Much of what passes for political debate today is really a debate about psychology. Comparatively few people are arguing about who should get funding, or who should get land, or who should go to jail. Instead, the questions that interest people the most are questions about what words public figures should be allowed to say, or about who is allowed to express an opinion about certain topics. Should we boycott KFC for its executives’ homophobic remarks? Should we demand Donald Sterling’s head for his racist remarks? Do we ever want to hear from Paula Deen again? What about Eliot Spitzer? Who has the most authentic take on the legacy of colonialism: a Seminole running a casino, a descendant of slaves on a cotton plantation, a recent immigrant from Bangladesh, a queer activist from Occupy Wall Street, or an Irish history professor? Should men have a say in what kinds of behavior get prosecuted as rape? Should fundamentalist Christians take care to keep their views on marriage tucked firmly within the four walls of their own churches?
These questions all touch on extremely sensitive issues, and they all appear to deal with very important topics, such as slavery, equality, corruption, safety, and liberty. However, it is worth keeping in mind that offensive speech, in and of itself, is not the most important problem facing most Americans. People do not wander around thinking, “Well, I’ve got a good job, and a healthy family, and a nice neighborhood, and some fulfilling hobbies – now if only I could get those politically incorrect assholes to shut up, my life would be perfect.” On the contrary, people are drowning. People are sick, ignorant, indebted, lonely, and generally screwed.
Reining in offensive speech, while useful, is not even a plausible first step toward solving people’s biggest problems. Even if we had a perfectly civil national conversation, where nobody ever used a racial slur, and where everyone always paused to consider how their words might affect people with different histories of privilege and oppression, we would still be sick, ignorant, indebted, lonely, and generally screwed. We would not own our homes, we would not own our farms, we would not know how to run an industrial society in way that takes care of peoples’ physical and mental health, and we would still be ferociously addicted to alcohol and meth and reality TV and narcissism and despair.
For me, the interesting question is not, “Have you checked your privilege?” The interesting question is not, “Are you an ally of the oppressed?” For me, the most interesting question is, “What can we do to fix our society?” The enemy is not a class or a race or a gender or a political party; the enemy is the catastrophic inefficiency, purposelessness, and corruption of our institutions. The enemy is the fact that we get sick and die younger than we want to; the enemy is the fact that we spend so much of our short lives struggling to pay the bills; the enemy is the fact that we unconsciously follow scripts about how to relax, who to fuck, what to talk about with our friends, even though nobody drafted the scripts on purpose and nobody knows whether the scripts are any good for us.
There are, of course, people who are suffering in some specific way because of one or another of colonialism’s evil legacies. There are people who feel physically unsafe in public, people who grew up without any decent role models, people who are unconsciously judged and rejected by most of their neighbors because of the way they look. If you are hurting, and you need help, ask for it. If someone is stealing from you, fight back. If you were handicapped, and you deserve a second chance, then by all means, demand it. But in making those demands, be careful not to change the subject from policy to psychology. When the public conversation drifts into a heated debate about everybody's feelings, we all lose, because the problem isn't our feelings, our feelings are just a symptom of this twisted, insufficient, arbitrary Universe we all find ourselves living in, and we're not going to beat that problem by being polite or pleasant or politically correct.