Culture and Society

What Happens When We Say What We Believe — and People Get Mad?

The problem with taking a stand, and what to do about it.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

It’s hard nowadays to express our opinions without getting verbally or even physically attacked in this country. We are more divided than ever over everything from personal freedoms to which way the wind is blowing. Perhaps it’s human nature to be in conflict with one another, but democracy was founded on the principles of discourse and debate between equals.

The ancient Greeks developed formal debate as a means to ensure that all sides of an argument would have a chance to present evidence supporting their position and to potentially sway others to their way of thinking.

Political debate in the US bears no resemblance to its ancient counterpart. Even with so-called “moderators” (whose job it is to maintain order and ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak), our political debates tend to devolve into shouting matches with the winner determined by who yells the loudest. Even the rules of common courtesy have been tossed aside as candidates try to drown out their opponents’ responses.

Photo by Vivek Doshi on Unsplash

It’s no surprise that these behaviors have trickled down to regular disagreements as well. People used to be able to hold differences of opinion and talk reasonably about it without hatred (unless it concerned sports, of course). Too often now we spike into rages that seem appropriate at the time, but that turn out to be blown way out of proportion upon reexamination. Unfortunately, by then the damage is done; reputations are ruined, careers destroyed, relationships shredded.

It is into this churning maelstrom that those with convictions must descend. Writers, particularly, are subject to being trolled, threatened, cursed at, assaulted, and victimized because we dare to stick our heads up and point out when things are wrong, unjust, uncivilized, or inhumane. Pointing out cruelty and abuse is particularly fraught with peril as people who are cruel and abusive have no reservations about turning that abuse on us.

I recently posted an article about the relatively unknown practice of “proplifting” on Medium and put links on various social media feeds.

Though the article specifically mentions Reddit, it was a private Facebook group called The Greenhouse (of which I was a member) that reacted the most strongly. This is because that group is avidly pro proplifting. I was booted from the group in less than 10 minutes, but group members went to my main feed to continue their harassment — which included everything from calling the article “poorly written crap”, to outright flaming such as “Die mad, boomer!” These attacks are nothing compared to what others have suffered.

In 1988, Indian writer Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding when his book The Satanic Verses was declared blasphemous by then Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued a fatwa (religious ruling) calling for the writer’s death.

More recently, American novelist Dan Brown has been widely criticized as being anti-Catholic, anti-Christian in his thrillers; sci-fi and fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin has talked about the rape- and death threats she’s received as a woman of color who tries to speak her mind.

It is not just writers who face danger. Anyone who dares speak out against social injustice or human rights violations becomes a target. In 2012, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head after speaking out for the rights of girls to attend school — Yousafzai was 15-years-old at the time. She survived the shooting. Many others have paid with their lives.

Over 200 environmentalists and dozens of animal rights activists have been murdered in just the last 15 years. Climate activist Greta Thunberg, just 16 years old, has been targeted by an international pool of hate speech sympathizers.

So, what do we do? Do we keep our heads down and stay silent, believing that we’re safe if we just go with the flow? It seems this is the path that a lot of us have taken; we’ve traded our freedom and our cherished rights for the illusion of security. We let bullies and corrupt fear mongers batter us daily with rantings of “terror” and “invaders” and “criminals”, failing to realize that the proselytizing is more dangerous than the alleged threats.

Even in one of the most dangerous cities in the US, your odds of surviving are 98 percent in your favor.

Of course, crime happens. But even in Detroit, Michigan — a city notorious for its murder rate — your odds of being killed are just two percent. Hear me here: two percent is an extremely high risk of murder for a city in the US. That means, however, that even in one of the most dangerous cities in the US, your odds of surviving are 98 percent in your favor. Those are pretty damn good odds.

Fear is BIG business.

Fear has been weaponized in this country. It is used to control us in more ways than we realize. Insurance companies use it to get us to buy policies to “protect our families”. Drug companies convince us that the rarest of diseases are lurking around every corner and that they have just the pill for that. Toiletry manufacturers have convinced us that dandruff, toe fungus, and body odor are critical care issues that must be battled with a daily dose of “hygienic” products (implying that if we don’t use them we are filthy and disgusting).

We’ve lost the ability to tell the truth from the propaganda.

So-called “beauty” products are some of the worst offenders. Grey hair, wrinkles, sun spots, sagging skin, body hair — even whether your eyelids are visible or hidden — are used against our fragile egos to convince us to buy more and more products to prevent these terrible crimes from happening to our bodies.

Helmets, knee and elbow and shoulder pads, seat belts, airbags; these things may or may not help protect us from injury, but we are convinced that doing without any of them means certain disaster.

Our fear level is ramped up so high that even the most reasonable among us become enraged at the mere mention of the thought that maybe it might be a good idea to consider some kind of gun restriction. Not elimination, just restriction. The rage is based on the fear that restriction will inevitably lead to elimination (a fear fed to us by those who profit handsomely from gun sales).

We’ve lost the ability to tell the truth from the propaganda. We believe the fake and disregard the real because we’re afraid to stop and think about what’s really going on. We’ve been shaken from our happy place by tragedy in the last couple dozen years. We no longer trust our own beliefs.

We had assumed we were invincible despite our controversial place in global affairs. We thought that no one would have the audacity to rise against the might of the US military, nor the economic force of American politics.

We were wrong.

Our arrogance cost us dearly, not just in lives lost or the trillions of dollars spent in the aftermath for reconstruction, healthcare, and waging war; it also cost us our peace of mind (or our ignorant bliss, if you prefer). And we’ve never regained it.

It’s all about fear.

Photo by Daniel Monteiro on Unsplash

We live now in constant fear — of the strangers we used to welcome to our shores, of taking a chance on the unknown and making a (possibly tragic) mistake, of risking anything we already have to try for something that may (or may not) be better. The saying goes, “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t”, and Americans seem to have decided this is going to be our new national motto.

If we want to stop living in fear we must regain our objectivity.

Much has been written about our nation’s descent into fascism recently, and that’s not the purpose of this article. If we want to stop living in fear, we need to somehow become willing to take risks again. This can only happen if we start doing so as individuals.

It’s shocking how many people, who would be willing to defend a helpless animal being abused, will turn away from someone being bullied for how they look.

Here are five ways we all can combat fear-mongering in our society.

1. Don’t believe everything we hear.

Instead of just turning our heads and accepting whatever comes rolling down the pike, we need to at least look at what’s happening around us and consider it through the lens of our own values.

What is the source of the statement being made? Does it have authority? Is it verifiable?

Is what’s being said really reasonable?

Does it make any sense based on our subjective experience?

This process is known as critical thinking. It used to be taught in our universities and colleges, but nowadays those institutions are concerning themselves with their notoriety and how they might be viewed by the parents of prospective students. It has become more important to look good in the minds of certain viewers than to actually challenge cherished assumptions about the way things are or should be.

2. Stop making everything about the money.

Because of our nation’s fixation with financial success, we’re afraid (there’s that word again) of becoming unpopular. What used to be mostly a concern of pubescent children has now come to permeate the national consciousness. We won’t stick our necks out for even our dearest held convictions in case those positions somehow turn on us and take a bite.

This mindset leaves us defenseless against tyrants, bigots, and would-be autocrats. We need more people to speak out against what they believe is wrong, not fewer. Currently, the charge against dictatorship is being led by our school children, young people who haven’t yet been cowed by fear. Let’s follow their example. Let’s remember how it feels to believe in ourselves again.

3. Be kind first.

Give people the benefit of the doubt. Yes, we’ll occasionally get taken advantage of, but not as frequently as we think. We’re all so afraid of potentially losing something we have that we refuse to try for something better. Like joy from helping others. Like peace of mind from the release of fear. Like happiness from dropping the burden of buying so much junk.

4. Speak up when we see cruelty.

Why is a person worth less than a dog?

It’s shocking how many people, who would be willing to defend a helpless animal being abused, will turn away from someone being bullied for how they look. Why is a person who is dark-colored worth less than someone light-colored? Why is a fat person deserving of humiliation and derision? Why do the young get away with incivility to the old? Why is a person worth less than a dog?

How many of us, after reading that, thought, “Animals are better than people”? Animals may, indeed, be the best of us. But that shouldn’t make defending them more worthwhile than defending a victimized human.

5. Take a chance: Be Brave.

Speak up — rationally — for what we believe in. No Twitter wars, or assaulting people, or violent acts of protest. Violence alienates people who might otherwise support us. It’s not brave to attack people weaker than us.

Bravery means sticking our heads up as individuals, not hiding out in a crowd. It means being willing to take a risk on a personal level.

We mustn’t let fear rule us, as individuals or as a nation. Fear leads to anger and anger leads to hate. And hate will be the death of us all.

Writer, copy/line editor. Writing in science, society, environment, injustice, and mental health. Also personal essays. And some random weirdness.

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