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.

Full Disclosure

As I plan to write about some political and religious issues on this blog, I thought it would be useful to provide a little background on the evolution of my outlook in these areas. (I have all these country songs running through my head as I write this: “Where I Come From,” “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you,” etc.)

I thought this little ‘disclosure of my biases,’ as I think of it, would be useful for a few reasons: (1) Political and religious subjects can be pretty touchy. (No surprise there.) (2) Our opinions on them usually have a strong basis in our own life experiences. (3) I aim to be as fair, open, and even-handed on this blog as I can be. And (4) I personally prefer news and commentary sources that either (a) represent both sides of an issue equally well or (b) openly disclose their opinions and make no pretense of impartiality. So I kind of thought I’d cover all my bases.

But before I go any further, let me say that this post makes me nervous and I had a hard time writing it. (Which is part of the reason I wrote so few posts this past week. I was trying to take this one in a different direction and it stumped me.) The words below represent my past and my thought processes and my faith, family, and friends, and it’s all very personal. It’s also probably a big ol’ case of TMI. But I felt like I needed to get all this out there before I proceed with a bunch of other posts I have lined up in my head.

So…

I was raised Catholic in that I regularly attended mass with my mother and I was provided with a religious education through our parish. But my father is not Catholic and there was little mention of faith in our (very happy) home. These days when I read blogs that mention a devotion to this saint, or a fondness for that novena, or a special attachment to such-and-such prayer, or a thousand little ways to live out the liturgical seasons, I feel kind of lost. Like I don’t fully fit into a community that should be my own. Yes, I’m Catholic. Yes, I love Christ, I am devoted to His Church, and faithful to its teachings. But no, I’m not familiar with all the trappings of my Faith.

While there wasn’t much discussion of religion in my family, there was a lot about politics. My grandfather was a local elected official, so I was exposed to campaigns and political chatter from a young age. Various family members worked on Granddad’s campaigns and we all helped on Election Day (which was just about my favorite day of the year when I was a child). My family was (and remains) very Republican in a very Democratic state, so I was instilled with a strong attachment to conservative ideals, but no illusion that these ideals were universal. (Rather, I understood that they were uncommon and needed to be defended.)

In my (public) high school I had a great group of smart, articulate, and religiously/politically diverse friends. And we liked a good debate. As the sole practicing Catholic and one of the only conservatives, I became the defender of all things Catholic and some things conservative. Just as my family’s experience as members of a minority party had prodded my attachment to conservatism, so my lunch-table debate experience bonded me to my Faith. Not that I understood it very well: eight years of Sunday school and one year of confirmation class do not a well-informed Catholic make. But my own little role as Defender of the Faith prompted me to research, ask questions, contemplate, and pray.

This all set the stage nicely for my next step: a political science major at a Catholic college. More lunch table discussions, this time with classmates and seminarians who had been raised in devoutly Catholic families, gave me glimpses of the depth and beauty awaiting me in the Church. Philosophy and theology classes helped me to better understand it. And my political science courses, not to mention informal discussions with friends and professors, gave me an appreciation for the broader context in which we live out our religious ideals. I had always been interested in the convergence of differing ideas; in college I became particularly interested in the convergence of politics and religion.

I wrote my senior thesis on “The American Catholic and the Two Political Parties,” which explored the poor fit between the Church’s teachings on matters of public policy and the ideological break-out of today’s American political parties. I also completed an internship with a Catholic organization that advocated on behalf of the Church’s public policy interests. Several years later, after a stint with the federal government, I returned to the organization to work as a lobbyist for the Church.

There, I was tasked with representing the Church’s positions on social justice matters, which included a wide range of issues related to poverty, housing, health care, and immigration. (Along with a few others.) Most of the positions were what Americans would call “liberal.” Which was a real challenge for me. Coming from a conservative background, I was comfortable with the Church’s teachings on abortion and marriage. I was comfortable promoting school choice. But the Church’s social justice teachings made me uncomfortable. I didn’t necessarily think they were wrong; it’s just that they challenged the political ideals under which I was raised and so they caused discomfort.

Oh, what a learning and growing experience it was for me. I read and I talked to people and I prayed.  I began to gain something of an understanding of people who faced challenges that I never had – people who struggled to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads, people who came to this country seeking a better life, people whose poor health or poor treatment by others or whose own poor decisions had stymied their chances of making it on their own – and even people who struggled to be able to function in society at all. I was changed and I was humbled.

I was grateful for the opportunity to give voice to these people’s concerns – and also for what I felt was an opportunity to bring people closer to Christ through this work of His Church. I feel like a cheesy ball of mush writing this, but I had so many moving experiences doing this work: I huddled in a group of elderly immigrant women and tried to convey to them (through our language barrier) that their Church was there for them. I spoke to crowds at parishes and pleaded with them to connect their own preferred cause for the “least of these” with another that was more challenging for them. I testified before lawmakers and told them, time and again, that all human life has value, regardless of its age or station.

Perhaps I have digressed. What I’m trying to explain is that, yes, I come from a particular place on the political spectrum. I get the conservative thing. But I have also been emerged in an unfamiliar (liberal) political territory, and I got to know it too. I feel richer for the experience.

When I was a lobbyist, I found that I could lobby more effectively when I put myself in the shoes of my opponents – imagining and even empathizing with their motivations. I think the same holds true when you’re discussing a difficult subject. All too often these days, people seem to regard consideration of and empathy with “the other side” as a sign of weakness, even foolishness. But it is such an asset. Sure, it helps you to build a solid case for your own cause. But more importantly, it helps you to explore your own opinions and motivations and be sure that you’re on the right course.

When you get together a group of people who all bring this kind of consideration to their conversation – well, that kind of discussion moves everyone forward in understanding. That is what I feel my background has prepared me for and that is what I hope to encourage with this blog.