Every time I see a controversial Thought Catalog article get published, I can predict the reaction from a few people: “where can I report this?”
People believe that if something makes them feel offended they as a singular human on the planet should have the power and authority to “report it” until it gets taken down. Facebook actually operates on this model. They don’t have set in stone rules about what will get taken down, they just rely whatever the masses judge should not be there. Twitter has set rules, but people don’t follow them — earnest accounts get taken down not because they are in violation of Twitter’s policies, but because people deeply hate it when someone expresses an opinion that hurts their feelings.
What I’m noticing right now, as someone who reads reader comments, messages, and emails more often than most, is that in people’s minds the very worst thing you can do is offend them.
In my mind, the very worst thing you can do is shut down critical thinking.
These two things are mutually exclusive.
If you can’t say something that offends someone, you can’t say much of anything because there is no limit to what offends people and by definition, it doesn’t have to be rational. From the very beginning you are identifying your destination and sticking to a course others have already paved. There is no progress, there is only repetition.
I don’t believe anyone has a duty not to offend people — and I think people who disagree don’t value critical thinking. I believe we have a duty to talk about what we see in the world and where we are at, epistemically, and to be open to being wrong. If you bristle up at something and want to avoid thinking about it, it’s really important to explore it anyways — not to run away from it.
This works for people who are trying to do good, but what about actual racists? Misogynists? Homophobes? What about people who’s intentions are bad? Should we push them underground so they don’t offend people?
Imagine we say “some opinions are completely unacceptable and we will not talk about them publicly becuase it will hurt people’s feelings.”
Does this statement and set of actions magically change the bad person’s thought so they won’t think the offensive thing anymore? No. But it will take them out of the public sphere where they would meet people who disagree with them and, hopefully, over a period of time add enough contrary evidence to their brain that they might actually change their mind. But, because their opinion is not “acceptable” to be shared in public, this person will likely only reveal their thoughts in private conversations or on forums to people they guess will agree with them. Because they are now speaking only to an audience that agrees with them, their thoughts will remain unchallenged.
See what happened? In trying to do right by our beliefs, we’ve actually made the problem worse. By denying people a voice, we make them more dangerous. We harm the cause we claim to care about.
In the words of Douglas Rushkoff, “It is easy to criticize a sensationalist talk show for, say, giving a neo-Nazi a platform to voice hateful rhetoric. But by exposing these sorts of people rather than censoring them, these shows reveal the underlying inconsistencies in their doctrines. Instead of appearing frightening, these people’s platitudes appear as inane as they really are.”
Yes, it’s easy to say “Thought Catalog shouldn’t publish this” or “this shouldn’t exist” or “don’t give a platform to people I judge to be wrong.” But what happens if we don’t? Do the thoughts themselves stop existing, or do they get worse and go unchecked?
The question you need to ask in these kinds of scenarios is, “Is it my goal to create the illusion of change or actual change?” Searching for that report button is only good for one of these things.