When the first Shrek was out in theaters, my family and I went to see it. About 2/3rds of the way through, Donkey mutters “what’s the point of being able to talk if you’ve got to keep secrets?” Or something like that. No one in the theater laughed except my family. My whole damn family. And they laughed hard.
Because I’m not known for my secret-keeping. I do better (by far) now than I did as a child, but there is something in me that can’t compute the idea that there are things that can’t be discussed. As a teenager in the Seventh-Day Adventist church, this got me into a lot of trouble. The list of things we couldn’t talk about there went on for days. The list of things we didn’t do was nearly as long, but one doesn’t really *do* secular humanism. It is a concept, a philosophy, a thing you talk about. And it, among other ideas, were verboten.
This never sat well with me. I had questions and I wanted answers and that was unacceptable. So I stopped being Adventist and ideas stopped being off-limits.
Except there are new rules for things that can’t be thought. Ideas that can’t be said. Discomforts that can’t be owned. Recently, there was an internet meltdown over Louis CK’s fictional grappling with the concept of having maybe slept with a post-op transsexual woman. In my perspective, addressing this subject honestly–up to and including ambivalence and not knowing what you feel–is better than putting a Brady Bunch happy ending on the subject. Too many transsexual individuals end up dead because there is no room in our culture for muddling through the grey area of not knowing exactly how to react to this phenomenon, for being conflicted and confused. And to put that confusion into the cultural discourse is a *good* thing.
Confusion, conflict, and ambivalence are far more true to the human experience than sitcom resolutions which take exactly 18 minutes to complete, with the minutes in-between brought to you by our overlord sponsors.
To say that confusion, conflict, and ambivalence are unacceptable forces us back into a different kind of binary, which isn’t helpful either. Because real life happens in grey. I personally have never felt particularly chafed by the idea that there are some conversations that I can have in private that are not for me to have in public. I don’t feel particularly constrained by the PC police. But I read about professors who cross Mark Twain off of their reading list because someone might be offended… I wonder what of the unspeakables is worse: the one that comes from religious hegemony or the one that comes from a fear of discomfort.
I think I might take the religious exile of certain subjects over the secular exile of a different set of subjects. But I’d rather not have either governing my intellectual life. The truth is that we all think ugly things from time to time. We all make tasteless jokes here and there. We try out words to see if they fit before we agree with them. Silencing racists with our censure doesn’t make them less racist, it only drives them underground. Stifling a fictional conversation about the awkward that would ensue as you wrapped your head around the idea that you’d just woken up with someone who was born an xy and was now presenting like an xx… Why wouldn’t that take a minute to get used to? I’d need a minute to wrap my head around the realization that I’d just woken up with a Republican, regardless of the intellectual certainty that being a Republican doesn’t automatically make you a soulless, golf-playing, boat-shoe-wearing frat boy. I’d still need a minute.
Ideas are just ideas. You can’t bomb them. You can’t shame them into oblivion. It is never the stuff that we talk about openly that returns to haunt us, it is always the things that we’ve decided can’t be discussed. If you really want to kill an idea, let it be spoken, let it be tested against reason, give the idea-holder the opportunity to figure out exactly how bad the idea really is. Hell, let them live with the bad idea if they want. So long as that bad idea doesn’t turn into someone else’s reality.
Besides, couldn’t we spend all that outrage energy on something useful, like driving voters to polling places or volunteering or writing petitions to save bees or something that has some tangible impact in the world one way or another?