The things we can’t say in polite company

There are some things that are just totally inappropriate to say out loud.

I’m not just referring to seven (or so) dirty words deemed too harsh for my sensitive ears. I’m talking about the things that are inappropriate to say out loud because they’re deemed inappropriate to even think.

And in some ways this is good.

I am glad to live in a society that shuns every lunatic who decides its a great idea to yell racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted remarks. Yes, I support their first amendment right to spew hate speech, but I also support my right to ignore them or ridicule them as I see fit. If I were a person of some power, I could even fire someone for such an offense.

And frankly, that all seems fine. Having a right doesn’t mean living consequence free.

But is there no space where we can whisper these secret thoughts?

Perhaps hate speech is too stark an example. I certainly know many people who would argue that it’s just fine – and perhaps ideal – for people to feel like they shouldn’t even think such things.

But let’s think more generally for a moment.

Being a communist is socially unacceptable. Should people who support communism just shut up and go away? Should we shun people who raise such thoughts and shut them out of public life entirely? What about atheists? What people who hold any number of other unpopular beliefs?

This is a dangerous path to go down. And it’s one we have gone down before.

I am particularly interested in semi-public, or perhaps semi-private, spaces.

If you proclaim something unpopular on national TV, of course the public’s going to react. Some people even make a living off it.

But that doesn’t mean there can’t be smaller spaces, more intimate spaces, where people from diverse backgrounds come together and talk openly and honestly about what they think and why they think it.

Where people take risks – say the things they’re not supposed to say. And others listen. And push back.

And I’m particularly interested in people who think unpopular thoughts – and who struggle with whether they should think that or not.¬† If there’s no venue for for them to grapple with these ideas, there’s no venue for them them to really understand others’ ways of thinking.

They need to be able to share these views. Explain these views. Argue about these views.

In this world where private life is public life and conversations are shouting matches, its too easy to shut people down entirely. It’s too easy for a thought to seem forbidden, unspeakable, unthinkable in any forum resembling polite company.

Nobody cares what you think any way, better to keep that thought to yourself.

That’s a dangerous, complicated road, and one we should be very weary of going down.


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