In the modern world, we judge people because of the potential risk they might directly inflict on someone, someday, maybe. This makes sense in high-stakes situations. Child molestation. Who wants to wait for the actual act? One of many reasons that the law punishes people for possession of child pornography, regardless of distribution or creation. This is a tough population to defend, and I have little interest in doing so. But it is worth pondering how the mandatory minimum sentence for child pornography possession is 10 years when an actual sexual assault of an unconscious victim only garnered six months probation; and this is the norm, not an outlier.

But what about when the stakes are lower? How about the current kneeling in football fiasco that can lead to.....what? What is the danger that evokes such rage and fear? Of all the issues plaguing humanity, a restaurant a few miles from my house made this their primary concern (not the multiple teenage suicides or impoverished kids in the same county, much less the daily travails of fellow Americans in Texas, Florida, or Puerto Rico). This restaurant taps into the adjoining new trend of condemning people because their actions cause us to feel uncomfortable. Not actual harassment; just discomfort. 

Consider parents who raise their kids differently. Or rather, modern parents who treat their children how they were treated.

Letting their 9-year old kid take the subway by themselves.

Letting their 10-year old sit in the front passenger seat - even with shoulder and lap belts. 

We have become a society that embraces shaming.  Attack first, think later, if ever. 

This sociological trend is not limited to adults imposing their morality on athletes or celebrities or parents. It extends to teachers under the microscope. And every human in public settings (online or physically nearby). There is a four prong approach that is endemic to modern public discourse.

First. Experience indignation. It is best to feel irate while resisting any temptation to consider another perspective. If you get pissed, you are obviously right to be pissed.

Second. Share this indignation widely. Social media is perfect because you probably spent years collecting "friends" who look like you, think like you, and are fully prepared to embrace your indignation as truth. The first one to get their anger out secures viral fanfare. So do not wait to critically evaluate whatever is bothering you. Just feel and share immediately. Let your friends fight anyone who disagrees. If they do the work, your feelings appear justified to the world.

Howard Salus, used with permission
Source: Howard Salus, used with permission

Consider the visual - everything you write gets 50 thumbs-up in minutes while those who disagree are bludgeoned with zero likes and rapid-fire memes! Evidence that you are a popular winner!

Third. Bask in the moral superiority. You were upset. You were validated. Take this as objective evidence that you are correct. If you ever risk a face-to-face exchange with the offender, show them the data. They are wrong because other people are pissed that you are pissed.

Fourth. Find others who are writing similar sentiments. Form a coalition. A movement that bonds over attacking a single person or small group. You can literally destroy them. Do not hesitate because what matters is that your needs are being repeatedly satisfied. You feel a sense of belonging in the attacking. You feel a sense of competence in the orchestration of these attacks. You feel a sense of autonomy because unlike work or home; there are no puppet masters. Fight whenever you want and try to find anonymous forums to avoid filtering anything. The unbridled freedom. It feels so good, doesn't it?

One of the benefits of working in one place for 13 years is that you witness cultural shifts. For 13 years, I have been a professor in the psychology department at George Mason University. 

In the beginning, students used to line up after class about things they had questions about. Some complained. I would apologize to them and then to the entire class next time.

Over the years, this trickled down to a few students stopping by my office, nervously complaining to me. After all, there is a power balance. I would apologize to them and then to the entire class next time.

Then I received emails. Some of them were carefully worded and in return, persuasive. I would apologize to them and then to the entire class. I would meet with them and talk it out. 

Now I rarely hear anything directly. Someone will anonymously rip me apart in an end of year teaching evaluation, a website for anonymous rantings about professors, or an anonymous complaint to an administrator. Twice the parent of an undergraduate student called me on my office phone to complain on their behalf.

Charlie Friscia, used with permission
Source: Charlie Friscia, used with permission

Each time I responded the same way - you know what would be great, is that if they spoke to me directly. They can learn how to express themselves. They can learn how uncomfortable it can be to argue their point. They can learn to give and receive feedback. They can learn leadership skills. The worst thing that could happen is that I disagree and say no to their requests. Trust in them. Unleash them. 

We are losing the art of assertiveness and disagreement. What happens to society when people cannot look another person in the eye to express problems? What happens when people avoid people that don't think the same way or make them uncomfortable?

Being addicted to comfort feels safe. It is also the start of a slow, systematic decline in becoming strong enough to be vulnerable, and brave enough to live in the gray spaces where growth and creativity often emerges.

NOTE: This post is dedicated to minority voices everywhere willing to speak out despite the uncomfortable feelings and pushback that arise. Be brave enough to speak and flexible enough to listen to, reflect on, and modify in the presence of impressive, disconfirming evidence. 

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