Opinion: Defending the right to say something stupid

My own growth happened precisely because I was allowed to put forth my bad ideas so they could be challenged in the open

Like a child growing up in a tyrannical home, many are reluctant to express their opinions for fear of being castigated and ostracized. Better to fit in to keep the peace, right?

That’s a great way to stunt development — of children, of adults and of society as a whole. Clearly, totalitarian agreement is not the solution to peace — not in homes, and not as a nation. As Arthur C. Brooks said, “You might be tempted to say we need to find ways to disagree less, but that is incorrect. Disagreement is good because competition is good.”

A recent incident at the high school less than 5 miles from my house proves the point. You may have seen the national news coverage about the kid who cut down a pride flag “with a knife” during diversity week at the school.

Perhaps when you learned of the story, even if you are just now learning of it, you may be feeling a compulsion to choose one of two competing sides, something like:

“The student who cut this down is guilty of a heinous hate crime.” Or, “This student is courageous for taking down a flag that never should have been there in the first place.”

As more details emerged, both sides would have done well to withhold judgement.

The comments section in the articles covering the story could be largely categorized as reflecting one of these two positions. The extent to which both sides seem to be almost salivating to find something — anything — to further support their own concerns seems increasingly palpable across America today.  

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It was this precise dynamic that Jon Ronson cautions against in his book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” As he put it, “I favour humans over ideology, but right now the ideologues are winning, and they’re creating a stage for constant artificial high dramas, where everyone is either a magnificent hero or a sickening villain.”

Noticeably absent from the aforementioned commentary was an interest in going any deeper to ascertain the full truth. Where was the pride flag placed? How did it get there? What were the circumstances leading up to its removal? What motivated the student to cut it down? Were other witnesses present? Would their accounts corroborate or contradict either of the prevailing narrative of what took place?

These details didn’t seem all that important to many observers. Instead, they quickly acted as if they had everything they needed to confidently condemn or venerate.

Perhaps an issue even bigger than racism, xenophobia, ageism, sexism, ethnocentrism is a common disinterest, and even disdain for, the truth. The resistance to learn anything more in situations where we sense a deeper examination might unsettle our moral high ground and jeopardize another “win” for the tribe. 

When moral superiority is the goal in lieu of earnest truth seeking, our conversations are stripped of nuance. They lack the give-and-take required to walk together on the shared path to enlightenment. Progress is damned and we’re all worse off.

As further details emerged regarding the incident, we learned the pride flag was displayed at the request of the Gay Straight Alliance, a student-led organization. The administration accommodated the request and hurriedly hung the pride flag over the Cuban flag with the intent to find a more permanent location when time allowed. Observing the pride flag didn’t have a proper place, a subset of students engaged in a contest whereby one group flipped the pride flag over the balcony railing to obscure it while another group flipped it back over into its original position where it was visible. The contest came to an end when eventually a student, egged on by peers, cut the pride flag down so it fell to the floor. As the flag dropped, some booed. Many cheered. Initial reports claimed this student used a knife, carrying with it the implication that a weapon was brandished to amplify the threat. Later reports, however, clarified scissors were used for the flag’s removal.

The paper noted no redaction for the initial mistake in reporting, and the omission mostly went unnoticed. In the aftermath, some commenters deleted their initial condemnations of the student upon learning these emotionally charged judgements were factually incorrect. If you didn’t see these early condemnations, you wouldn’t know they were ever there to begin with, yet the damage was done. Instead of leaving a breadcrumb of their own enlarged awareness for others to follow, they scrubbed their tracks. After all, why risk tarnishing their own public image?

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Let me be clear, cutting down the flag was the wrong choice. It made an already marginalized group feel even less welcome and less safe. Nobody should feel like that at school. Yet fortunately, our empathy need not be limited to one group. We can also show mercy to those who make mistakes.

In his book, Ronan offers the following counsel: 

“... When you see an unfair or an ambiguous shaming unfold, speak up on behalf of the shamed person. A babble of opposing voices — that’s democracy. The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. Let’s not turn it into a world where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.”

That’s how a lot of Americans are feeling nowadays, according to recent polling — scared to say what they really think. 

When I think back to some of my behavior in secondary school under the influence of peer pressure, it can best be described as ignorant, arrogant, hurtful and stupid. I would be lying if I said I am now completely cured of these behaviors, but I have gotten better, and it certainly wasn’t because I ceased saying occasional “stupid things.” 

Rather, my own growth happened precisely because I was allowed to put forth my bad ideas so they could be challenged in the open. Thus I could recalibrate my worldview so it shifted closer to something resembling the truth. My rhetoric was criticized, but my person wasn’t crucified. The difference between the two has everything to do with intent. The intent of the former is to help me, and society, improve. 

And the intent of the latter? Mostly punishment. A castigation that has become so severe and merciless, in some cases, that people’s whole careers are ruined.   

Mutual vulnerability is essential for civil discourse. Like healthy home environments for children, we need to be allowed to put forth half-baked ideas and be willing to both give and receive criticism. And yes, that means we need to be able to exercise our right to say something stupid.

Keegan Garrity is a senior brand strategist and has been politically active as a commentator and by running for office in his local municipality.