Dear Paris Hilton - Don't Apologise, Learn
Tauriq Moosa is a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is currently pursuing a Masters degree at the Centre for Applied Ethics, Stellenbosch University. He has published essays and articles on practical ethics, focusing on subjects like free expression, killing, sex, and religion in public life. He debated religion with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the BBC documentary, the Tutu Talks, and has been featured on local radio shows. He is also an avid comic book writer and reader.
If you wish to contact him, please click here.
Dear Paris Hilton
You probably don’t remember me.
We met briefly once, years ago. It was when you bought a book on numerology and astrology from a store I worked at, in the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa. You wore a black hoodie, bug-eyed glasses and were in the company of the gentleman from Good Charlotte – which, I believe, is a rock band. You asked me to keep the book aside, which I did. You later returned and asked for my opinion. I told you I had none, trying to steer away from telling you that I thought astrology and numerology is utter nonsense. You chuckled a little, indicating you knew I thought it balonie. You shrugged and purchased it. I offered to wrap it for you and you thanked me profusely. You wanted to tip me, but I told you the store’s policy. You were one of the nicest people I met during a horrible few years in retail.
In honour of that, I want to offer you a tip: When you talk about gays and AIDs, I recommend acquiring facts first. Both subjects are sensitive, difficult and complex areas of discrimination, stigma and, indeed, death. What is helping us overcome these last powerful categories of discrimination is science, evidence and reason – not knee-jerk outrage, stereotypes and ignorance. I tend to think people are not the sum of a few quotes or even many (written) words: offhandish comments can be, for example, clearly homophobic, but I’m less comfortable with labelling that person a homophobe.
Like most people, you probably care about making the world a better place. I’m sure you’ve participated and done more for charities than I will do in my lifetime. This is, of course, not an excuse to make bigoted or ignorant statements about difficult topics; it’s an indication you’d rather not add to discrimination, not add to mindless stereotypes, not add to the suffering that is perpetuated by knee-jerk stigmatisation of gays and AIDs sufferers (not the same thing, though they can be).
There’s a TV show called The West Wing, which deals with your American political scene. It’s a beautiful and powerful show: I’m not particularly smart and it required me watching it twice to understand most of what was happening. Nonetheless, one of the characters says something important: “When you’re under the magnifying glass, you do what you can not to get burnt”. This, no doubt, is true of all celebrities’ lives. This means your remarks, though unremarkable for large parts of the world, though dismissed when they come from the “racist” or “homophobic” uncle at dinner, go further, strike harder, ring louder than they otherwise would. The same words put into different mouths have different effects.
I think if these emerged from the mouth of someone like Rush Limbaugh, he’d largely be overlooked – since his statements, though wrong and horrible, are so often idiotic we’ve become numb to the drone coming from his studio. People who listen to him are probably already sharing his views.
However, you’re in a position where young people listen and admire you. This, I think, comes with slightly more responsibility, especially when many of them are increasingly – and thankfully – unperturbed by homosexuality.
I’m not going to disparage these people from admiring you. Many want to dismiss you as – forgive these next few terms, I’m merely reporting them and do not endorse them – “meaningless”, as “an airhead”, as “talentless”, and so on. I frankly am not interested in why somebody is famous: I think talent and fame are not the same and, as I do not know you, I can’t speak for your talent in any particular area. I just know you are famous. With that comes the moral responsibility of treating the words you have with a sense of delicacy. The words in Limbaugh’s mouth are broken, the thoughts already bleeding profusely: you still have the ability to handle with care what your thoughts inspire you to assert.
My tip is to put a veneer of care on these words, because of the knowledge that a million young eyes and a million young ears are turned towards every move and sound you make.
No, I doubt you will inspire some uprising of homophobia of the killings of gays. That occurs anyway without you doing what you did – and that’s the problem: what you’ve not done is inspire the progress toward abandoning homophobia altogether. This is what we need.
I’ve seen many people caught out for saying homophobic things, then criticised as if this will change their minds: what people apologise for is not about the things they said, but for getting caught. This is not even apology but regret. Why do we think attacking somebody who disagrees with us will change his mind? We’ve just caught him in a moment where he’s revealed himself.
Just because many are upset with you should not be a catalyst for you to apologise. Don’t apologise. Stand up for what you think is true. Yes, your view is wrong, by any measure: but, I’d advise you to defend it – not with shifty and mealy-mouthed publicist-talk, but with the pride of your convictions. Defend it so that you will be willing to have others prove you wrong. Sure: you might still continue to believe gays are disgusting, or whatever the case may be. But at least, with your convictions in full-display, you need not be ashamed: you can have someone like the wonderful Dan Savage explain why you’re wrong; you can have AIDS researchers indicate that you’re assertion is a myth and out of touch with reality. If and, hopefully, when you see you are wrong, then you can speak about regretting your views: then you can apologise, since you’d be sincere and you’re recognise what is true. Don’t be forced into maintaining what you think is a lie – that gays are not disgusting, or don’t mostly have Aids. Maintain something because you are genuinely convinced of its reality.
I do hope this finds you well (despite knowing you will never see it). I do hope people are not too harsh on you. And, furthermore, I hope, just as you were nice to me, that I’ve been able to benefit you.
All the best in your future endeavours,
Image Credit: Joella Marano/WikiPedia
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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