There is a pattern in the way speech is silenced. Understanding it can help us stand up to the illiberalism of this moment.
There are a couple of points that I would amplify.
It is true that for those who oppose Donald Trump (I would include myself here, although I'm not American so don't have a vote) and other similar populists, he holds political power and represents the most immediate threat. But he can also be voted out. The narrowing of acceptable discourse that results in people losing their jobs, on the other hand, is quickly becoming embedded in institutions such as corporations, schools and universities. Ms. Yoffe has written on violations of due process for Title IX cases in universities. But as we've seen, these ideas don't stay in universities. They will migrate from the law schools into the courts, as is already happening in Canada.
You cannot vote out an institution, and political power is a blunt instrument to effect change. If institutions lose their legitimacy with enough people, you prop up populist demagogues who promise strength over process. And if you've spent years decrying due process as a tool of the powerful, the other side is likely to take you at your word. "Cancelled" moderates are forced to pick a side, and only one side will have them.
Media is becoming fractionated into Substacks with increasingly niche audiences. We no longer mediate disagreement with a common set of facts. In fact, "truth" is ignored (on the populist right) or the concept of truth is dismissed by the left as an epistimologic fiction, a tool of the oppressor. Not only do we not want to talk to one another, we lack the tools to do so. Purity spirals become progressively tighter and more people are cast out as heretics.
Eventually, the critical theorists are proven right: Everything is about power.
What scares me most is the illiberalism of both sides feeding one another. Left-wing illiberalism may prop up Trump or, worse, a populist who is more effective than Trump. But I think that we underestimate the risk of a suffocating left-wing orthodoxy that brooks no dissent, and camouflages its illiberalism with a facade of safety and inclusiveness.
Everyone seems worried about a fascist society, but there are ample instances of left-wing totalitarianism. They legitimized themsevles with appeal to justice as well. I think it's a mistake not to worry about that outcome.
Thank you for this keen and lucid essay. I would add one tendency to those that you describe: the tendency to judge an argument before even considering its content--on the basis of the author's age, status, institutional affiliations, political leanings, and so on. This is similar to "contamination by association" but not quite the same. For instance, many people dismissed the Harper's letter on the grounds that it was signed by a group of "elitists." Many dismiss an op-ed because they perceive the author as "conservative" or "centrist." The underlying assumption is that all arguments can be ascribed to agendas, that a piece of writing is just a power ploy. Take this to its conclusion, and there is no reason to read anything at all, except perhaps tweets and slogans.
I liked this article. One thing that I would add, which I think contributes to the "contamination by association" that Ms Yoffe wrote about, is what the Harper's letter referred to as a "blinding moral certainty". I feel that today's culture has been increasingly absolutist on what is defined as good and bad, and this can be extremely dangerous if it continues to push in this direction. People want to be good people, but if a morality system becomes so extreme, people will start to do bad things in the service of what they think is a good cause. Not only this, but as morality system get more absolutist, it becomes much harder to get out of the system by those already caught in it. I know this from personal experience, being a former evangelical Christian.
I cringe how casually I hear people say, "that persons is a horrible person", usually just because of their politics. Such statements are everywhere, made by prominent people that I like, even on the center-left. It's something that I would almost never say about anyone. It is the definition of an ad-hominem attack, never leads to any productive debate, and can get to ugly places if it keeps going.
A Psychoanalytic Contribution to the Taxonomy of Fear: Projective Identification in Righteous Victimhood
In the relation of the bully to the bullied there is an unconscious redistribution of aggression such that all destructive aggression is loaded in the bully and the bullied is devoid of destructive aggression — the actual bullied person in the experience of being bullied feels as if they have no aggression with which to defend themselves. Usually, out of fear they dissociate themselves from their aggressive potential to survive a situation and this dissociation may in fact be life saving.
Psychoanalytically, the means by which this happens in called “projective identification”. The bully, as if by psychic magic, appropriates the aggression of the bullied to shore themselves up against their own persecuting internal feelings of weakness and helplessness, and, at the same time, projects these into states into the bullied. The bullied experiences themselves (in so far as they have identified with the projections) as hosting all the feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and weakness and are dissociated from their aggression which is projected “into” the bully. Hand in hand with “projective identification” is the defense of “splitting” of the object (the other) into two dimensional terms — “black and white” “all or nothing” “us vs them”
The censorious left in their “safetyism” have adopted an group-as-a-whole righteous-victim stance, which seems to allow them to split and disown or disavow their own destructive aggression (their will to dominate and censor) by cloaking it in righteous anger and project all guilt (badness) onto the white western tradition as if slavery, class oppression, etc., have not occurred throughout human history regardless of skin color and technological sophistication.
The capacity to have open and constructive dialog tolerant of differences requires the “depressive position”, the ability to tolerate ambiguity and accept our limitations (obviously I have to accept my perspective as limited to be able to interested and open to some other view point).
For me as a gay man of Mexican-American decent the problems of oppression and domination are real and need to be uprooted and exposed at every turn to realize what I hope can be a “radical humanist” future where the absurd concept of race and its categories have faded in the rear-view mirror of cultural history. And to do this we need to not Other the Other in whatever ways we habitually do this, and, own that as human beings we cannot but do this — it derives from instinctual and primitive defenses against the terror of difference (at a basic existential level). Martin Buber contrasted the I-It relation with the I-Thou relation. The I-It relation is the relation of utility from benign to slavery; The I-Thou relation is the scary but emotionally essential relation of being met as whole person by a whole person and all the risks that come with that possibility. How to construct a society and culture that fosters I-Thou relations is the question — including an I-Thou relation between humanity and the environment before it is too late. It begins with a space for radical free speech because only in such a space (like the space of the psychoanalytic hour) can all the deep differences be allowed to be. Battling over skin color and other obvious differences between people is a waste of precious time.
Great article. I've been working on putting together a cheat sheet on some of the main themes associated with either a push back on free speech generally or against an idea that someone doesn't like. Some of these concepts may actually explain why an argument is not especially a good one, but most enable a diversion from the substance of the original argument to a tangential concern. Hopefully you find it helpful and please add to the list any that I may have missed.
Lack of Authority: Due to x, y or z reason, the speaker does not have authority (or less authority than others) to speak on a given subject (e.g., race, gender, etc.) and therefore should stay silent.
The Idea Is Itself Violence: Akin to hate speech, an idea or a word is so toxic that it effectively equates to violence. Given “safety” is a prerequisite for the sharing of ideas, such idea is not welcome as it not only makes participants unsafe but also directly harms them. [NOTE: This to me seems the most interesting one to discuss as it is directly on point and should be balanced given competing interests]
Malicious Intent: The speaker’s malicious intent rather than the idea/words spoken is the “true” speech. As such, the ideas being conveyed are irrelevant since they are just a “cover” for the true intent which is meant to harm.
Malice By Association: It is not the idea per se, nor is it even the individual who espouses that idea but rather the fact that there are other individuals who share a similar view on that idea AND such other individual believes other “malicious” ideas (or have used the common idea in a way that was malicious or have committed an unforgivable transgression) which in turn nullifies the first individual and/or his/her ideas by association.
A Product Of The System: Given the system is corrupt and the idea or individual is a product/beneficiary of the system, that idea/individual is therefore corrupt/harmful.
It’s Our Time: Given the long oppression of our ideas (and our people), our ideas (and our people) should be given more value/not questioned
God Value: Certain ideas are just true/right - no justification is needed. Questioning those values, however, is a sin and the individual, not just the idea must be punished.
This Is Just The Logical Byproduct Of Your Free Marketplace Of Ideas: Liberalism calls for open dialogue and debate. We are just exercising that system to espouse our views and it is you that is fragile. Generally this argument includes attacks on both ideas and individuals.
It’s Not Really A Problem, You’re Making a Big Deal Out Of Nothing. Data is mostly anecdotal so it does not count. Also, saying there’s a “chilling” effect is too ephemeral to prove (regardless, counter ideas have been “chilled” up to this point).
My Idea Is More Important So Stop Taking Up Space With Your Idea. Ideas are hierarchical in importance and there is a limited about of “space” for people to pay attention. As such, only ideas that are deemed sufficiently “important” should be discussed.
This thoughtful piece reminds me again of how what we're doing with Persuasion is a lot like samizdat in 1970s Czechoslovakia and neighboring counties. It's a place for transmitting our thoughts in a way that reduces the risk of being 'caught'. The Harpers letter is reminiscent of the Czech Charter 78 arising from the group fighting for the unjustly prosecuted (initially the band, 'Plastic People of the Universe') -- analogous to those being trolled, ratioed, cancelled nowadays. Utne's NYT piece today cites Vaclav Havel's 1993 Esquire essay about hope being a state of mind not of the world. Highly recommended reading -- his hilarious anecdote (which I'd forgotten) about being rescued in 1989 from drowning in a sewer a mere 2 months before suddenly becoming president should bring a smile to our faces as we scramble in 2020 rescuing each other from the crap we find ourselves in (not knowing exactly what the future holds but with a feeling of hope).
Some many years ago I watched a presentation of “Barefoot in Athens.” In a scene near the end as Socrates is about to drink hemlock one of his following begs him not to. “It’s brought to you by your enemies,” the student pleads. “But are not my enemies my greatest friends?” the old master replies. “Are they not the ones who tell me who I really am?” Doubt my wording is exact here, but the concept is clear. Always listen carefully to those you don’t agree with, and let them finish what they have to say.
I agree with the author's points about saftyism, contamination by association, snitching (well this one isn't really new), and silencing, but I think the premises of the argument are ahistorical. This whole phenomenon of cancel culture isn't really new. Some ideas have always been considered out-of-bounds, and there have always been a system of pressures, formal and informal, to keep these ideas out of mainstream debate. It's just that now people who once saw themselves as being positioned within the liberal-republican ideological spectrum are being challenged, while in the past it was the radical-left, radical-right, and minorities who were being silenced. Consider the example of Noam Chomsky, who for most of his career could not talk about share his criticisms of Israel in public without death threats and attempts to get his events cancelled. Consider the calls for reparations for African Americans, which were basically treated as a joke until very recently. Consider the silencing effect that the islamophobic atmosphere of the first decade of the war on terror had on Muslim Americans. There are plenty of other examples, too.
I'm not trying to respond to this in a partisan way, since I see myself on the left. I think the particular ways that leftists are abusing public debate, outlined in this article, are new and they are a problem. But my point is just that if we want to understand this phenomenon, we need more historical perspective. We should not assume some sort of idealized past in which the free exchange of ideas thrived, with no abuses of power, no group-think, no biases, and no intellectual bullying.
What I'd be interested in hearing more are the historical factors that allowed formerly marginalized voices to elbow their way into the public debate. Surely social media is part of the story, but it also seems to me that some sort of shift in national consciousness has taken place. That said, this article is a good starting place for this discussion.
I agree that pushing down ideas that we find distasteful gives them power in more isolated spaces. The light of day has a way of clearing the foul odor of nasty belief systems that thrive in darkness. Hearing the beliefs of someone like Steve Bannon isn't likely to change my thinking or yours, and having them discussed in a wide forum is better to minimize their influence on those who might find them appealing in a more isolated space.
I taught The Coddling of the American Mind in an undergraduate seminar. At first, the students were suspicious of me: what kind of subversive activity was I up to? As we read, most disagreed vehemently with the authors' conception of "safetyism" as a betrayal of the values of higher education. However, in a final paper that could focus on any text in the course, the majority returned to "safetyism" and conceded some of the authors' arguments. We also read Yascha Mounk, which should reveal what I was up to.
Spectacular article, just wonderful. Oh, I do warn my students that Vox is the Fox of the left. I am currently teaching a class in Moral Reasoning, and it is very difficult for students to use reason and derive moral conclusion from ethical principles. Ad hominem, post hoc, appeals to emotions of all sorts dominate their papers. I of course want to keep my job so I have to be very very careful not to disagree with them but only to ask them to apply the principles. But one assignment was to analyse the problems of the so-called "friend zone." From a Kantian view it is patently immoral for both parties since it is based on using people. But the students could only analyze through the group speak of #me too. So their acceptance of propaganda makes it impossible to see the actual immorality of the mutual usage and lack of dignity of the friend zone.
Thank you for this; this issue has been a topic of conversation among my writer friends and colleagues for some time now. I agree with the analysis and many of the concerns expressed in this essay (and touched on in the Harper's Letter), that discourse has been stifled and people are afraid to speak lest they misspeak and make themselves a target. But I disagree about two of the examples that were provided. I think that for the editor of The New Yorker to interview Bannon is to legitimize his views, essentially elevating them into the mainstream. He is a champion of hate, and such views do not warrant that treatment. And, I think James Bennet showed poor editorial judgment and performance at every turn in the Cotton op-ed situation. For that, for doing his job poorly--not necessarily for the views expressed in the op-ed itself--he likely needed to resign. What happened to David Shor (not mentioned in this piece) is perhaps a better example.