I’ve been trained as a librarian, and one of the most important tenets of professional librarians is freedom of information. One of the things that drove me out of my job as an elementary school librarian in a public school system was pressure to take Harry Potter off the shelves. I told the school board I wouldn’t do it. If they had to fire me, so be it, but I wouldn’t take the books off the shelves. I asked if any school board member had actually read one of the books in question. None had. Surprise, surprise.
Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash
Freedom of speech and freedom in general have been hot topics since the 2016 presidential election and COVID. I’ve written before about freedom of speech, which is not all-inclusive.
In the last six years, cultural censorship has increased enormously, but it’s failed to silence anti-vaxxers, proponents of the election Big Lie, COVID naysayers, and people who believe men cannot become women, or vice versa. It’s also failed to address increasing civil violence, disconnection, and unrest.
Does censorship work? Is it a useful tool?
It doesn’t appear so. I’m irresistibly reminded of the “Just Say No” drug campaign for school kids and sexual abstinence programs for teens. Do they work?
Not so much.
It seems to be a human character trait that the minute we’re forbidden to do something we move heaven and earth to do it. Look at Adam and Eve. Look at Pandora. Dozens of old oral stories from around the world are about people who broke their promise not to look and suffered the consequences.
I’ve never thought to ask myself what problem we’re trying to address with censorship.
Is it cultural trust?
Possibly. Trust is an easily manipulated quality, because it’s a belief. Belief, as we’ve seen demonstrated over and over during the last years, is more powerful than facts. People will die for their beliefs. They’ll kill for them.
Are beliefs strengthened or weakened by access to all kinds of information (facts) or opinions? Are beliefs strengthened or weakened by censorship?
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
I’m not sure trust is the root problem, though, or not the entire root. Perhaps the deepest root is education and, paradoxically, freedom. Authoritarianism is characterized by blind submission to authority. One of the tools of authoritarianism is censorship, including limiting the rights to vote, read, write, report the facts, speak, and teach.
Censorship implies people can’t be trusted with a full range of information. They are unable to make the “right” choices, according to the authoritarian(s) at the top. Thus, the public is spoon-fed only that which supports the authoritarian power. Asking questions is not allowed. Challenge is not allowed. Discussion and debate are not allowed.
Don’t you worry your little head about substance abuse. Just say no. We don’t talk about sex and our bodies in this house. It’s dirty and shameful. Just abstain from inhabiting your healthy young body.
The subject of censorship is tricky, because I suspect we’d all like to have the power to censor certain voices on social media, on radio, on television, in the bookstores, on YouTube, and on platforms like Substack. Some of the propaganda and opinions out there, the lies masquerading as facts, are horrifying. However, my lie might be your fact. Your heart-felt ideology about eating meat may be in direct conflict with what I need to sustain my health and quality of life. Should one of us have the power to censor the other?
This is where the trust problem comes in. We don’t trust one another to make the “right” choices or believe the “right” people. I think many don’t trust themselves to make the “right” choices. They rely on someone they have faith in to tell them what to do.
The “right” choices imply the possibility of “wrong” choices, but this is black-and-white, overly simplistic thinking. Perhaps you need to be a vegetarian in order to sustain your health. Perhaps I need to be a carnivore. We’re both right. Does that mean a full range of diet and nutrition information should be available to all? Can we, as a culture, agree to live and let live?
I have my doubts.
The current specific issue on Substack is the subject of COVID. Evidently, there are writers on the platform spreading dis- and/or misinformation about COVID. Scientists on Substack sending meticulously researched, linked, and data-driven information take issue with that and want Substack to censor such writers for the sake of the public good.
Substack, in response, wrote the above essay, maintaining their position against censorship and explaining their thoughts about it.
I’m in sympathy with both sides. I, too, am frustrated with the sheer volume of unmitigated bullshit out there. But I never forget many people would say my sources of information are bullshit, and I would fight hard to maintain access to those sources.
Maybe the problem is not how deep the bullshit is, but how bad we are at recognizing it. And that’s a product of our broken education system and our inability to think critically. Both these cultural trends make us increasingly vulnerable to authoritarianism.
As I’ve discussed before, choice goes hand-in-hand with responsibility. If we want optimum freedom to choose, we must accept the consequences of our choices.
Taking responsibility for our choices is not humanity’s greatest strength at this moment in history.
If I was Supreme Ruler of the World (God forbid), I believe I would vote with Substack on this issue of censorship. Silencing people does not address the root of the problem, only a symptom. We need to figure out a way to fix our educational system so we all learn critical thinking at every stage of education. Not only does this empower people to make their own choices and recognize the difference between lies and truth, opinions and information, it allows public access to a full range of viewpoints.
We are never going to silence the liars and manipulators. They will continue to try to obtain power and money, and they will continue to aggressively work to silence those who disagree with them. The best weapon against them is to firmly empower ourselves and others with education and the ability to think critically. We don’t need to be protected. We need to be armed.
I work in a small local hospital rehab facility. Maine has recently instituted a mandatory COVID vaccination requirement for all healthcare workers.
Here in Maine, school districts are choosing whether or not to enforce masking and social distancing as in-person school begins.
As we go into Fall, these two issues are inescapable, not only here but across the country as businesses, organizations, and individuals make choices about dealing with COVID. Or not.
It’s an unpleasant atmosphere, rife with argument, outrage, broken relationships, blame, and contempt. I frequently drive home in tears, exhausted by the effort to remain calm and professional with our patrons, patients, and some staff members.
Much of the current conversation centers around the issue of freedom of choice, and those are conversations worth having. However, I’ve noticed a key part of that conversation is nearly always missing.
We are not free from the consequences of our choices and the choices of others.We have never been and never will be free from the consequences of our choices and the choices of others.
Freedom of choice goes hand-in-hand with responsibility, and choices cannot be separated from their effects. Sometimes those effects are logical, and other times they’re unpredictable. Sometimes they’re obvious and immediate, sometimes subtle and long-term. Sometimes the right choice results in heartbreaking consequences, and sometimes the wrong choice doesn’t. None of us can fully foresee where our choices will lead us. Some people are paralyzed by this fact and resist choosing.
Refusing to choose is also a choice, and it creates consequences.
This inescapable part of being human is something we all share and experience. Nothing can shield us from it, not power, not money, not beliefs, not government. Sooner or later, consequences catch up to us and play out.
We are not “losing” our freedom to choose. We’ve never had unlimited choice. We are experiencing the effects of our choices, just as we’ve always done. It’s a process beyond justice or injustice or good or bad. Consequences are often teachers and opportunities.
Choices and consequences are simply what life is. Everyone’s life. Every day.
Sometimes consequences are deadly and tragic, and we never have a chance to make a different choice. Sometimes we have lots of chances to choose again. Most of us are familiar with the I’ve-been-standing-at-this-crossroad-before kind of feeling.
Choices are linked together in our lives in an endless chain. We decide who to believe. We decide what to believe. We make choices reflecting our faith in someone or a source of information. Things happen. We discover our faith was misplaced, or we discover our faith was justified, or, possibly, both.
This is the human condition.
I believe most of us are making the best choices we can in life. Inevitably, we will experience consequences we didn’t expect and don’t want, and we’ll have to manage those as best we can. Sometimes we’ll need help and support to manage the effects of our choices.
At the end of the day, our power resides in making choices for ourselves and accepting the consequences. We can’t make choices for others, and nobody is making choices for others. Rules and mandates regarding the pandemic are going into place, joining countless other rules and mandates we’ve always lived with. As individuals, we will choose whether to resist or comply, and then deal with the consequences of that choice.
Because the globe is so densely populated, our choices, and the effects arising from them, are bound to affect others. We can’t escape from interconnection. Even so, we can only choose for and manage ourselves. Hurling contempt at one another over the choices we make isn’t useful. It doesn’t provide resource, support, or respect. It makes unwanted consequences more difficult to experience and manage for all of us. It doesn’t persuade anyone to make the “right” choice.
It doesn’t change minds or save lives.
We are comparatively free in this country, but freedom is never absolute. None of us have unlimited choice, but all of us have some, and that means all of us will experience consequences generated by ourselves and others. Freedom does not erase the consequences of our choices.
Free. Managing consequences, just like you. My daily crime.
Or perhaps not becoming, but emerging. I’m reminded of Michelangelo’s quote: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
I’m emerging as someone I was always meant to be.
This emergence began (I know you’ll be shocked) with a book by Pete Walker titled Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. In the pages of this book I found the self I’ve always known and the private experiences I’ve hidden out of guilt, fear, and shame.
I also found a map to a new person.
Although the catalyst was the book, which by its nature is intellectual, the process itself is almost entirely felt. I can’t think myself into a new sense of self and my life; I must feel my way.
This makes it hard to write about here.
As so often happens, a poem came along that perfectly describes what I feel in the subtle, intuitive, symbolic language of poetry rather than carefully crafted, concrete prose.
The Return by Leanne O’Sullivan
I walk through paw-prints the frost has dug, among the moist grasses, my silver hair flowing like a cat’s deep stretch.
This is my season. Again and again I die under the blossom of leaves and count my lives by the sapped rings of trees.
No one will know me, none but the wood growth, its hug of frost its scent of moss its naked shadow
and I, standing at the end of an embered wood where once a light passed through me and passes again,
before I remember how I appeared or how I ended, folding myself into my arms —
the seed, the root, the blossom, the stone shining with all my running juices.
From Cailleach: The Hag of Beara (Bloodaxe Books, 2009)
Emergence, I discover, is a kind of death, like the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly or moth. It’s a process of uncovering, of freeing something hidden inside, somehow familiar but never before seen. The soul and spirit I was meant to be was covered with a stony crust, originally formed for protection, but long ago becoming a prison. A crust of coping mechanisms and beliefs. A crust covering feelings too painful and overwhelming to acknowledge or face when first felt.
As I scrape away that crust, the feelings it covered swell into life, and they do not want my intellect or to be pinned down into a blog post.
They want to be felt.
And, having been felt, they dissipate like incense smoke, leaving behind a coating of scented ash that scatters with a single breath and reveals someone I’ve never known or been before.
In the meantime, external life goes on around my internal experience. My car is in the shop. It’s a heavy work week. We are stifling in high humidity. I have just finished editing my second manuscript and am rolling up my sleeves to begin writing the third. I’m working on my new website.
As I live the days, I recognize triggers I wasn’t aware of before, triggers to old feelings and reactions, and I apply new tools, habits, compassion, and understanding to them. I’m grateful for the foundations I’ve already built of mindfulness, creativity, and emotional intelligence. I didn’t know they would become the foundations of a new self.
I am changing. I am emerging. I am learning and growing. I am wondering where I’m going.
Wherever I’m going, it’s better than where I’ve been.
Fear. It’s so mundane. It’s so extremely powerful. It’s such an extraordinary tool for manipulation.
Rhone asserts faith is frequently more powerful than facts. I might have doubted this once, but after the last four and a half years I agree. We continue to play out the conflict between those who are fact- and science-based and those who are not, especially in social media, steadily becoming more divided and disconnected as each side polarizes further.
We are evolved to experience feelings, and fear in particular is an important evolutionary advantage.
I think of faith as a spiritual connection, and we’re evolved, as social, conscious beings, to connect. Connection is a primary human need.
It seems to me a balance of faith, fear, and facts is optimal for navigating through life.
Where does the balance go wrong?
It goes wrong when we deify a misinformed or dishonest person. When we misplace our faith, in other words. We accept someone’s version of reality, their ideology, their beliefs, without question. Sometimes we do it because we believe they have power we need. Sometimes we do it out of fear. Sometimes we do it because we have no self-confidence; we feel powerless to think and learn for ourselves. Sometimes we do it out of misguided compassion.
The balance goes wrong if we fear our fear and are unable to manage it. Fear becomes so consuming we’ll do anything for relief, including refuse to deal with facts that scare us.
So we develop faith in something – anything – that makes us feel better and relieves our fear.
Perhaps our problem is not literacy, or education, or access to resource, or discerning fact from fantasy, but simply our inability to cope with fear.
During my lifetime, I’ve watched our culture become increasingly inauthentic as we consumers demand more and better ways to live in a fantasy world. Role playing games, superhero movies, digital image manipulation, porn, virtual reality tech and special effects allow us to sink into illusion.
Over Memorial Day weekend I did an experiment. I installed a free hidden objects game on my laptop to see what it was like.
It was a big file and took several minutes to download. When I opened it, it covered my whole screen, corner to corner. I couldn’t see my task bar or clock. There was no obvious way to exit; I used the Escape button. The graphics were colorful, animated, attractive, and interesting. A pop-up suggested I use headphones to fully experience the sound. Constant pop-ups urged me to join social media communities playing the game. Constant pop-ups advertised other games (paid) I could play, or pressured me to purchase tools and tokens that would make me a better, faster, more successful player in the “free” game I downloaded.
Free, yes. Want to compete successfully? Want to win? Now you have to buy things!
By the way, if you play every day you get extra points!
The game was cluttered. It provided constant validation and reinforcement. The characters were good-looking, well-dressed and Caucasian. Beautiful food and drink, jewels, and true love were heavily emphasized. One collects points and objects and advances in levels. You don’t have to search for what you need, though, if you’re feeling fatigued. You can simply buy what you need.
The puzzles were timed, of course, which made them a lot less fun for me. Although one plays alone, the competitive aspects were continually reinforced.
The reviews of the game say things like “Beautiful!” and “Addictive!”
Because, you know, addiction is a good thing.
I played for a couple of hours. During those hours I didn’t invest in health, happiness, resource , resilience, or my own power. I wasn’t present in the real world.
I also didn’t think about climate change, politics, my job, or getting the car into the shop for brake work.
My feelings were numbed. I wasn’t afraid, but I wasn’t anything else, either.
When I exited the software, I felt as though I’d eaten a bag of jelly beans. I uninstalled the game Tuesday morning.
Have we become a culture that favors illusion over real life? Do we prefer fantasy, as long as it makes us feel “good,” entertains us, or distracts us? Do we prefer being led and manipulated to thinking for ourselves and forging our own paths?
I feel sad and scared after this experiment. If we don’t choose to live in the real world and deal with facts, we have no hope of solving the challenges and problems facing us, from maintaining our cars to managing climate change.
Fear helps us survive. The feeling tells us we must take action. If we refuse to feel fear, or respond to it, we will be deselected.
Facts can be inconvenient and unpleasant, but refusing to deal with them is like refusing to deal with fear. They don’t disappear if we deny them. Nothing can be solved or learned if we refuse to acknowledge facts.
Reality endures. Truth and clarity are powerful. Illusion lies. It might be seductive for a time. Illusion might pretend to be power. In the end, however, it’s empty. It only takes and weakens. It enslaves us, confuses us, and steals our power. It increases our fear while pretending to relieve it.
Faith is a choice about where we put our trust and confidence.
I’ve just read a book titled Dignity by Donna Hicks, Ph.D.
Dignity is defined as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect; self-respect” (Oxford Online Dictionary); “the right of a person to be valued and respected for their own sake” (Wikipedia).
Dignity isn’t a word I hear much these days. Respect is a hot topic, but dignity sounds old-fashioned.
The book was an eye-opener in several ways. Hicks sees dignity as a key component in peaceful negotiations, a refreshing topic in this time of divisiveness, hatred, and violence. Because of her work, the author has participated in and supported peace talks all over the world as leaders of opposing sides work to heal the trauma of conflict. Her observations, experience, and stories of people working together to connect as human beings, even in the context of terrible violence, are poignant and a testament to our shared humanity.
Hicks defines ten essential components of dignity, and ten violations. I wrote both lists down and I’ve been rereading and thinking about them ever since.
Here are Hicks’s ten essential elements of dignity:
As I work with these lists, I come at them from three different directions. One is recognizing the ways in which my own dignity has been violated by others. The second is the way in which I’ve violated my own dignity. The third is the way in which I’ve violated the dignity of others.
This book was published in 2011, before acceptance of identity and inclusion were such politically loaded topics. As I think about these lists through the filter of current social ideology, it’s quite clear to me that working with the concept of dignity necessitates connecting with others through our shared humanity rather than our habits and beliefs. If we insist on hiding behind our labels and pseudo selves, as well as refusing to see the complexity of those we interact with behind their labels and ideology, we will not successfully connect and nobody can experience dignity. Conflict will escalate and divisions deepen.
We each have a right to our own beliefs, feelings, and sense of self. However, we do not have the right to insist others agree with our beliefs, feelings and sense of self. Respect, as I have pointed out before, is not agreement. Tolerance is not agreement. Likewise, dignity is not dependent on agreement, but rather the willingness to understand and accept the experience of another.
The tricky part is if we wish to build and maintain dignity, we must help others build and maintain it as well. Demanding our own dignity be recognized while ignoring that of others demonstrates a desire for power-over and control.
Dignity is an equal opportunity concept. It’s based in our humanity, the ultimate in-group. No one is excluded, and no one is without the power to build their own dignity.
We can’t force others to treat us with dignity, but we have absolute control in how we handle our own, and Donna Hicks has experienced, over and over again, the power of our individual dignity and the way it influences those around us. The forward to this book was written by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, whose wisdom, compassion and dignity have inspired millions. He and Hicks have worked together for peace in Northern Ireland.
One way to destroy our dignity is to violate that of another, which is exactly what I want to do in a reactive moment when I’ve been hurt or witnessed someone else being hurt. However, that kind of reaction only escalates conflict. Hicks’s list allows me to identify other options that do not result in further violation, but begin to heal the original harm. Even if whoever I’m interacting with is determined to undermine both their dignity and mine, I have the power to stop the damage and conflict and protect my own self-respect.
Now more than ever in this country, we are divided. Some of us support dignity for all and some of us don’t. It’s not always obvious which team we’re on, either. Some people wave the banner of equality and justice and identify themselves as victims, but a closer look makes it obvious their agenda victimizes someone else. What they truly want is their conception of equality and justice for themselves and their in-group, exclusively.
Others of us are working for humanity as a whole, supporting such concepts as dignity for everyone, not just those wearing a certain label or set of labels.