability to talk about them. Being able to have the conversation is obviously the prerequisite to then having it. So let’s talk about what it is that makes this discourse so difficult.
What Are You Scared Of?)
After giving it some thought, I realized that when I think about people debating these important issues, I typically don’t picture two friends talking on a bench in a park. That’s not where these arguments typically occur today, they occur online, where faceless avatars scream at their opposition, assume the absolute worst in each another, and wish literal death upon anybody who dares to have a different opinion. I believe that the online forums have trained us to hold great anxiety when discussing these issues in person, because our experience has been that these subjects bring up the most hostile and abusive vitriol. If you were talking to another person face-to-face and they exhibited the same animalistic rage that you see online, then you might genuinely start to fear for your life!
But it probably isn’t accurate to assume that the friends and family and coworkers that we speak with in person would show the same unbridled rage that we see online. At least I certainly hope not! In person, I believe the majority of people are civil and restrained, even when expressing their deeply-held beliefs. But if we can’t express those deeply-held beliefs in person because we are afraid, then we suppress ourselves, become frustrated, and perhaps take that out on some internet forum, ironically perpetuating the same image of anger that keeps everyone silent in real life. We are caught in a vicious cycle, and the only solution that I see is to start challenging the way that we assume the worst in real-life people.
And if I am wrong, and actually our society is so far gone that calmly and respectfully speaking my mind in public is going to get me injured by one of the people I thought I was close to, then frankly it’s about time we had a few martyrs to bring attention to how bad things have become!
Losing a Friend)
Of course, there is a wide range of possibilities between a conversation being a positive experience and it being mortally dangerous! There are all manner of other negative outcomes that might more realistically come to pass, possibilities that still frighten us into silence. The most obvious of these is the loss of a friendship we valued. It is possible that challenging another’s deeply-held beliefs, even when done with kindness and respect, might cause them to determine that they can no longer associate with you.
That is a genuine fear, and one not to be treated lightly. The people that I am close to are very important to me, as well they should be, and I will truly mourn if I lose any of them because they could not abide my convictions. But it is selfish for me to prioritize my own comfort and happiness over doing my part to help the world sort out truth from error.
Also, even if it ends up being misplaced, I believe that I should have more faith in my friends. I know that I have different beliefs than they do, but I still enjoy their company, value their insights, and want to be their friend. I don’t know if they can reciprocate that, but I should give them the chance to do so. And frankly, I’m not being a very good friend if I am maintaining our relationship on false pretenses. There will always be an element of deceit if I know I am concealing part of myself from them, and that will prevent the friendship from ever reaching its full potential.