The ‘Right to be Comfortable’: Sloping Toward a Stepford Society

Lately I keep coming across stories asking whether we plugged-in, 21st-century folks can handle boredom anymore. Now that we have the internet at our fingertips 24/7, what incentive do we have to stare into space while we sit in a waiting room? What might we be losing as we fill up every spare moment of our day with ever more information, communication, and entertainment?

It’s a good question. And for someone who is as guilty of this fill ‘er up mentality as I am, it’s worth thinking on.

But the question I’ve really been thinking about lately is this: Can we plugged-in, 21st-century folks handle discomfort anymore? Can we handle being annoyed or offended? Now that we’re able to customize our shopping orders, our viewing line-up, and our social interactions with just a few taps of the screen, what incentive do we have to allow ourselves to be exposed to ideas that make us uncomfortable?

What might we be losing as we trim away the things that annoy or offend us?

What might we be losing as we increasingly shape the world we’re presented with to fit our opinion of how it should be?

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Thoughts on this topic have crossed my mind for some time, but they really gelled this past fall when I read Brendan O’Neill’s “Free speech is so last century. Today’s students want the ‘right to be comfortable’” in the UK’s The Spectator.

In the article, Mr. O’Neill describes an experience he’d recently had:

On Tuesday, I was supposed to take part in a debate about abortion at Christ Church, Oxford. I was invited by the Oxford Students for Life to put the pro-choice argument against the journalist Timothy Stanley, who is pro-life. But apparently it is forbidden for men to talk about abortion. A mob of furious feministic Oxford students, all robotically uttering the same stuff about feeling offended, set up a Facebook page littered with expletives and demands for the debate to be called off.

Believe it or not, the University actually capitulated to the protestors’ demands. As Mr. O’Neill characterized the decision:

So at one of the highest seats of learning on Earth, the democratic principle of free and open debate, of allowing differing opinions to slog it out in full view of discerning citizens, has been violated, and students have been rebranded as fragile creatures, overgrown children who need to be guarded against any idea that might prick their souls or challenge their prejudices.

On the abortion debate and on other issues, “Stepford Students,” as Mr. O’Neill calls them, have said it outright: “We have the right to feel comfortable.”

He observes:

We seem to have nurtured a new generation that believes its self-esteem is more important than everyone else’s liberty.

This is what those censorious Cambridgers meant when they kept saying they have the ‘right to be comfortable’. They weren’t talking about the freedom to lay down on a chaise longue — they meant the right never to be challenged by disturbing ideas or mind-battered by offensiveness.

You might think that in bringing up this topic, I mean to swing back to Charlie Hebdo. I don’t.

(I am indeed of the liberal – little ‘l’ – opinion that the right to free speech should be almost absolute. But in the wake of that horrible attack, I never could bring myself to proclaim, “Je suis Charlie.” I couldn’t express solidarity with a publication that routinely set out to offend. I think such a course only cheapens the notion of free speech. Offense should never be an end in itself; it should be a by-product, an unfortunate side-effect of messy, imperfect searches for the truth.)

No, I mean to swing back to vaccines.

In the few weeks since the measles began its march outward from Disneyland, the issue has surged in prominence. We’re hearing about it in the news (over 100 people have come down with the disease so far) and on social media; we’re talking about it at schools and extracurricular activities and doctors’ offices. The debate has roared back into life, tempers have flared, and feelings have been hurt.

And so we’re beginning to hear protestations akin to those of the ‘Stepford Students”: “Stop it with all the vaccine talk!” “I’ll block anyone who posts about vaccines!” “No one should be making anybody feel badly about their parenting choices!” It all boils down to the same thing: We have the right to feel comfortable.

Of course we don’t. There are as many definitions of what is comfortable as there are people on this planet. One simply can’t cater to them all. One can’t even cater to a small fraction of them without severely limiting the subjects on which it is acceptable to opine.

And anyway, freedom is more important than comfort.

On the flip side of the issue, we also don’t have the right to have our views represented in anybody else’s Facebook feed. So I’m not about to bleat that the discomfort-averse are infringing on others’ rights to free speech.

But I do (very firmly) believe that it is in the best interest of society to nurture a spirit of free and open debate. And I am made nervous by what I see as people’s increasing willingness to cut it off.

Because guess what? You and I and the people we interact with – we’re what make up society. When you and I begin to stop people from expressing ideas that we don’t like (or stop ourselves from seeing evidence that such ideas exist) – that’s when we step onto a slope that descends into a society that is not free, that does not think. That’s when we move towards becoming a ‘Stepford Society’, if you will.

So I say post about vaccines all you want. Maintain that everyone should have their children vaccinated. Protest that vaccines are unhealthy or immoral.

Talk about politics. Talk about religion. Talk about abortion and climate change and gay marriage. Support the ideas you agree with. Argue against those you disagree with. Or don’t.

Just don’t insist that no one offer those ideas in the first place.