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Epictetus, Free Speech, and Micro-Aggressions

Ryan Ackerman (2L)

“Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.” Epictetus imparted those words 2000 years ago, yet contemporary civilization seems paralyzed by words. We self-censor out of a fear of offending others, while simultaneously police the words spoken and written by others. Missing from this is the personal responsibility Epictetus spoke of. Instead the debate is all about externalities – the micro-aggressions, the unintentional slights – while any self-awareness is glossed over. The offending people are so remote, so disconnected from daily life that it begs the question: why get involved with ‘shaming’ these people at all? The definition of offensive varies between people, between cultures, and across time. Offence can never be completely avoided, so instead of stopping offence (which can never be done) the whole point of the exercise must be to proclaim one’s relative virtue to the terrible offender of sensibilities. Again, Epictetus is illustrative. He stated that “any person capable of angering you becomes your master, he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed.” A person only needs a cursory glance at Twitter to see that there are a lot of angry people taking offence (and proclaiming their virtue) on any subject, no matter how trivial. When these notions are challenged the response isn’t to change course or back down, but to declare a new crusade against this ‘troll’ who fails to see how outrageously outrageous the initial slight was.

Now I do not want to discount the notion that some of this crusade against offensiveness comes from a good place. Some genuinely believe that positive social change will be accomplished through shaming the crass and crude. However there are also those who use this sledgehammer of public outrage to silence the weak and stifle debate on topics where debate is sorely needed. We are at a crossroads of democracy when we are faced with determining which is more important: the reinforcing of ‘acceptable’ standards leading to a mindless herd mentality, or the free and unfettered exchange of ideas. People should of course be free to challenge those who they disagree with, but to a great many people the goal of outrage is to remove anyone who disagrees with them from the conversation. Again, a posturing of virtue while branding the other as a threat. We talk of safe spaces but if it is not safe for everyone to speak, is it truly safe? Unpopular opinions will always exist, and in a healthy democracy this should be encouraged wholeheartedly. We have the power to be an accomplice in the outrage response, or we can see the value in allowing others to express themselves however they see fit.

Human life is messy, and so are the words we use to describe it.