It often takes me some time to settle on a topic for my Monday Musings post. Some weeks one issue or another is such an obvious choice that composing the post is easy. Other weeks I can struggle with the choice for a couple of days. To be honest, there is a part of me that wants to use this week’s essay to rant and rail against the ridiculousness of Daylight Savings, but that’s the lost hour of sleep speaking…
The truth is, I am troubled by a new calculus that has crept into my writing process: I find myself trying to anticipate the potential blowback I might receive from various subjects. I am, at times, writing scared. And that bothers me.
Now, no one who knows me, or who reads this blog, is likely to mistake me for a shrinking violet. I voice my opinions with passion. Usually. Certainly, I pulled no punches during and after the recent election. I believed our former President represented a fundamental threat to the integrity of our democratic republic, and I wrote accordingly. I make no apology for that.
I have touched on other issues over the past year — race, climate change, Covid denial — and I intend to keep advocating for the things I believe in.
The fact is, though, there are also issues I avoid, not because my opinions are so extreme — they’re really not — but because they are nevertheless likely to provoke extremists. I am reluctant to put myself in the crosshairs — figuratively and literally — of those on the Right by jumping up and down with too much vehemence on the questions that get them most exercised. I am reluctant to incur the wrath of my friends on the Left, with whom I agree often on issues, but less frequently on tactics. I am all too aware of the simple truth that with some subject matter, regardless of our intentions, we are likely to push someone somewhere too far.
We are living in an era of emotional inflammation. We are, all of us, a bit more irritable, a bit more sensitive, a bit more liable to fly off the handle at slight provocation. I know too many people who have stepped in the proverbial hornet’s nest without intending to, without even knowing the danger existed on whatever the inciting topic might have been. I have seen them swarmed by hyper-conservatives who berate and insult and cast wild, ugly, false accusations that are hurtful and damaging despite their lack of actual substance. I have seen others summarily judged and blacklisted by too many progressives who only a day before counted the people in question as allies.
I have seen people threatened by actors on both sides, and while many of those threats are made in the heat of the moment and probably do not promise real physical danger, who knows? And who wants to take that chance?
I’m not willing to assume the burdens that come with Being Controversial. I have a life to live, a career to maintain, a family to keep safe. Why would I want to put any of that at risk?
The problem with that thinking, though, is that it allows the bullies to win. It gives too much power to those at the fringes — the loudest, the most virulent, the least deserving of such influence.
And so I’m torn. A society like ours thrives on information, on diverse opinions, on healthy, productive debate. Many of the ills we see in today’s America exist because these things have grown scarce. We can’t agree on simple facts. We refuse to tolerate opinions that differ from our own. We’re shouting at volumes that preclude an honest exchange of viewpoints. I want to write what’s on my mind. I make my living writing fiction, but I engage with the world through my beliefs and my ability to articulate them. I enjoy a good political argument. I like it when something I write in this space fosters discussion among those I consider friends and colleagues.
Being afraid of that dynamic is relatively new for me, and entirely unwelcome.
I have no answers today. As I grope in the dark for some sort of meaningful conclusion to this piece, I wonder if I’m a fool to post it, if I’m inviting just the sort of backlash I seek to avoid.
John Milton called opinions “knowledge in the making.” We are richest as a people, as a body politic, as a society, when reasoned discussion and informed beliefs are not just tolerated but encouraged, when those who are fortunate enough to have a platform, of whatever reach and scope, are unafraid to avail themselves of it. I want to live up to that ideal.
Sadly, the state of our nation makes doing so all but impossible. We need to do better.
Which is why I will post this, consequences be damned.