I have this horrible, sinking feeling that much of the work that was done to encourage tolerance has backfired. Instead of actually encouraging inclusiveness, the language of tolerance is now used by many as an excuse to never reconsider their opinions. Language designed to encourage inclusiveness has become a way to justify exclusion.
I’m glad that we’ve developed a more relativistic discourse. I’m glad that there isn’t a single source truth out there that can’t be challenged, a single authority that determines right from wrong. Pluralism is useful. A world in which ideas are being challenged is a great thing- as long as they’re actually being challenged.
Because here’s the thing: truth still exists. Some things are simply true, and no number of different perspectives will change that. It’s a cliche to say this at this point, but two plus two is four. If you accept that, you start from the position that there are some things that are true. Relativism doesn’t render logic false or useless. If X, then Y. Actions have consequences.
Unfortunately, too often, the phrases “it’s just my opinion” or “it’s my view that…” are used as cover for “I don’t need to critically engage in this” or “my view should be free from criticism” or “I am not responsible for the consequences of my what I say and think” . It’s absurd, because even though something might be an opinion, facts still inform it and, in some cases, show it to be false. It could be my opinion that two plus two is five. It would also be wrong. Opinions do not exist in a vacuum, even if some like to treat them that way.
If you tell a joke, and it offends someone, that joke IS offensive. You told the joke. A person is offended by the joke. That makes it offensive. Now you might say “well, it is offensive, but that’s an offense I’m willing to make.” Fine. That’s your choice. But it’s still offensive. The offensive nature of the joke is a reality, not an opinion, because someone was offended by the joke.*
The world IS getting warmer. It’s a fact. Now your opinion might be that it’s not, or that people are overreacting, or that there’s an international conspiracy to trick us into believing something. That’s fine. It is your right to have your opinion. But the facts don’t support it. It is objectively true that the world is getting warmer.
Free speech does not mean consequence-free speech**. But everything we do, and everything we say, has consequences. You can have an opinion, but that opinion isn’t sacrosanct. An opinion isn’t a precious object, to be put behind glass, preserved for all to see. It’s meant to be taken into the world, and pushed around a little bit and tested to see if it can survive. If it doesn’t, a new, stronger one will take its place.
If we hold our opinions to be so precious that we daren’t challenge them, we miss out on the opportunity to be really empathetic, to try to understand someone else’s experience, and to broader our own horizons just a little bit.
*Edited to add: Which is, incidentally, why I’m against the “cause offense” clause in the new anti-discrimination legislation. Causing offense is generally not a good thing, but it is entirely too difficult to police. And, frankly, some people are offended by things that I think it should be ok to say, which is why coming to terms with the idea that “this caused offense, but I’m willing to cause it in order to make my point” is important: it deals with the reality of the situation, rather than pleading ignorant.
**Instead, it means legal-consequence-free speech which is, in my opinion, a good thing.