When I was in elementary school, I remember telling a classmate that I didn't understand being afraid of dying -- how can you be afraid of a nothingness of which you won't even be aware? I had no idea that the kid I was addressing was The Religious Kid. A teacher overheard, and pulled me roughly aside. "Don't say that!" she whisper-screamed in my ear. "He'll get upset!"
Only, he didn't.
Later that day he approached me. "I don't think that's what happens," he said, more puzzled than confrontational. He wanted to talk it out, just as I had when originally broaching the subject. I asked him why he thought that, and he paused to seriously consider the question. "My parents told me." He wandered away, frowning introspectively.
That incident had a profound effect on me, and it's become one of the primary recurring melodies in my life. It gave me a deep mistrust of hand-wringing political correctness, and powerful resentment for the fear it creates within us. Even at so young an age, I remember being revolted by the fear in that young teacher's voice.
In university, I made a point of poking at the most sensitive issues I could find. I defended anti-abortion demonstrators and spat on the Dalai Lama. I tore down organic food and argued against voting. I was a sacred cow-tipper. Each and every time I published a piece like that, some well-meaning surrogate for my old elementary school teacher would appear, in person or online. One article earned me a drunken hug in the campus pub: "I love it, man. You totally don't deserve all the hate that's coming."
Only, it wasn't.
Last week I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post questioning the actions of rape prevention activists. I was careful not to seem too aggressive, but I certainly didn't hold anything back. I said what I believed, honestly, and trusted as I always have in my peers to be capable of engaging with contrary ideas. As has always been the case, I was rewarded almost entirely with thoughtful, reasoned dialogue.
Following that article, I received this Facebook message, second-hand: "Tell your friend... I very much agree with him. I and feel bad for all the shit he is about to take." Thanks for the sympathy, anonymous friend, but no thanks. Many in the article's comments section echoed this sentiment, despite the fact that those very comments were about evenly split between supporters and detractors -- and not one of the detractors was overly hateful or dismissive. The worst came via email -- an almost playful admonishment: "Nice try, tool of the Patriarchy!" I have yet to melt under the heat of such scalding abuse.
My point is best encapsulated further into the second-hand Facebook message. "I won't post a comment because topics such as this one are dominated by people who react to one inkling of what is said rather than taking a moment to think about the arguments proposed."
Let me tell you, friend, and all of you, readers: No they don't. The largest group of people who subtract from the discourse are those who avoid contributing out of fear of a threat that doesn't exist.
If we exclude YouTube comments from our definition of conversation, people are generally willing to hear you out and engage with your ideas, even if they find those ideas fundamentally threatening. They enjoy flexing that greatest of muscles, and display an almost giddy pleasure when it dawns on them that they, too, are free to speak their minds in safety. People seem to grow an inch when they realize that they could even say something wrong without being socially crucified. Their very body language changes as they slowly accept that they need not be constrained by fear.
I've now three times detailed my views on anti-rape activism, and in all three cases men have approached me in person, furtively glancing in all directions. "I've always felt that way," they say. "But... of course I couldn't ever say so."
Only, they can.
Feminists might seem scary, but they're really just sociology majors -- they got into their field precisely because they're fascinated by discussion of these issues. If they seem to jump all over contrary views, it's mostly because they're thrilled to finally have an opportunity to unload the material they spent so long learning.
There is certainly the "zero tolerance" crowd, the small but shrill gaggle of slack-jawed cowards whose view is genuinely that dissenting ideas must be punished so as to scare others out of expressing them later on. These people are not interested in changing what you think, only in controlling what you say -- but they almost always end up either as PhDs or columnists at Jezebel, so you can safely ignore them.
I kid. (Mostly.)
It's not radicalization that's hurting the discourse in our society, but the perception of it. I've spent years jabbing needles into just about every negative ideological chakra point I can find, and I can count on one hand the truly, powerfully negative experiences I've had as a result. The overwhelmingly positive ones, the mind-expanding or friendship-forming moments, I couldn't even begin to enumerate.
In aggressively refusing to be silenced, I've had my views changed and my overall correctness increased -- and I do believe I've returned that favour to a few readers and friends, as well. At the very least, those who have engaged in such discussions have a more basic understanding of the humanity of people who think differently than they, perhaps see the non-hateful thought processes that can lead to arguably hateful conclusions.
I am today just as suspicious of that old teacher's instinct as I was in my childhood. Was she worried about my well-being and that of Religious Kid, or was she covering her own ass? When the lefty mobsters on my old university campus tried to intimidate horribly outnumbered pro-life activists into silence, were they protecting women, or the perception of their own unchallenged dominance? When the Parliament of Canada condemns an article in Maclean's, are they protecting Asians and corrupt Montreal bureaucrats, or are they performing for their supporters and campaign contributors?
Absolutely nobody benefits from the hateful, idiotic idea that repressing our genuine thoughts and feelings can ever be helpful to anyone -- so say what you feel. If you take a moment to articulate yourself clearly and without aggression, I absolutely guarantee that you'll be rewarded. You'll know your peers better than you used to, know the world better than you'd hoped to, and walk the streets with just a bit less fear under the gaze of your fellow man.