When sentimentality meets politics we’re in trouble.

As a rule, it is not compassion which sets out to change
worldly conditions in order to ease human suffering, but if it does,
it will shun the drawn-out wearisome processes of persuasion,
negotiation, and compromise, which are the processes of law and
politics, and lend its voice to the suffering itself, which must claim
for swift and direct action, that is, for action with the means of

–Hannah Arendt

I’m concerned that the freedom to express one’s views is being eroded, but in a subtle way, as opposed to more explicit and obvious forms of coercion.

We’ve all been uncomfortable. We’ve all felt powerless and small. I have personally felt vulnerable in certain situations. I have been worried about the consequences of speaking out about something or addressing a sensitive issue. I have felt stupid, isolated, and mocked. I think we all have. Keep this in mind as you continue reading.

Skepchick writer Surly Amy Davis Roth, with the help of her husband, makes art and jewelry full-time. Amy wants to restrict the types of jewelry people can wear at atheist/skeptic conferences. If you want a more detailed explanation, take a look at Justin Vacula’s blog, which as far as I can tell, provides an accurate rundown of how Amy came to her conclusions.

I’m mainly going to focus on what Amy said in a podcast,  thankfully transcribed by Justin:

There was this group of, again, very vocal angry troll-like people that did some really awful things to me in real life – that sort of thing that you usually only see online I was actually face to face with. I had people wearing t-shirts saying that they were not a skepchick, people making fake jewelry that I make that said things on it like ‘you should be embarrassed.’ There’s this really crazy undercurrent of othering that I had never experienced before and it was really upsetting and I ended up leaving the event a day early.

Amy went to The Amazing Meeting. While there, she saw Harriet Hall wearing a t-shirt on more than one occasion which said on the front “I feel safe and welcome at TAM,” and on the back “I’m a skeptic not a ‘skepchick.’ Not a ‘woman skeptic.’ Just a skeptic.” Amy confronted Harriet, describing the shirt as “dehumanizing and gender/color blind.” Her explanation, according to what she allowed Ophelia Benson to post in a comment thread, is that she has had to deal with harassment on a regular basis and the t-shirt constituted a personal attack on her as the “main public representative of Skepchick at the event.”

Amy argues that her feelings were in the minority, and as a consequence, made irrelevant. For her, this is evidence of a dehumanizing mentality. Later in the podcast, she says “We’re not asking for anything crazy – just basic rules so that we can say the sort of thing like making fake jewelry and intentionally offending people is not okay nor is grabbing someone’s ass. That’s it, that’s all we’re asking for” (emphasis added).

In addition to the t-shirt, Amy also came across some ceramic jewelry satirizing her own work at Surly-Ramics. Amy felt singled out and targeted. With all of this talk of feelings, there’s a tendency within certain circles to just say “You don’t have the right to not be offended.” I’m going to take a slightly different approach.

Freedom of expression is in danger of moving towards a freedom from seeing or hearing. Rather than emphasizing what is expressed, we now seem to be concerned about how the expression is received by the hearer.

Complex social issues are being reduced to sensations and the verbalization of interiority. This emphasis on intense subjectivity is now so bound up with cultural critique, it’s almost as if people can’t imagine civil society, let alone social justice, without drawing our attention to the relationship between subjective feelings and personal identity.

I want to draw your attention to a section of Matt Dillahunty’s recent commentary on sexism and harassment:

When you hear a complaint that someone has raised, you might think that they’re expressing an irrational, emotional, over-reaction to the situation. You might even be correct – but it doesn’t matter, and here’s why: You don’t get to decide what someone else finds offensive. You don’t get to decide what someone else finds uncomfortable, unwelcoming, disconcerting, stressful, harassing, troubling or painful.

Freedom of expression should be about what is said, not how it is perceived. I don’t advocate for intentionally offending others, but this turn to the subjective is a matter of etiquette, not formal rules, policies, or policing.

Being offended is the cost we have to pay for maintaining a civil society based around the free exchange of ideas and I object to the suggestion that we should privilege the painful emotions of the offended over all others. As Salman Rushdie writes:

Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other ….The defense of free speech begins at the point where people say something you can’t stand. If you can’t defend their right to say it, then you don’t believe in free speech.

Some of you are tying yourself into knots to avoid seeing this as a free expression issue because there isn’t a malevolent tribunal overseeing the conflict. I’m not arguing that Amy can’t say whatever she wants, up to, and including calling for certain forms of expressions to be banned; however, contrary to Dillahunty’s impassioned declaration, I do get to decide (for myself) what someone else finds offensive, to the extent that I can think and feel that what they are expressing is irrational, emotional, and an over-reaction. I also get to express my opinion, even at the cost of another’s feelings. In saying this, I do not claim special status. In fact, I see no reason to privilege one subjectivity over another, regardless of how marginalized it might be. I mention this because Amy isn’t just saying that she has the right to be hurt or to say that she’s hurt. She is making a normative claim about the value of her own subjectivity: that it is in fact more superior or that it must be granted special status because she exists on the hurt end of the spectrum.

Being upset by an “undercurrent of othering” does not  make one the victim of harassment, as some have suggested. One of the dangers of compassion is that we can make the mistake of appropriating other people’s suffering. This seems innocent enough at first, but compassion, like many of our complex emotions, has a political existence. It’s rarely just used to draw our attention to suffering. It is also used to draw us into a politics of empathy, where we run the risk of short-circuiting discussions about real issues by performing compassion.

I am reminded of Christopher Hitchens’s advice in Letter’s to a Young Contrarian: “Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others.” Respect for human life and dignity does not extend to curtailing freedom of expression. If you’re hurt or offended, by all means, say something, but don’t be surprised when you aren’t cuddled and caressed. Don’t be surprised if you experience even more offense. Actually, go ahead and be surprised. Test your expectations against the world and see what happens. Everyone likes surprises, don’t they?