A Taxonomy of Fear

There is a pattern in the way speech is silenced. Understanding it can help us stand up to the illiberalism of this moment.

We live in a time of personal timorousness and collective mercilessness.

There might seem to be a contradiction between being fearful and fearless, between weighing every word you say and attacking others with abandon. But as more and more topics become too risky to discuss outside of the prevailing orthodoxies, it makes sense to constantly self-censor, feeling unbound only when part of a denunciatory pack.

Institutions that are supposed to be guardians of free expression—academia and journalism in particular—are becoming enforcers of conformity. Campuses have bureaucracies that routinely undermine free speech and due process. Now, these practices are breaching the ivy wall. They are coming to a high school or corporate HR office near you.

The cultural rules around hot button issues are ever-expanding. It’s as if a daily script went out describing what’s acceptable, and those who flub a line—or don’t even know a script exists—are rarely given the benefit of the doubt, no matter how benign their intent. Naturally, people are deciding the best course is to shut up. It makes sense to be part of the silenced majority when the price you pay for an errant tweet or remark can be the end of your livelihood.

Do these problems really matter so long as we have a president who daily tramples on rights, civil discourse, and the rule of law? They do. Of course, we must keep our focus on the danger this administration presents. But it is also our moral and strategic obligation to vigorously defend the principles of a free society. Upholding these values will help us defeat Trumpism.

The process by which sinners are punished and apostates expelled can seem random. But there are rules and patterns to the ways in which speech is being silenced. Analyzing and understanding these can help us stand up to the illiberalism of this moment, whether it comes from the left or the right.

To that end, here is my taxonomy of fear.

The Perils of Safety

James Bennet’s resignation from his position as the editorial page editor of the New York Times quickly became the genesis story of today’s debate about “cancel culture.” Bennet was pressured to depart after he ran an op-ed by Tom Cotton, a Republican Senator from Arkansas, whose argument that the military should be used to respond to riots caused an uproar among the paper’s staff.

At first, A. G. Sulzberger, the paper’s publisher, publicly expressed his support for the decision to run the op-ed. But that quickly changed after Black employees asserted not just that Cotton’s argument was morally repugnant, or that he failed to make it in a way that met the Times’ standards, but that the piece threatened their lives. “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger,” many of them tweeted.

The language used by the Times staffers is indicative of a wider trend. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe the recent emergence and rapid spread on college campuses of what they call “safetyism,” a view that “equates emotional discomfort with physical danger.” Safetyism, they write, teaches students “to see words as violence and interpret ideas and speakers as safe versus dangerous.”

Confronted with words, ideas, or decisions they dislike, a growing number of people are asserting that they are in danger of suffering psychological or even bodily harm. But when one party asserts that a debate threatens their very well-being, it is hard to deliberate on policy—or topics such as race and gender. The result is a narrowing of the space for public discussion and an inability to teach ever more ideas and books.

As Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen has chronicled in the New Yorker, for example, law professors find it increasingly difficult to teach rape law because some students consider the subject too disturbing. “Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic,” she writes. “Some students have even suggested that rape law should not be taught because of its potential to cause distress.”

But, as Suk Gersen has pointed out, it was feminists who fought for the overhaul of deeply sexist rape laws, and it is sexual assault victims who will be hurt if lawyers do not learn about the subject. In practice, safetyism will make some of the most vulnerable people in our society less safe.

Contamination by Association

Recently, more than 150 writers and academics (including Yascha Mounk and I) signed a public letter defending open debate. Shortly after, transgender writer Emily VanDerWerff shared on Twitter a note of complaint she had written to her editors, stating that the letter had rendered her “less safe at Vox” because Matt Yglesias, one of Vox’s co-founders, was among its signatories.

How could signing a letter decrying the intolerant atmosphere on the left render a colleague less safe? Because, VanDerWerff argues, the letter was also signed by people she characterized as “prominent anti-trans voices.” Though the letter itself made no mention of trans issues, and VanDerWerff has never accused Yglesias himself of expressing objectionable views on the subject, this, she claims, was enough to harm her.

VanDerWerff’s note certainly illustrates safetyism. Going one step further, it also assumes the truth of a principle of “contamination by association.” People, the logic goes, cannot only be made unsafe by the beliefs or statements of their colleagues but also by those with whom their colleagues associate.

In this view, the contamination is ruthless and insidious. As VanDerWerff asserts, not only is Yglesias now responsible for the views of all the signers of the letter; she is also concerned that readers and sources may now assume that she herself shares those views because she works with Yglesias. If the principle of “contamination by association” were to be adopted this broadly, people would soon be answerable for the work of the co-signatories on a letter, for those with whom they have appeared on a panel, for those they might talk to on a podcast, and for countless others with whom they share the most tenuous of professional connections.

Shadi Hamid is a Muslim scholar of Islamist movements; to do his work, he needs to talk to people who hold ideas many find objectionable. His willingness to engage with people he disagrees with often makes him the subject of fierce criticism about whom he “associates” with. He lucidly explains why the adoption of the idea that he shares responsibility for the views of others is so detrimental: “My policy is to speak with pretty much anyone—Islamists, Christian theocrats, Trumpists, Salafis—as long as I can say what I think on something that’s important to me.”

Even for Hamid, there are some red lines: He will not appear alongside white supremacists or those representing designated terror groups. But he insists that it is important to draw those lines as widely as possible: “If we said we couldn’t do research or couldn’t interview people who had bad views—how would we study things?” Hamid asked me. “It’s a very limited way of looking at the world, one that’s dangerous for democracy.” 

Hamid is right. If we accept the logic of contamination by association, this requirement will quickly come to suppress the exchange of ideas—or even exposure to ideas which we need to interrogate precisely because we hate them. Tackling views we disagree with is a basic obligation of journalism, especially when they are held by people with the power to put them into effect.

David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, gave eloquent voice to the necessity of such interrogation when he explained why he wanted to interview former Donald Trump aide Steve Bannon at the New Yorker festival in 2018. Remnick acknowledged the point of view of those who assert that it is better not to give a platform to someone with illiberal views. “But to interview Bannon is not to endorse him,” Remnick wrote. “The point of an interview, a rigorous interview, particularly in a case like this, is to put pressure on the views of the person being questioned.”

But Remnick was not able to put this pressure on Bannon because the pressure on Remnick to rescind Bannon’s invitation was so great that he canceled the interview.

To accept the principles of contamination by association would also have another, perhaps even more serious cost: It would make it much more difficult to build a community across ideological divides—or within one’s own ideological group. Today, people are held to account for everything they have said or written, no matter how long ago, and no matter how much their minds may have changed. But under the rules of contamination, any affiliation with anyone else means everything they have said and done is your responsibility, too. Under such circumstances, any rational person is going to think of everyone else, first and foremost, as a potential human landmine; better, then, to draw the circle of one’s friends, colleagues, and collaborators as narrowly as possible.

Intent Is Irrelevant

Last month, Libby Schaaf, the white mayor of Oakland, California, announced that ropes had been found hanging from trees around a local lake. “These incidents will be investigated as a hate crime,” she said at a press conference. “I want to be clear, regardless of the intentions of whoever put those nooses in our public trees, in our sacred public space here in Oakland, intentions don’t matter.”

An investigation revealed that the five ropes had nothing to do with lynching: They were homemade exercise equipment, used by adults and children, put up months earlier by a black resident, Victor Sengbe. He explained his intent at a press conference: “It was really a fun addition to the park.”

But this happy conclusion was of no interest to Schaaf. The actual purpose of the ropes did not “remove nor excuse their torturous and terrorizing effects,” she said in a statement, and the incident would continue to be investigated as a hate crime. As Nick Gillespie commented in Reason, “in moments of raw pain and anger, it's especially incumbent upon authorities to act with discernment, judgment, and restraint. Yet all around us, legal, political, and cultural leaders drive in the opposite direction, intensifying fear, hysteria, and resentment.”  

Whether or not the accused had an intent to commit wrong-doing is a central question in many criminal prosecutions. Though it might be less obvious, understanding someone’s intent is just as crucial to our social functioning. If we decline to understand why others acted the way they did, or to take into account whether they intended any harm, we multiply the number of violations we perceive—and often end up treating benign people as moral wrongdoers.

But the stuff of social and economic life—cooperation, creativity, innovation—requires both risk and trust. For our institutions to function well, we must believe that the people working or learning alongside us are generally decent (until shown otherwise). If wariness and suspicion are our default attitudes, and if each of us knows that one misunderstood word or action might be used against us even if it was motivated by the best of intentions, then we won’t need a virus to keep us socially distanced.

Report to the Authorities

More and more things are now perceived as a threat to safety. We are responsible not only for our own ideas but also for the ideas of those with whom we share some tenuous association. When we say or do something that causes offense, the nature of our intentions no longer matter. And what happens when a statement is deemed worthy of criticism in one of these myriad ways? The authorities get involved.

The push to turn uncomfortable personal interactions into officially reportable incidents began on campus. Universities have long been the laboratory for creating cadres of bureaucrats who write rules governing social and sexual interactions of all kinds—and then monitor compliance with them, investigate alleged breaches and mete out punishments to perceived culprits. Young people are now routinely told that dealing with conflict is what the professionals are for, and students are encouraged to report all transgressions. The slogan of Drexel University’s Office of Equality and Diversity, for example, echoes the admonitions of the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11: “See something, hear something, know something, say something!”

A 2017 report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a civil liberties group, documents the growth of Bias Response Teams at colleges. Of the nearly 500 top schools the organization surveyed, almost 40 percent had such a team, and half of these teams included members of the campus police force. “Bias” is often defined broadly and vaguely. In one of the more absurd examples, a student at Colby College was reported for being ableist for using the phrase “on the one hand.”

Now this point of view is becoming entrenched at the workplace. Upon her appointment, Kathleen Kingsbury, who became the New York Times’ acting editorial page editor when James Bennet was pushed out, told the paper’s staff that anyone who saw “any piece of Opinion journalism—including headlines or social posts or photos or you name it—that gives you the slightest pause, please call or text me immediately.”

Of course, some things do need to be reported. But when you live in a society in which people are primed to disclose all discomfort to authority figures, trust and goodwill quickly erode. It also means being aware that you yourself might end up as the subject of a complaint. As Lukianoff and Haidt write, “life in call-out culture requires constant vigilance, fear, and self-censorship.” But shaming someone, especially when done publicly as part of a group, “can award status.”

One of the most disturbing examples of this trend is that high school students are now being encouraged to excavate each other’s social media, looking for instances of racial insensitivity and making them public. “Many students believe the only consequence their peers will take seriously is having their college admissions letter rescinded,” reports the New York Times. As a sixteen-year-old administrator of a social media account exposing the alleged racism of her classmates explained, “people who go to college end up becoming racist lawyers and doctors. I don’t want people like that to keep getting jobs.”

Over the past thirty years, America has become a hyper-punitive society, and our zero-tolerance mindset has led to an addiction to punishment. This has resulted in mass incarceration, causing the destruction of millions of lives and of entire communities. But many of the same people who abhor the excesses of our criminal justice system applaud this new form of social ruin.

To be sure, being shunned by your peers or having your admission to college rescinded is not the same as going to jail. But in the age of the internet, social censure can, much like a criminal record, mark someone for life. Do we really want a world in which someone’s educational and professional prospects are diminished because of something they said—genuinely stupid or offensive though it may have been—when they were fifteen?

A Chilling Effect

Some on the left still claim cancel culture doesn’t exist. Mass firings, they say, are not taking place. Only a few people—who probably deserved it!—have lost their jobs.

But it doesn’t require mass dismissals to put many people in a genuine state of unease and intimidation. A few chilling examples are enough to spread the fear to a lot of people that an inadvertent error can destroy your life. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes, “the goal isn’t to punish everyone, or even very many someones; it’s to shame or scare just enough people to make the rest conform.”

And so dread settles in. Challenging books go untaught. Deep conversations are not had. Friendships are not formed. Classmates and colleagues eye each other with suspicion.

In her 2003 memoir, Azar Nafisi describes secretly teaching Lolita and other forbidden Western books to a small group of female students in Iran. Reading Lolita in Tehran portrays a group of students so committed to the expansion of their minds that they are willing to put their freedom at risk to read a novel.

In her 2019 book, The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars, Meghan Daum asks a colleague who teaches twentieth-century American literature at the University of Iowa whether he still teaches Lolita. “It’s just not worth the risk,” he tells her.

Many people ask why any of this should matter in the age of Donald Trump—a president who attacks free speech, stokes bigotry and division, and believes he is above the law. It matters because we have seen what happened when his enablers on the right failed to stand up to the worst impulses of their leader. These enablers are now morally responsible for the tragic consequences of their inaction.

We better make sure that we don’t end up committing the same sin. For as Thomas Chatterton Williams writes, “ a generation unable or disinclined to engage with ideas and interlocutors that make them uncomfortable … open[s] the door—accessible from both the left and the right—to various forms of authoritarianism.”

Emily Yoffe is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a member of Persuasion’s Board of Advisors.