The Thoughts Are Free
Scott Adams is the creator of Dilbert, a long-running comic strip about the misadventures and wry observations of a cubicle-dweller in a faceless corporation. He is also a noted conservative activist of the sort that likes to get into tweet wars with lefty activists on social media.
In the culture in which I was raised, it was presumed that one would have all sorts of vile or embarrassing thoughts. The key was not giving voice to them.
When I was a teen, I remember riding in a car driven by Auntie Dot, my grandmother’s sister. Dot was a cautious driver in her older years, and piloted her 1977 Cadillac Seville up and down the Carmel Valley Road at a pace that infuriated those who wished to go faster. On this particular occasion, a driver who had been stuck behind us while the road was single lane whipped past the moment a second lane opened, honked and screamed unintelligible obscenities. My great- aunt gave the other driver — a young woman — the slightest nod of her head, and then sighed.
I was mortified. I knew Auntie Dot was a slow driver, but I also hated to have her verbally abused. I apologized on behalf of all young people. My great-aunt smiled, and said, without taking her eyes off the road, “Just for a moment, I was thinking how nice it would be if that woman crashed head-on into a tree and her car blew up.”
I gave an astonished snort. My aunt laughed, and said, very gently, “Even your old auntie has wild thoughts, Hugo.”
I recounted the anecdote to my mother, who told me that I ought to take away two lessons from the incident: one, road rage was very, very vulgar. Two, it’s perfectly normal to think the most remarkably violent and unpleasant things, as long as one doesn’t act on them — or repeat them to people who might be scandalized or offended.
The point is, Mr. Adams, nice people have been keeping their views to themselves for a very long time. It is true that until recently, men of a certain color and class could say candid things (some of which were hurtful) without quite as many hysterical repercussions as they might encounter today. I don’t know whether our new sensitivities represent progress or its opposite, but I will say that for a very long time before cancel culture, there were things that a gentleman still didn’t say — even if he was privileged enough to presume no lasting consequences from his angry, lewd, or racially insensitive remarks.
I shared the Adams quote on Facebook and got interesting pushback. My dear friend Jennifer argued that queer people do not want mere politeness. They have a right to know that their friends and family support them inwardly as well as outwardly. If someone were to transition, Jennifer said, they were entitled to know that those around them affirmed them heart, mind and soul. It wouldn’t be enough to be merely respectful or kind, as that behavior might conceal doubts about trans identity. Trans folks, Jennifer argued, deserve transparency. You don’t have a right to merely be pleasant and warm to your newly transitioned friend or relation — you owe them a window into your heart, and a promise that your outward affection is rooted in genuine feeling.
I’ve written before about the importance of protecting one’s inner world. The great German folk song defiantly claims, “the thoughts are free.” The world has a claim on your manners and your work ethic and your willingness to show up. But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that no one, not even a spouse or a parent or a priest, gets to demand that you align your inner world with your outer actions. No one gets to insist you confess your doubts, or abjure passing erotic fantasy, or eradicate all little jealousies and simmering resentments. The essence of any totalizing system — be it fundamentalist religion, or Wokeness or certain forms of New Age therapy — is that it demands that the mind and heart themselves submit to the system. The most destructive systems in the world are those that demand the transformation of the human person as a precondition of personal and collective progress.
Even now, most wedding invitations in America tend to use one of two phrases: the brides, grooms or parents thereof “request the honor of your presence” — if it is to be a religious affair — or “request the pleasure of your company,” if it’s the sort of occasion where the couple recite their own vows. I’ve always taken this phrasing rather literally: they want me to suit up, show up, and add to the happiness of the occasion. I have gone to many weddings (and you probably have too) where I entertained some slight (or less, often, not so slight) worry about the compatibility of the two-about-to be-hitched. I always hope for the best, and having been married five times, I’m hardly in the place to judge. I show up regardless of my feelings, and I do not give voice to my doubts and worries and jealousies, letting them pass, as Luther said, like birds overhead.
My Auntie Dot was a kind, gracious, elegant influence. She gave me a gift when she shared her fleeting wish that a rude motorist might perish in a violent conflagration. It was a reminder that everyone has their own mysterious inner life, and that we ought not to feel ashamed or embarrassed by the things we think. We are responsible for how we carry ourselves, and how we treat others with our words and our actions. Love is a verb. We do the kind and right thing when we are in good moods and bad, because the world is entitled to our kindness and our best efforts. Yet no one, no one, no one — not those who share our breakfast tables and our beds, much less those we meet in our streets and offices and subways — is entitled to be certain that our inner desires and convictions match our outer behavior.
Yes, Mr. Adams, it has always been true that saying what we really think hurts as much as it heals. Civilized people have known that for a long time, and they do not attribute their restraint to the excesses of cancel culture. We owe the world and our families so much, but there is an inner terrain that even the dearest of these are not entitled to map.