I’ve dedicated the last decade of my life to reclaiming my personal power, each step on the path made visible on this blog in the hopes that others might also find their way into a healthier, happier, more effective life.
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It’s been an extraordinary journey, one I hope will never end as long as I’m breathing.
At the heart of personal power is our ability to choose.
I’ve always been aware of how uncomfortable I am choosing for anyone other than myself. For years I wasn’t able to choose effectively for myself; nothing in me wanted the power to choose for others. Hand-in-hand with this part of my experience is an automatic, knee-jerk stubbornness and opposition to those who try to choose for me or anyone else. It’s been a longstanding family joke: Don’t tell me what to do!
I’ve never been friendly toward this kind of authority.
As a parent I was unwilling to take on the role of a policewoman. I wanted my sons, as teenagers, to use their excellent brains and make their own choices, then deal with their own consequences. As I raised them, it slowly dawned on me the choices I made as a mom, though I always believed they were in the best interests of my sons, might have been wrong for them. I began to realize how much time we all spend in frustration over what those around us should and shouldn’t do, including our kids. I decided to stop discussing what others should choose. I still noticed the commentary in my head, but I got better at not letting it out of my mouth.
One day, I looked at my eldest son, who was going through a bad patch, and heard myself say, “I want the best for you, but I don’t know what that is.” I recognized that was the truth, and felt humbled. It broke my heart to see him struggling and unhappy. I would have done anything to have “helped.” But I didn’t trust my motives. Of course I knew what I thought he should do, but was I looking for him to feel better or for him to make me feel better? I couldn’t be sure. I just wanted things to be better. Wanted it desperately, but I also wanted him to figure out how to help himself.
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I’m very aware of the word ‘should.’ I cut it out of my writing. I cut it out of my thoughts and speech. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a toxic word. I don’t apply it to myself and I don’t apply it to others. It never fails to appear when I’m arguing with what is or have otherwise stepped out of my own rightful power and am trying to control a situation that’s not mine to manage. It also shows up when I’m being mean to myself.
Now, suddenly, I find myself in a position of needing to make choices for a loved one who at this moment is not able to choose for themselves.
This is not like choice-making for my children. Kids are pretty resilient. I knew I would made mistakes as a parent, and I did. But I could always choose again. With small children, there’s a long future in which to reconsider, make new rules, learn in real time. I wasn’t uncomfortable with it. As they grew up, I gave them more and more power to choose for themselves and stepped back while they experienced the consequences of their choices.
Now they’re adults, and it’s harder. Now I really have nothing to say about their choices as men in the world. It’s not my business. Some of their choices are, to my mind, tragic and self-destructive, and I’m afraid for possible consequences. I’m afraid for my own pain and grief if some of those consequences occur. But I accept the only power I have is to love them and make sure they know it.
And making choices for an aging loved one is different again. The fear I’ll do it wrong is terrible. I’m working in a lifetime context where I never did do anything right, so I’m fighting that old dynamic every minute while I calmly go about gathering tools, resources and information. I know I’ll do my best and I’m confident in my own abilities and the strength of my love and intention, but choice is dynamic. It takes time to choose, observe outcomes, consider what could be better, and choose again.
I don’t know how much time I have. I don’t know how much time I want.
Working with a frail, injured, confused senior feels brittle. I may not have time to manage choice and outcome. Not only that, but when I choose for myself if I’m unhappy with the consequences I only have myself to blame; I bear all the outcomes, which is as it should be. But if we must choose for someone else, they must experience the consequences of our choice. And that’s a heavy burden for me. I feel enormous pressure to choose well, to not make anything worse, while at the same time I can’t see choices that will make anything much better.
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As I struggle with all this, mid-term elections have occurred and the final votes are being counted. The news is full of debate, discussion, and violence revolving around limiting choice and forcing “choice.” As always, I cannot get my head around people who think it’s okay to impose their ideology on others. I support freedom of personal choice (as long as it doesn’t harm others) in most circumstances. I wouldn’t impose my beliefs or choices on others. The idea is appalling. But I also don’t accept anyone has the right to restrict my access to vote or what I do with my reproductive ability. I refuse to comply with such imposition, even if it becomes law. You might as well arrest me right now.
A conversation recently took place at the pool facility where I work between a woman of child-bearing age and a male senior. She asked him why he thought it was okay for him to decide she couldn’t get an abortion when the choice was personal and had absolutely nothing to do with him. He said such a choice would hurt his feelings.
This drops my jaw. I don’t know whether to let rage catch my hair on fire or laugh. It hurts his feelings when people make choices incongruent with his belief system and ideology? Or it hurts his feelings when women are empowered? Or it hurts his feelings when he can’t control what others choose? Or he feels entitled to never have his feelings hurt?
Wow. Just wow.
Choice. It’s so easy to say to others, or to think, they should do this, or this, or the other. So easy. But I never wanted to run the world. I only wanted to be in charge of myself. Now a loved one needs me to be there for them, and I will be there every step of the way, giving it my best, just as I always have. But it’s not fun. I don’t want the power. I accept I’m the right one to have the power, but I never wanted it. How can I possibly know what’s best for another human being? How can any of us have the arrogance to think we know what’s best for everyone in every circumstance, let alone anyone in any circumstance? At times I can barely choose wisely for myself, let alone anyone else.
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Probably every child is told we all have to do things we don’t want to do.
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Children are concrete, and I was no exception. When I heard we all have to do things we don’t want to do, I thought it meant that’s what life was supposed to be about, a kind of slavery to all those things we don’t want to do. No one talked to me about balance, or doing the things we do want to do.
It made life seem like an unhappy business, years and years of unending duty, responsibility, and doing what I didn’t want to do. No recess. Or maybe what I really wanted to do was bad and wrong? Maybe I should want to do what I didn’t want to do. I wasn’t sure. A part of me went underground. I didn’t want anyone to know how bad I was, how flawed. I worked hard at the things I didn’t want to do and hid the things I did want to do, in case they were wrong.
But I couldn’t conceal the feeling of wanting and not wanting from myself. I used to make hidey holes in whatever house we were living in at the time and go to ground with a book, but I always felt guilty. I wanted to read. Doing what I wanted to do was bad. I should have been helping my mom do all the things she didn’t want to do.
The pronouncement that we all have to do things we don’t want to do is stated as a Cosmic Truth, especially as an adult tells it to a child. It’s loaded with feelings and experience a child can’t possibly understand, but the subtext was clear to me:
Life is not much fun.
I can’t resist picking apart Cosmic Truths as an adult, and as I think about this one it occurs to me it really has to do with personal power more than wanting or not wanting. It’s not framed in terms of personal power because our emotional intelligence is so low. Making choices based on whether we want to do something or not is childish. Power resides in the act of choice, not in the wanting or not wanting.
Steering our lives solely by our desires is hedonism, a belief that satisfaction of desires is the purpose of life. Desire, though, is so shallow, so fleeting. And it’s never permanently satisfied. No matter how well and pleasurably we’ve eaten, we’ll be hungry again. Desire is a treadmill we can never get off.
This is not to say we shouldn’t ever choose something we want or say no to something we don’t want, but our desire is easily manipulated. That’s why advertising works. If we can be easily manipulated, we’re not standing in our power. Addiction is based, at least in the beginning, on wanting and not wanting.
A more useful question than What do I want to do? is What would be the most powerful thing to do? We might want to eat a carton of ice cream, but a walk feeds our health, well-being, and thus personal power much better. After all, one carton of ice cream leads nowhere but to another. Personal power can lead us to joy and experience a carton of ice cream never dreamed of.
- If we don’t choose to do difficult, frightening, or new things, we’ll never grow.
- If we don’t choose to take care of our bodies, they won’t function well.
- If we don’t choose to be self-sufficient and resilient, we’ll be dependent.
- If we don’t choose to learn anything, we’ll remain ignorant.
- If we don’t choose to plan ahead, prepare, or manage consequences, we diminish our choices, waste resource, and weaken the contribution we’re capable of making.
- If we don’t choose the responsibility of commitment and making choices, someone else will make our choices for us.
And so on.
I’m changing the frame. I’m less interested in what I want and what I don’t want and more interested in how my choices affect my power, and the power of those around me. I’m willing to do what I don’t want to do if it’s a step on a road leading to integrity, power, healthy relationship, or anything else important to me. At the same time, I can exercise my right to say no to things that won’t take me where I want to go.
It’s about power, not desire. Any three-year-old can want and not want. It takes an adult to manage a healthy balance of personal power.
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A little over three years ago I wrote a post titled “Questions Before Engagement.”
Since then, the world has changed, and so have I.
I’m not on social media, but my biggest writing cheerleader is, and he tells me people are talking about how to recognize red flags. He suggested I post again about problematic behavior patterns.
A red flag is a warning sign indicating we need to pay attention. It doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost, or we’ve made a terrible mistake, or it’s time to run. It might be whoever we’re dealing with is simply having a bad day. Nobody’s perfect.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
A persistent pattern of red flags is significant. Ignoring problematic behavior sets us up to get hurt.
The problem with managing red flags is we may be flying several ourselves, and until we figure out our own behavior we’re going to struggle to deal effectively with others.
We all have an excellent built-in system alerting us to possible danger. We call it intuition, going with our gut, or having a hunch or a feeling. We may not know why we feel uneasy, but we subconsciously pick up on threatening or “off” behavior from others. The difficulty is we’re frequently actively taught to disregard our gut feelings, especially as women. We’re being dramatic, or hysterical, or a bitch. We’re drawing attention to ourselves, or making a scene. What we saw, heard or felt wasn’t real. It didn’t happen, or if it did happen, we brought it on ourselves.
We live in a culture that’s increasingly invalidating. Having a bad feeling about someone is framed as being hateful, engaging in profiling, or being exclusive rather than inclusive. Social pressure makes it hard to speak up when we feel uncomfortable. Many of the most influential among us believe their money and power place them above the law, and this appears to be true in some cases. In the absence of justice, we become apathetic. What’s the point of responding to our intuition and trying to keep our connections clean and healthy when we can’t get any support in doing so?
If we grow up being told we can’t trust our own feelings and perceptions, we’re dangerously handicapped; we don’t respond to our intuition because we don’t trust it. We talk ourselves out of self-defense. We recognize red flags on some level, but we don’t trust ourselves enough to respond appropriately. Indeed, some of us have been severely punished for responding appropriately, so we’ve learned to normalize and accept inappropriate behavior.
So before we concern ourselves with others’ behavior, we need to do some self-assessment:
- Do we trust ourselves?
- Do we respond to our intuition?
- Do we choose to defend ourselves?
- Do we have healthy personal boundaries?
- Do we keep our word to ourselves?
- Do we know how to say both yes and no?
- Do we know what our needs are?
- Are we willing to look at our situation and relationships clearly and honestly, no matter how unwelcome the truth might be?
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Once we’ve become familiar with our own motivation and behavior patterns, we can turn our attention outward and focus on the behavior of those we interact with.
Red flags frequently seem too bad to be true. In intimate relationships with partners and family, the anguish of acknowledging toxic or dangerous behavior and setting limits around it cannot be overstated. Those we are closest to trigger our deepest and most volatile passions. This is why it’s so important to be honest with ourselves.
The widest lens through which to examine any given relationship is that of power-over or power-with. I say ‘lens’ because we must look and see, not listen for what we want to hear. Talk is cheap. People lie. Observation over time tells us more than words ever could. In the case of a stranger offering unwanted help with groceries, we don’t have an opportunity to observe over time, but we can say a clear “no” and immediately notice if our no is respected or ignored. We may have no more than a minute or two to decide to take evasive or defensive action.
If we are not in an emergency situation, or dealing with a family member or person we’ve known for a long time, it might be easier to discern if they’re generally working for power-with or power-over. However, many folks are quite adept at using the right words and hiding their true agenda. Their actions over time will invariably clarify the truth.
Power-over versus power-with is a simple way to examine behavior. No labels and jargon involved. No politics. No concern with age, race, ethnicity, biological sex, or gender expression. Each position of power is identifiable by a cluster of behaviors along a continuum. We decide how far we are willing to slide in one direction or another.
- Silencing, deplatforming, threatening, personal attacks, forced teaming, bullying, controlling
- Win and be right at all costs
- Gaslighting, projection, DARVO tactics (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender)
- Fostering confusion, distrust, disinformation, and violence
- Poor communication and refusing to answer questions
- Emotional unavailability
- High-conflict behavior
- Blaming and shaming of others
- Refusal to respect boundaries
- Refusal to discuss, debate, learn new information, take no for an answer
- Lack of reciprocity
- Lack of interest in the needs and experiences of others
- Encouraging questions, feedback, open discussion, new information, ongoing learning, critical thinking
- Prioritizing connection, collaboration, and cooperation over winning and being right; tolerance
- Clear, consistent, honest communication
- Fostering clarity, trust, information (facts), healthy boundaries, reciprocity, authenticity, and peaceful problem solving
- Emotionally available and intelligent
- Taking responsibility for choices and consequences
- Words and actions are consistent over time
- Respect and empathy for others
We don’t need to be in the dark about red flags. Here are some highly recommended resources:
- The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
- Bill Eddy’s website and books about high-conflict personalities
- Controlling People by Patricia Evans
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Trust: Firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something (Oxford Online Dictionary)
Mistrust: General sense of unease towards someone or something
Distrust: Specific lack of trust based on experience or reliable information
Leo Babauta recently published a piece on practicing trust which has given me much food for thought.
Trust is an uncomfortable subject for me. For most of my life I’ve considered myself to be shamefully distrustful. As I’ve learned emotional intelligence, I’ve realized I have plenty of good reasons for my mistrust and distrust, but there’s still a part of me that feels I should be more trusting, more willing to give others a second, or third, or hundredth chance, less guarded, more open, more forgiving.
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Except I know intellectually forgiveness does not mean an automatic reinstatement of trust.
In my heart, I feel like a bad person, especially a bad woman, because throughout my life people who say they love me have appeared to be hurt by my lack of trust. Yet those same people have given me reasons not to trust them.
When I wind up in these confusing emotional cul-de-sacs, I blame myself. I’m being too dramatic (again). I’m being a bitch. I’m mean. I can’t love, or let anyone love me. (Does trust = love? Does all love automatically come with trust?) When I explain the specific events leading to my mis- or distrust, I’ve frequently been told the other party doesn’t remember saying what they said or doing what they did. This implies I’m nitpicking, ridiculously sensitive, keeping score, or even making it up. I wonder if I’m being gaslighted, or if I’m just not a nice person.
Years and years ago I made a rule for myself: give every situation or person three chances before deciding not to trust. It still feels fair to me. Sometimes things happen. We have a bad day. We say hurtful things, or don’t keep our word, or make a boneheaded choice, breaking trust with someone. I know I’ve done it, and I’d like to be given the benefit of a doubt.
The benefit of a doubt is fair, right?
I still follow that rule. It feels appropriately kind to others and like good self-care. Yet I feel guilt nearly every day over the people in my life who I want to trust, feel that I should trust, and don’t trust.
Babauta’s article specifically addresses signs of distrust of ourselves, and some ideas about practicing self-trust. I never connected problems with focus, fear or uncertainty, procrastination or indecision with lack of self-trust, but I can see they might be. If we don’t trust our priorities, resilience, or choices, it’s difficult to be decisive or take risks with commitments and problem solving.
If we don’t trust ourselves to cope effectively with sudden changes and reversals and frightening situations, uncertainty and chaos disable us, making us vulnerable to anyone or anything promising relief, certainty, or help.
The boundary between trust in ourselves and trust in others is permeable. If we define ourselves, as I do, as “having trust issues,” presumably that includes issues with ourselves as well as others.
It makes me shudder to imagine living with no feeling of belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of anyone or anything. How could anyone sustain such an emotionally isolated condition, not only from those around them but from themselves?
I do have people in my life I trust. Is it possible I don’t have trust issues? Is that just a polite, apologetic, and roundabout way of avoiding a direct “I don’t trust you?”
Do I have to answer that?
It’s true I trust far fewer people than I distrust.
But it’s also true I give people and situations a chance. Three chances, in fact. At least.
Why does it seem so cruel to tell someone we don’t trust them?
Trust, as I experience it, is not all or nothing. I might trust a person to be kind and caring but never allow them to drive me anywhere. I might trust a person with money but never trust them to be on time. I trust myself to be there for others, but I haven’t trusted myself to be there for me.
Consumerism is about distrust. We’re actively groomed to distrust ourselves. Yesterday I was laughing with a friend about articles on MSN. There was an article about trends and fashion in decorating, as though it matters. Shiplap is out. White kitchens are out. Accent walls are out. Then there was an article about how to properly fold plastic grocery bags. I’m not kidding. Did you know you’ve been storing plastic grocery bags the WRONG WAY all these years? How could you be so incompetent? A capitalist culture only survives as long as people buy things, and advertising (and a lot of other media) is about the ways you need to improve, do it right, be better.
Advertising is manufactured distrust. We’re inadequate, but a widget would make us better. We buy, and we discover we still don’t feel good enough, and another ad tells us we need a nidget. So we buy that, but then we see a gidget on sale that will make us even better …
Who benefits most from our lack of trust in ourselves?
I believe information is power. I believe education is power. I believe in science, data, and critical thinking. I trust those things.
Who benefits most from the breakdown of public education, the demonization and gutting of scientific organizations and communities, manufactured misinformation, manufactured disinformation, and “alternative facts?”
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The Center For Nonviolent Communication says trust is a human need; it’s listed under connection needs. When our needs aren’t met, our health (mental, physical, emotional) suffers. If we are unable to trust we’re wide open to conspiracy theorists, ideologues, authoritarians, and other abusers and manipulators. Predators happily gorge off the results of manufactured distrust.
This is a big, big, problem, because it stands between us and managing things like climate change. Which, depending on who you talk to, isn’t even real because science has been the target of so much manufactured distrust.
One day, sooner rather than later in the Southwest, a switch won’t deliver electricity and a faucet won’t deliver water. Scientists have been talking about consequences of climate change and drought in the area for decades. It was one of the reasons I left my lifelong home in Colorado and came to Maine nearly eight years ago. A combination of manufactured distrust, denial, and the misplaced priority of winning the next election have effectively stopped any kind of collaborative or cooperative problem-solving around water usage throughout the Colorado River watershed, and here we are, on the brink of multi-state disaster that will affect the whole country.
Trust is a choice we make many times a day. Do we trust our families, coworkers, and friends? Do we trust the headlines we read, the news anchor we hear, or the algorithms providing us with “information” on social media? Do we trust what lands in our Inbox or the unfamiliar number calling us? Do we trust the oncoming car will really stop so we can safely walk across the busy street?
More importantly, do we trust our own instincts, feelings, and capability? Do we actively teach our children to trust theirs? Do we encourage our friends and loved ones to trust themselves? Or do we tell people they have it wrong, it didn’t happen, they’re being ridiculous, they don’t understand?
Choice comes with consequences and responsibility. Choice is dynamic; do we trust if we make a choice that doesn’t work out the way we hoped, we’ll choose again? Do we trust ourselves to be wrong and learn something before we choose again? Do we trust our ability to problem solve, bounce back, and do the best we can most of the time?
I suppose somewhere between having no trust at all and trusting everyone and everything lies a fine line of willingness to trust. We could approach new situations and people with curiosity and an open mind, be big enough to give the benefit of the doubt, and have healthy enough boundaries and the self-trust to disengage when we have evidence and experience indicating our trust is misplaced.
The first step in rejecting manufactured distrust is building trust in ourselves and demonstrating our own reliability, truth, ability or strength as we engage with others.
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Now that I publish my fiction on Substack, I read regular content from the platform, and a few weeks ago the platform runners wrote an essay about censorship titled “Society has a trust problem. More censorship will only make it worse.”
I’ve read and reread that essay.
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.
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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?
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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.
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