Something embarrassing happened to me a few weeks ago.
I realized I was wrong.
Being wrong isn’t always embarrassing, but I was so convinced that I’d been right. How certain you are, is proportional to how embarrassed you’ll be, when you find out you’re wrong.
The Clown and the Asshole
Here’s the situation: I’m a clown. I’m an asshole. I like to say provocative things. I like reactions (or I claim to.)
When I share one of these half-cocked, unpopular opinions, people might think this means I’m attached to them. In actuality, I’m just suspicious of consensus. I’m a master of devil’s advocate arguments. I have a terrible time establishing a firm belief system because I have a personality disorder and I’ve done too many drugs.
That’s why I’m not a politician — I blog dick jokes on the internet and whine about my mommy. Historically, this was not a profession that required sobriety or a degree in political science.
The Accountability Shift
Recently, that’s changed. Our current “liberal” culture doesn’t encourage wondering aloud, even in a comedic sense, about certain topics, lest one “brings harm” to some group of people by inspiring another person’s actions.
In other words, you shouldn’t wonder aloud whether only women can get pregnant, or if you’re completely insane, make a joke about it, because people who irrationally hate trans people will hear that as a dog-whistle that it’s okay to harm them. (It isn’t okay to harm trans folx, in case any idiots are reading along.)
But this reasoning is flawed. I don’t buy the argument which says Bitchy Carlie can be responsible for what Dickhead Alphie did to Jeff, just because Alphie has read, or worse, misinterpreted, the words of Bitchy Carlie.
The Sickest Burn
I told my friend all of the above and more. I whined to her about how the liberal cultural shift is an infringement on my free speech as a writer.
“It isn’t fair and it isn’t liberal!” I told her in a text tantrum. “I have to self-censor lest I end up on the wrong side of a Twitter mob who interprets a bad joke as incontrovertible evidence of hate speech. There’s like, one line of speech that’s acceptable and if you don’t say the one line, you’re shunned. You’re canceled. Goodbye.”
Then my friend gave me the sickest burn ever.
“Censoring yourself to fit in with people is not a liberal or conservative position… It’s a thing people who want friends do?”
Suddenly, my anxiety made sense.
Until recently, the liberals, the good guys, had defended my right to be an asshole and a clown. My kind was a protected class. It was “cool” to have an unpopular opinion, regardless of the consequences. If your opinion was unpopular, it was because you were a free thinker and a de facto rebel.
I worshiped rebels growing up, and I’ve never stopped. And I’d refused to accept it when everyone else did.
Pricks As Heroes
I’ve always liked Christopher Hitchens, and I want to slap the man.
I can’t help but like him because he defended my right to be an asshole more eloquently than I ever could. Below, in summary, he says that free speech is not just the right of the person who speaks, but also the right of everyone to hear what’s said.
It’s not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard. It is the right of everyone in the audience to listen, and to hear, and every time you silence somebody, you make yourself a prisoner of your own action, because you deny yourself the right to hear something.
Indeed, as John Stuart Mill said, if all in society were agreed on the truth and beauty and value of one proposition, all except for one person, it would be most important that that one heretic be heard, because we would still benefit from his, perhaps outrageous, view…
…It’s always worth establishing first principles. It’s always worth saying, what would you do if you met a flat earth society member? Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the feeling that whatever you think, you’re bound to be okay, because you’re in the safely moral majority.
To whom do you award the right to decide which speech is harmful, or who is the harmful speaker? To whom you would give the job to decide for you, relieve you from the responsibility of hearing what you might have to hear?
— That Prick, Christopher Hitchens
I agree with the prick.
However, one of his particular “outrageous” views is that women aren’t funny. He once published an entire article in Vanity Fair devoted to the thesis, bluntly called “Why Women Aren’t Funny.”
As a self-described funny woman, I took much, much offense.
After discovering this viewpoint, I avoided citing Hitchens in my writing, even if he’d made a relevant point better than anyone else. I’d find someone else to cite.
This was me canceling Christopher Hitchens from my world, as was my right to do.
The Embarrassed Clown
My friend’s text made my cheeks turn pink. I realized I was wrong about cancel culture infringing on freedom of speech — I was the freedom infringer. I was the one who wanted to take the right to free association away from others.
I wanted exactly what I accused “them” of wanting — compliance with my values without question. I wanted to make them be my friend even if they didn’t want to.
And, I realized, I wanted the same absolute agreement from my heroes: Christopher Hitchens said shit I didn’t like — shit that didn’t align with the picture I have of myself as a funny, bad bitch. So I cut myself off from all of his ideas as if one bad one could poison the whole batch.
Asshole in Recovery
I don’t think it works that way. I believe the same person can have good ideas and bad ideas, and that when we cut ourselves off from the good, it doesn’t give us any more protection from the bad — just less good. I believe we’re strong enough to tell the difference between a bad idea and a good idea. We don’t need to engage in “idea-abstinence” in order to protect ourselves, and I believe that’s the crux of where cancel-culture goes wrong.
But it isn’t my right to force someone to entertain ideas.
I still believe it’s wrong for Twitter mobs to get people fired over a lapse in judgment with their iPhones. What happened to Emmanuel Cafferty is wrong, and I hope he files suit against his employer. 24/7 surveilling and reporting of each other’s behavior in the name of preventing injustices is unjust.
I still believe liberals need to rethink their policy on open dialogue with heretics. I still know self-censorship can lead to a society I would detest.
The only thing that’s changed is I’m no longer up in arms on the daily about my rights being infringed. That’s not what’s happening. Something else is going on.
Rebels Are Out. Do What You’re Told.
Remember Leave It to Beaver? It was a sitcom that ran in the late 1950s starring a smug little boy (Beaver) and his mother, June, who was basically an indentured servant for the rest of the family.
Leave It to Beaver was a very boring show. Most of the plots revolved around Beaver learning a moral lesson.
June and Ward are keenly aware of their duty to impart traditional, but proven, middle-class family values to their boys. They do so by serving as examples in word and deed, rather than using punitive means.
The show employs contemporary kid-slang extensively… The word “beef” was also used at times (mostly by Wally) over the course of the show’s run, meaning “disagreement” (as in contemporary hip-hop). Ward and June disapprove. Wally uses “sweat” to his mother’s annoyance; she prefers “perspiration” and asks him not to use the slang words “flip” or “ape”. “Goofy” is one of Beaver’s favorite adjectives, and it is applied to anything that lies outside the bounds of 1950s conformism.
Maybe these “progressive” values that preach holding each other accountable and changing our speech are taking us back to a new version of 1950s conformism.
In 1957, you could sit across the dinner table and legally say to June and Ward Cleaver, “I got a lotta beef with that guy!” or if you wanted to be especially profane, “Fuck that guy over there!”
You likely wouldn’t be arrested, and your right to free speech would stay intact. However, June and Ward would probably ask you to leave and then gossip about you to the neighbors. Soon, the whole neighborhood might think twice before associating with you because you’re one of them: A potty-mouthed nonconformist. It might even be harder for you to find a job in the community.
The culture is changing. We’re headed toward a return to the boomer era where we shame people for expressing unpopular sentiments at the dinner table.
The main difference is that the lady of the house might have blue hair and a penis instead of pearls. It won’t matter — this is the same restrictive shit in a different wrapper. She’ll be just as uptight. Don’t offend. Political correctness is just manners, right?
Being a Rebel Has Consequences
Early in this story, I claimed I say provocative things because I like reactions. That must not be true since I was trying to avoid reactions by insisting free speech was my right to you not protesting my speech.
I say provocative things because that’s who I am. I think unpopular opinions are inherently valuable, and I have a hard-on for rebels.
In general, I haven’t suffered many consequences for being this way. I realized that’s because I’m not all that rebellious. Until recently, none of my viewpoints were considered far outside the cultural norm, except by right-wingers and my mother, both of whom are still working off a 1950’s value system that believes women should clean house and hide their farts.
That’s not true anymore. The culture has shifted, and some of my viewpoints fall squarely in the controversial column now. I can either hide them in a weasel-like attempt to keep friends, or I can express my truth and deal with the fallout, like an actual rebel.
That’s a free society, and I choose option B.