One of my favourite television shows of all time is the Twilight Zone—both the original and the 1980’s reboot. Along with a good dose of SFF, the series often tackled philosophical questions in settings divorced from our current reality, which allowed a higher degree of objectivity for the viewer.
Of all the episodes, one that stands out for me to this day is “To See the Invisible Man”, which aired in 1986. The plot is simple. A man living in a society where anti-social behaviour is a criminal offense is sentenced to a year of punishment for being, quite simply, a jerk. His punishment is a year of social shunning, assured by an implant on his forehead and the understanding that anyone who acknowledges him will face the same punishment. The cocky protagonist soon discovers that social isolation is every bit as bad as prison, and being treated as if you are invisible is torture.
With the rise of social media, I’ve often thought back to that episode. The human desire for acknowledgement and affirmation is strong and it lurks behind every post, every tweet, every pin, every Instagram. Blogs, podcasts, videos, every form of online communication is a means of confirming our existence. What you’re reading right now is my tool to reach out and say to the universe, “I am here” in the hopes that someone will whisper back, “Yes, you are here.”
More than that, we have needs to fill. The narrative, expressed through the medium, varies with the need. Tell me I’m beautiful. Tell me I’m funny. Tell me I’m smart. Tell me I’m a good parent. Tell me I’m a good friend. Tell me I’m unique. Tell me I’m strong. Tell me I’m loved.
And there’s nothing wrong with any of that. We’re not all born loving ourselves, comfortable in our own skin. Sometimes a kind word can help us along the path to self-realization and acceptance.
Here’s where it gets complicated, though. You see, we also need our opinions and beliefs validated. Sometimes we fill this need at the expense of others.
I am no exception to this. I’m an opinionated person. I’ve stepped on more toes than I can count over the years, usually in this blog.
Is it right? Should we be able to say anything we want? To anyone? Anywhere? Does freedom of speech trump cooperation, empathy and peaceful co-existence?
This past August, as I stood in the audience at the Writing About Controversy panel at Worldcon, I listened to an audience member express some concerns about this issue. She said she was a new writer and wanted to post her thoughts about the Sad Puppies debate online but was worried that doing so might negatively impact her career as an author. Author John Scalzi replied that she should not be afraid to share her opinion publicly, that anyone should be allowed to say what they want. This seemed to please both the woman asking the question and most of the audience.
It didn’t please me.
In fact, I thought it was one of the worst pieces of advice he could have offered. I’ve read and enjoyed Scalzi’s books and I’ve agreed with many of his blog posts and opinions, but his comment made me think that he is perhaps out of touch with reality for the majority of people.
Standing next to me that day were a collection of good friends whose careers could easily be damaged or lost for publicly sharing an incorrect or unpopular opinion. How many other people out there have had their lives burned down around them for sharing something online? Sometimes what they shared was completely innocent but taken out of context and twisted to feed a hungry mob eager for some modern day shaming. Sometimes what they shared was offensive but hardly deserving of the punishment they received in return.
As a freelance writer, I have a fair amount of liberty to express my thoughts without concern for my job. If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you could easily jump to the conclusion that my internal editor must be on a permanent vacation. The truth is I censor myself often and rigorously. I’m not perfect at this. I slip up, frequently, but I always try to ask myself two critical questions before I share my thoughts publicly.
Question 1: What is my goal?
Question 2: Will sharing this help achieve my goal?
A shocking amount of time, the answer to the second question is a resounding “NO”. That’s when I back off.
I could bombard my friends, family and acquaintances all day long with facts and statistics about the dismal state of the ocean, the damage we’re doing to global fish stocks, coral bleaching, shark finning, etc, etc, etc. Would that achieve my goal? (Goal = bring awareness to the importance of the global ocean ecosystem). No. Bashing people over the head with information, no matter how noble the intention, never works. People feel overwhelmed and powerless as it is. The more you stuff your opinion in their face, the more they turn away and shut down.
I share about 1% of what I would like to share about the ocean I try to focus on easy actions people can take to be part of the solution and, wherever possible, I try to avoid pointing fingers or playing the guilt card.
When it comes to more political or sensitive matters, I employ those two questions but I also toss in a self-prioritizing system. If I’m going to step on toes and risk possibly losing friends or future clients, it better be for something that is 100% worth it. This censoring system is not as simple as the two questions; it involves taking stock and consciously choosing battles. We all care about a host of causes—yes, I can care about foreign refugees AND homeless people in my own country—but unless you’re willing to lose every ally you have, it’s worth deciding WHAT MATTERS MOST.
I learned this trick from a marine biologist I dove with in Florida. She had been in the field for years. She knew all the bad stuff there was to know about fisheries and the ocean. I asked how she copes with it. She told me she realized a long time ago that nothing short of running away to become a hermit in the bush could keep her ethics safe from the reality of daily life. “I chose my top three,” she said. Three rules she would live by and never break. I don’t remember them all but one of them was not to eat shrimp or prawns—easy, effective, non-guilt inducing.
My top three? Women’s rights tops my list. I chose this cause as my number one for obvious reasons but also because, as a woman, I can always speak with absolute authority on the subject. All things ocean come next—another topic I can speak on and always feel comfortable in my knowledge and experience. Animal welfare (specifically cats and dogs) is third. They don’t call me Crazy Cat Lady for nothing.
In our new reality, where the promise of connection is just a click away, the temptation to say anything we want can be overwhelming. There are frequent variations on the theme of free speech, of how it is not up to the individual to edit themselves but for everyone else to accept them for who they are. Kindness, consideration and responsibility are afterthoughts, what matters is ME ME ME!
I think we have become too enamored with the word “freedom” and the cult of the individual.
At the end of that Twilight Zone episode, the prisoner is released at the conclusion of his one year term and he walks out into a world where he is seen, is spoken to, is listened to…where he exists. He is a changed man, filled with empathy and a new appreciation for the importance of social connection. Shortly after he embarks on this better path, however, he encounters a woman in tears and discovers that she is serving the same punishment he just completed. Instead of ignoring her, as the law dictates, he embraces her. He knows another year of silence and shunning awaits. He chooses love over acknowledgement.
I wonder how many of us would make that sacrifice.