As longtime readers know, I have always been uncomfortable with the progressive enthusiasm for silencing and marginalizing dissenters and opponents. In a neoliberal age, of course, we’re happy to let market forces do our censoring for us, because, hey, it’s only a problem if it’s the government trying to shut you up. At any rate, the point here is not to rehash that debate, just to note a different flaw in my argument: in order to convince people to adopt a more generous spirit of free speech, one would have to appeal to people who actually cared about principles, who aimed for consistency, who felt troubled by looking like the most brazen hypocrites. But you can’t shame the shameless:
Ethical journalism is not about silencing people who disagree with you — this is a censorship campaign, pure and simple. We can see through your mask…and boy, do you make it easy.
It’s not fair when our tribal opponents use the advertiser boycott to their advantage and succeed at it! Only we righteous ones get to do that! This man has all the intellectual conviction of a windsock.
But wait! There’s more!
“Those people are a bunch of rapists.”
“OK, phonies. Same thing, really.”
You know, if I honestly believed that sexual assault and rape were nearly-invisible epidemics, I would be furious at seeing imbeciles like this frivolously throwing the word “rapist” around as a loose synonym for “people I dislike”. If I found myself doing this in a moment of madness, I would be aghast at the thought that I might be undermining a cause I care deeply about through my selfish stupidity. But it would be prematurely cynical, in my view, to suggest that this proves that Peezus doesn’t actually believe his own bullshit, let alone care about it. I think he does care about what he imagines is a widespread social wrong. I think he’s just too stupid to realize he’s not helping.
A more legitimate literary objection to censorship is its implicit portrayal of a reader as the sort of person who jumps off a cliff when asked. Notions such as “obscenity” or “abasement before the west” make literary language a tool of subversion and ascribe to the novelist the hypnotist’s capacity for making a previously obedient or prudish member of the public throw stones or unzip. In censorship’s official, airbrushed view of the reading experience, dispositions are imposed, not reinforced. As J M Coetzee argued in Giving Offence: Essays on Censorship, “it is a feature of the paranoid logic of the censoring mentality that virtue, qua virtue, must be innocent, and therefore, unless protected, vulnerable to the wiles of vice.”
That paranoid logic is the pressure-relief valve that allows nominally liberal-minded people to blithely engage in their own form of censorship. Ambiguous art and unsettling concepts are fine for properly socialized, educated and civilized people like us, of course, but the rabble, well, I’m afraid they just can’t be trusted with them. Misanthrope that I am, though, I somehow have faith born from experience that the masses are not quite the impressionable blank slates that all these clucking mother hens would have you believe. And thus I can only shake my head sadly at Tauriq’s absurd logic here. You know, if we’re going to play this ridiculous “X degrees of separation” game, Nirvana is actually “responsible” for more sexual assaults than Robin Thicke. Why, it’s almost like there’s no clear, linear cause-and-effect relationship between the “message” of art and its effect on the audience.
So, last week, Freddie made what I thought to be an obvious and straightforward observation — tribalism begets tribalism. The irrelevant scalp you take now will one day be your own. Once more, with feeling:
This is going to happen: sooner or later, some CEO or sports team owner or similar is going to get ousted because he or she supports a woman’s right to an abortion, or the cause of Palestinian statehood, or opposes the death penalty. It’s inevitable. I can easily see someone suggesting that, say, Israel is an apartheid state, and watching as the media whips itself into a frenzy. And when that happens, the notion that there is no such thing as a violation of free speech that isn’t the government literally sending men with guns to arrest you will be just as powerful, and powerfully destructive, as it is now.
The context in which this simple point was made provoked furious reactions from Balloon Juice and LG&M. Freddie updated his post to say that not one of his critics had attempted to explain how they would have any ground to stand on in the event of a hypothetical such as he described, which, again, was the whole point of the exercise. Blog comment sections continued to make a persuasive case for their retroactive abortions. Drama, drama everywhere, nor any thought to think. I shook my head at the spectacle and then got busy with work for several days.
I blame that overwork for not thinking of the obvious rejoinder at the time. So when I finally got a free minute this evening, I just did a simple search at each of the posts in question to see if anyone had thought to bring up the infamous example of the Dixie Chicks. Silly me, I thought that if anyone had, it would be as an admonishment to progressives — hey, remember how horribly unfair and cynical you thought it was when their career was threatened for simply voicing an opinion? Shouldn’t that at least make you pause and reflect before jerking your knees and calling for someone’s job the next time they offend you? Did you all shrug and agree with Bush’s smirking response, which sounds so similar to the laissez-faire attitudes you hold now?
The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say…They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out. Freedom is a two-way street.
Like I said, silly me. One person at Freddie’s and three at Balloon Juice mentioned it. A couple of them brought it up in a tit-for-tat manner, as if Freddie were a disingenuous right-winger who needed to be reminded that conservatives can be tribal too, and the other argued that public shaming was free speech in action, apparently happy to allow the occasional consumer boycott of progressive artists in return for the right to have trial by social media. All of this in response, remember, to an attempt to argue for an increasingly charitable spirit of free speech. It’s not about the merits of Brendan Eich or Donald Sterling or the Dixie Chicks or anyone else in particular, but about trying to transcend the principles of “Mom, he started it!”, and “But it’s different when we do it!” It’s a reminder that your opponents will one day disingenuously take advantage of the same loopholes and technicalities to gain a trivial bit of revenge on you, and for what? A race to the bottom. Whatever, so be it. Hatfields and McCoys forever; you deserve one another.
If I weren’t going to be busy for at least a couple more days, it would sure be fun to hop in the wayback machine and go visit some of the progressive blogs circa 2003 to see what the reaction was at the time. Sanguine, I’m sure. I’ll bet you a vast sum of imaginary money on it.
ADDENDUM: Let me approach this from another angle to hopefully clarify some things. It seems evident to me that Freddie often takes a more, shall we say, meta-perspective on the issue du jour than most other bloggers. (I like to think I do as well, but I think he does it better than me.) If online progressivism is a fishtank, most bloggers are just writing about the details of the other fish. Freddie is more likely to be writing about the pH level of the water, the condition of the filter, and the size and shape of the tank itself. He’s more interested in the context in which these issues are being discussed. So, if I understand his general drift, he might ask, “What does it mean that all these people online are squawking about Brendan Eich or Donald Sterling or whothefuckever it is today?” A straightforward response might be, “It means that they oppose racism and homophobia and they think people who hold to such beliefs should pay a social penalty, duh. That’s a good thing, obviously!” To which he might respond, “No no no — what does it mean that they’re squawking about it in this particular environment?” Meaning, the incestuous environment of progressive social media.
If you’ve read even half of the links I’ve made to him, then you’re probably aware that he frequently revisits a theme, one that I find perceptive and rarely broached elsewhere. He frequently describes the way progressives behave online as being primarily concerned with an elaborate display of signaling, sorting, and other forms of jockeying for social status within the in-group. Numerous studies have shown what your own eyes have probably told you as well: the sheer volume of information available to anyone browsing the web, contrary to many of the early, rosy prognostications, has often tended to reduce people’s openness to new facts and perspectives. People cling more tightly to their beliefs for fear of losing their identity, with the added bonus that the web’s design allows them to customize their filters to an extent that they rarely, if ever, have to encounter any news or opinions that might seriously rattle their worldview. “Internet silos” is as good a name as any for this phenomenon. Political progressives may often be smug and self-satisfied about how tolerant and reality-based and culturally sophisticated they are, but they’re just as prone to this as any other group of humans who spend too much time inhaling their own fumes.
Another recurring theme of his that I like, one that he just revisited the other day, is that politics, if it’s intended to actually make a difference in the world, is about trying to convince people who don’t already agree with you. Simple, obvious, yet still almost radically powerful, because when you think about it, you realize that most “political” blogging is actually just preaching (or ranting) to the converted. If you’re a reader and a commenter, how much time do you spend at sites that actually challenge what you think, engaging people in thoughtful conversations, possibly changing your mind in the process? And how many do you go to where you can be sure that you’ll be surrounded by people who already agree with you on everything of substance? If you’re a blogger, how many times are your links either of the “Yeah, me too, +1,” or the “Ha ha, hey everybody, look at this stupid clown saying something stupid” variety? And how many times do you link to people who, even when you think they’re wrong, are still worth grappling with because doing so forces you to think more deeply about your own priors and assumptions?
If you’re at all typical, you probably go for the reinforced conventional wisdom and cheap laughs. Which is fine, but gossiping about political issues on a blog is not politics. It’s not activism. Like Freddie said, it’s a coffee klatsch. It’s a way to gather with like-minded people and reassure yourselves that you’re on the side of the angels, unlike all those benighted heathens over there. It’s a mutual admiration and handjob society. If someone from “the other side” actually did show up to attempt to argue a point, you or your comrades would almost certainly shout at him to scare him off, or you’d insist on reducing him to a cartoonish caricature, making it into a competition to see who could get in the most clever jab before running him off. Freddie likes to call this We Are All Already Decided, or something to that effect. We’re not trying to convince any undecided bystanders or question any assumptions; we’ve long since made up our minds on everything important, and now we’re just preening and grooming one another while we wait for the world to come around and recognize our obvious brilliance. Again, everybody needs to enjoy some form of entertainment, and I’m all for people wasting the company’s time while pretending to work. But this seems to be a form of entertainment with delusions of grandeur.
My personal take on the Sterling drama, ferzample, should you need it spelled out in so many words, is pretty much the exact same as that of the Ruthless Reviews article I linked to: I don’t care. So, some mummified old rich fuck who will be dead in a few years anyway said something racist on tape. Apparently, people familiar with this corner of the sports world had known the guy was racist for quite a while, but until the revelation got presented in a bite-sized, chocolate-coated, sugar morsel format that the subliterate Twittards could absorb, no one else cared much either. But viral attention suddenly meant everyone had to publicly present the appearance of caring, so there was much joy and cheer as the bad man was forced to sell his team at a huge profit and retire before the grim reaper himself could show up to escort him away. Do I have that about right? If so, then again, this isn’t news. This is useless drama. This is soap opera gossip. This is irrelevant fluff masquerading as something culturally significant. This changes nothing. So what does it mean that so many people online devote so much attention to it?
It is in this absurd context that people like Freddie and myself start to notice, hey, you know what, it seems like this incestuous little environment is starting to get a little too enamored of the idea that political activism amounts to little more than baying like a hound at the first sniff of a naughty word or a reactionary attitude, a little too complacent in thinking that justice has been served by getting someone fired. Granted, that’s a judgment call, a vague perception, and yours may differ. But if you’re waiting until Barack Obama, the Congressional Democrats, Paul Krugman and all the A-list bloggers all come out together and say in so many words that anyone found holding certain verboten opinions should be fired from their job before you decide to take seriously the idea that the spirit of free speech should be a bit more generous than the letter of the law, it’s probably too late at that point.
And again, if I haven’t made it already clear, I think that if there is to be any chance of such a charitable attitude gaining favor, it won’t begin online. I think that the dynamics I’m complaining about are exactly what the system is set up to produce, and I have no realistic hope that it could be any other way. Cement-headed idiots screaming at each other in sentence fragments. 500 people all trying to talk at once in the same enclosed space, reacting instead of thinking, trying to be the first to fire off a snarky one-liner. The kinds of conversations worth having are simply not going to happen in this environment. Everything is structured against it.
After a long day on the road Friday, I stopped for dinner at a Chinese mega-buffet. It was one of those restaurants that have closed-captioned TVs on every other wall. Barely had I sat down with a plate of lo mein when CNN flashed an attention-grabbing “Breaking News” banner on the screen. Goodness! This looks important! Wait, Donald Sterling speaking out for the first time since the scandal? Are you kidding? This is why you interrupt my dinner, to try to feed me more useless drama?
I turned back to my plate, certain that I could find more illuminating perspectives on the latest morality play later if I wanted. And so it proved:
I guess it’s brave to ignore an important dude who pays your salary being a major league asshole until it becomes a big media story and you have to suddenly be outraged. The definition of bravery is pretty whimsical. It used to be the first man rushing into the breach. Now it’s disassociation as fast as your little chicken legs can carry you. I’m not saying Donald Sterling is not a racist asshole. I’m saying if you’ve waited until he was 81 to make first mention of it, you need to do a little Michael Jackson man in the mirror self-reflection time. Not that that stopped Michael from clown bagging little boys, but you get the idea.
As Liberal Puritanism and other forms of self-indulgent, lazy morality become normalized, and as the science of manipulating the public becomes more refined, and as our systems become more corrupt, what the powerful do, in terms of helping and hurting other people, is becoming irrelevant. It will just occasionally matter what they say. You can actively promote elements of institutional racism against poor blacks, be caught and have it all proven in court. Just don’t say anything ugly about a famous, rich black guy. You can plunder struggling local governments to increase wealth that already vastly exceeds what you can spend in a lifetime. Just make sure to read a book to a kid on TV in a school that has less money because of you.
The rich and powerful can do whatever they want and hurt as many people as they want and we’ll continue to celebrate them. Just as long as we get the chance to screech at one here and there for making some stupid faux pas that doesn’t really harm anyone.
For our part, we’ll be able to agree on easily digestible, trivial moral problems that have to do with the individual failings of some villain du jour. We’ll be right, he’ll be wrong. We’ll congratulate ourselves for promoting justice. He’ll liquidate a billion dollar asset and pretend to go to rehab or something. Then he’ll return to alternately enjoying total opulence and buying press and politicians to use as weapons against the rest of us. And when we get hung up on one dickhead saying one shitty thing, we’re playing that game just as much as he is.
This is going to happen: sooner or later, some CEO or sports team owner or similar is going to get ousted because he or she supports a woman’s right to an abortion, or the cause of Palestinian statehood, or opposes the death penalty. It’s inevitable. I can easily see someone suggesting that, say, Israel is an apartheid state, and watching as the media whips itself into a frenzy. And when that happens, the notion that there is no such thing as a violation of free speech that isn’t the government literally sending men with guns to arrest you will be just as powerful, and powerfully destructive, as it is now. So what will these people say? I don’t have the slightest idea how they will be able to defend the right of people to hold controversial, left-wing political ideas when they have come up with a thousand arguments for why the right to free expression doesn’t apply in any actual existing case. How will Isquith write a piece defending a CEO’s right to oppose Israeli apartheid? A sports owner’s right to do the same? I can’t see how he could– unless it really is just all about teams, and not about principle at all.
The trouble is, whether certain ideas are odious or unacceptable is itself usually a matter for debate. Take the two cases here. Many people do not see Brendan Eich’s opposition to same-sex marriage as homophobic or Hirsi Ali’s opposition to Islam as Islamophobic. Even if you think they are homophobic or Islamophobic, there is no value in simply shouting ‘Oh but they are’ and proscribing such views. That makes no more sense than Hindus demanding that Wendy Doniger’s book be banned because it supposedly disparages Hinduism, or Islamists demanding that Maajid Nawaz be disciplined for supposedly offending Muslims.
There is a difference between creating a society in which we have genuinely reduced or removed certain forms of hatreds and demanding that people shut up because they have to conform to other people’s expectations of what is acceptable. To demand that something is unsayable is not to make it unsaid, still less unthought. It is merely to create a world in which social conversation becomes greyer and more timid, in which people are less willing to say anything distinctive or outrageous, in which in Jon Lovett’s words, ‘fewer and fewer people talk more and more about less and less’. The Culture of Shut Up fashions not a less hateful world but a more conformist one. And there is chasm between the act of conforming and that of transforming.
Ideally, it would be great if we could “genuinely reduce” prejudice and hatred without simply demanding that people shut up. Realistically, no matter how committed a society is to maintaining a healthy culture of open discussion and debate, there will always be a significant minority who can’t be reasoned into agreement with the majority and will thus be intimidated into silence or ostracized. Eventually, they will accept that the social costs of being racist or homophobic simply aren’t worth the open expression of the sentiment, and over time, people will adjust to the new consensus as they always do. However, it still doesn’t feel right to endorse the intimidation/ostracizing, as inevitable as it may be. This is the part I wrestle with myself. I agree with the general point of Malik’s post (and his stance on free speech in general), but I think he sidesteps this point and is left vaguely gesturing in the direction of a world in which no one is ever compelled into behavior without their fully conscious, rational assent. How do we realistically come to terms with the fact that a tolerance omelet may require a few broken Eichs? How much resistance do we offer to the latest trial-by-Twitter even as we know that, ultimately, societal norms always have and always will require a certain amount of non-rational social pressure to become fixed into place?
If we are forced to accept the inevitability of these social costs, perhaps the best we can do is to moderate their scope and intensity. In the cases of people like Eich or Justine Sacco, what exactly are we trying to achieve? Ferzample, I heard it said that elevating Eich to CEO of Mozilla was the step too far, that it was too close to the company endorsing his political views. Fair enough, but how much effort, in general, should be devoted to scrutinizing someone’s political views or personal life? How far should we go in attempting to dig up dirt on them if it’s not readily apparent? And how long do the punitive sanctions last? If Eich or Sacco land in new high-profile, lucrative jobs, will they attract more negative attention? That is, will they be perceived to have gotten off too easily and thus require more hounding? I just don’t get a sense that most people have bothered to consider things like that. What concerns me is the ad-hoc nature of what constitutes justice in these situations. I suspect that a lot of people just want to enjoy judging and punishing (especially as social media creates the conditions where doing so brings status and other social rewards), and I worry about the possibility of the terms of punishment remaining open-ended and subject to extension.
Will Shetterly is correct; this is an excellent perspective on the tired old free speech debate:
The basis of the argument is that “the right to free speech means the government can’t arrest you for what you say.” In the context of capitalism, that’s an incredibly reductionist definition. If speech is supposed to be free, we must ask: who owns the means by which speech is expressed and transmitted in the modern world? Who owns the newspapers? Who owns the TV channels? Who owns Twitter? Who owns Facebook? Who owns the film production studios? Who owns the ISPs? And so on. The answer is always the same: not the government. Not the people, either. All of these things are owned by capital. All of these things are industries.
So, in a situation where public discourse takes place in privately-owned spaces, how are the handful of people who ultimately own most of the media any different from a government? Apart from the lack of any kind of system of democratic control or a pretense of accountability, that is.
…Ultimately, what this comic is selling is a strange libertarian capitalist fantasy of freedom, where freedom is defined solely as freedom from government interference, but freedom from the structures of authority produced by the accumulation of capital is never considered.
The value of the argument aside, it’s a fun bonus to imagine how many of XKCD’s readers would likely be mortally offended at the suggestion that they’ve internalized libertarian capitalist values.
Of course free speech doesn’t mean you have a right to not be criticized or a right to occupy every forum. But the way in which contempt for the very term “free speech” has become one of those cultural signals that are the glue of today’s bourgie elite progressivism can and will lead to actual, no bullshit suppression of speech. A liberalism that claims that rights are only denied if tanks are rolling through the streets is a pathetic liberalism and one that stands in direct and stark contrast to the history of the principled left.
As if on cue, XKCD provides the conventional wisdom in picture form. Look, I’ll just say that, as in many other instances, there’s a letter of the law and a spirit of the law, and I’m pretty sure that all these disingenuous, loophole-seeking motherfuckers know the difference.
Speaking of Andrew Sullivan and credit where due, I thought this was a very good post:
One seeks to get to a place where a conversation ends. The other seeks never to end the conversation, and, in fact, gets a little queasy when any topic is ruled out of bounds in a free society.
Maybe if we can appreciate both traditions, we can see the underlying forces behind this debate more clearly. My own instincts on the gay rights question have always been classically liberal/small-c conservative/libertarian. I think hate is an eternal part of the human condition, and that ridding oneself of it is a personal, moral duty not a collective, political imperative. I never want to live in a society in which homophobes feel obliged to shut up. I believe their freedom is indivisible from ours. Their hate only says something about them, not me. I oppose hate crime laws for those reasons. And my attachment to open debate means constantly allowing even the foulest sentiments to be expressed – the better to confront them, expose them and also truly persuade people of the wrongness of their views – rather than pressuring them into submission or silence. Others have a different vision: that such bigotry needs extra punishment by the state (hence hate-crime laws), that bigots need to be constantly shamed, and that because of the profound evil of such thoughts, social pressure should be brought to bear to silence them. More to the point, past sins have to be recanted and repented before such bigots are allowed back into the conversation.
…But liberalism, for me, is not a means to a progressive end. It is an end in itself.
It seeks to guard against groupthink and social pressure as dangerous threats to freedom of thought and of the individual. It aims to protect the rights of bigots as well as the targets of their bigotry. At any one point, that can seem grotesquely unfair. And it is. It is and was deeply unfair that, in order to enjoy some simple basic rights, we gays have had to explain ourselves to the world, listen to our very lives being debated as if we were not in the room, have our lives and loves traduced and distorted and picked over by people who treat us as pawns in a political game or an intellectual exercise. But, you know what? We had no choice if we were to move forward.
It calls to mind the old quip about how a liberal is someone who won’t even take his own side in an argument. Fair enough. And one could easily object that there’s no sense in remaining open-minded indefinitely; at some point, you have to accept whatever provisional conclusions you’ve drawn and just act. This may very well be an impossibly idealistic standard to aim for. My own commenters, among many others, have made the comparison: what if Eich had been donating money to white supremacist or neo-Nazi organizations? Would anyone be worried that he was being treated unfairly? And it’s true — there is, more or less, a cultural consensus on topics like those that would brook no discussion. There would be no mitigating factors on his behalf. But that consensus didn’t form as a result of each individual citizen being rationally persuaded by argument of the evils of Nazism and Jim Crow. It was, at least partially, simply imposed by people who had the power to do so and cemented into place by social pressure and groupthink. If, over time, a visceral rejection of homophobia is to join that consensus, it may very well have to be imposed by force. Perhaps a tolerance omelet will require a few broken Brendan Eichs. I’m not advocating that, I’m just acknowledging that individuals often get steamrolled by larger historical forces.
Nonetheless, I think it’s vitally important that gadflies exist, even when they pester the most seemingly-worthy of causes. Take the example of progressive boycotting. In theory, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. People are free to be choosy about which companies they patronize. They’re also free to attempt to persuade other people to act similarly. In many cases, the ostensible motivations for the boycotts are noble enough. So why do I spend so much time mocking them?
Because in practice, they’re doomed to futility. For starters, they’re not overwhelmingly popular to begin with. It would take a disciplined, sustained effort to win enough support to be effective, but attention spans being what they are these days, the initial outrage quickly fizzles out. Increasing support for a cause would also mean having to interact with people who are indifferent or even hostile to it, but given the well-documented tendency for people on the web to form silos and block all social media communication with others who criticize or offend them, it’s more likely that the boycotters will only end up preaching to the converted. Saying “I’m boycotting Barilla pasta because their CEO only allows ‘traditional’ families in their ads” lacks any practical consequence, and thus is only another way of saying “I don’t like people who are prejudiced against gays.” Opinions are stated not to persuade anyone of anything, but to promote yourself in a shallow, narcissistic medium, to fish for praise, to burnish your status among your peers.
So what you end up with is a marginal group of perpetually aggrieved people, full of moral fervor, yet bitterly resentful over their lack of power and influence, lacking the discipline or planning to experience the satisfaction of meaningful achievement. To me, that sounds like a perfect recipe for displaced aggression. They’ll settle for taking scalps if they can’t accomplish anything else. I saw this dynamic in the political blogosphere all the time. I haven’t read Digby’s blog in years, because I got so tired of the endless pity party. Ever since Obama’s election, it was nothing but complaining about how the media “villagers” were so unfair to the Democrats, how the Republicans were so much more effective in power, how poor progressive bloggers were seen as nothing but dumb dirty hippies. And predictably enough, after all this constant moaning, when an easy target presented itself, Digby was right there to serve up a few posts’ worth of red meat for her commenters. Well, you know, I hated bullies way before it became a progressive cause du jour, and that doesn’t change just because I might agree with the bullies in principle. Somebody needs to force people to check their consciences at times like those.
I was reading a comment somewhere (can’t find it now) by a woman whose name is on the list of people who donated to Prop. 8. She said that at the time, she was a law student and was enamored of some byzantine legal reasoning that said gay marriage should only be legal if approved by a majority of the population in a vote, not as a result of a judicial ruling. In other words, she was overly impressed by her own newly-minted legal cleverness and a smug belief that she saw important nuance where duller minds didn’t. She regrets it now, but she worries about the possibility of it coming back to haunt her. If she ever became the subject of one of these Two Minutes Hate sessions on social media, would anyone stop shouting long enough to give her a chance to explain herself? Would it even matter, or would the event take on a momentum of its own at that point? To me, it’s a quintessential liberal principle to worry about the one innocent person who might get caught up in the rush to serve justice to nine guilty ones.
No one deliberately sets out to become a groupthinking herd animal. It happens by steps, in degrees, and if the subject is even aware of how drastically they’ve changed, they almost certainly think it’s for the better. In my pessimistic estimation, people are always at risk of being swept away in the current of seemingly inexorable logic; in fact, I think a lot of people are just looking for an excuse to surrender themselves to it. To use Sullivan’s distinction, liberalism is the necessary brake on progressivism’s moral impulses. Neither one would be effective alone; they need each other.
I know some people will assume I’m speaking to some sad fringe here. But I have been amazed at how mainstream these anti-free speech efforts have become. I have been amazed not just because of the immorality of trying to ban free though, free expression, and free assembly, or because these efforts reverse centuries of the assumed work of the left, but because of how easily this could backfire, in a world where our movements against sexism and racism and homophobia are still so fragile and contested. Ten years ago, the Republican party ran on a platform of opposition to gay marriage, and enjoyed enormous electoral success, and yet people trust the majority so deeply that they are willing to hand it the power to ban unpopular speech. My people: we are not nearly so popular or powerful as it can sometimes seem, when we engage with those we agree with online. Sometimes, the people who are arguing against free expression know that; they recount in terrible detail all the ways in which this remains a deeply unjust world. And yet when it comes to these kinds of political debates, they seem to forget, arguing always for a retrenchment back to the already convinced, and responding angrily to the notion that it is our responsibility to argue publicly and effectively for what is right. It’s a central contradiction of this movement, and something I’ll never understand.
A right-wing British guy I know explained it as well as I’ve ever heard — whether through a lack of imagination or memory, or just due to impatience, people who advocate such illiberal stances always envision themselves as the ones in power, making the rules. As if on cue, one of Freddie’s commenters offers up a convoluted, weasel-worded attempt to justify the heckler’s veto in a private institutional setting, such as a college campus. According to this special pleading, “members of that institutional community” might have a right to “occupy” that space themselves if they object to the speech being offered. As the aforementioned Tory would sardonically expect, it apparently never occurs to our hero that “members of that institutional community” who don’t agree with the mob consensus even exist, let alone deserve consideration.