Journal of the Plague Year: Once More Into the Breach of "Political Correctness" and Its Opponents

Last night, Patton Oswalt, an (in my opinion) very funny comedian, Tweeted out to his many followers a video of a man shouting racial slurs at a family having a birthday celebration at a restaurant.  But, he didn't simply do that.  He also provided identifying information about the man that was shouting those slurs, and more importantly about his company and its business activities.  It doesn't take deep analysis to understand what Oswalt was trying to do here--the idea is to create social and economic consequences for this person stemming from his racist views and actions.  In the ideal world, from Oswalt's perspective, this dude would lose business as customers would shun him.  This would either cause the individual to rethink his racist views, or otherwise simply become marginalized socially and culturally (as having a successful business always translates into social and cultural power).

Is it OK for Oswalt to have done this?  Not according to the signatories of this letter in Harper's Magazine.  "But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought," we are told by the signatories, which include a bunch of folks you have probably vaguely heard of if you at least peripherally pay attention to middle and high brow "thought leaders" (you likely have at least some sense of who Malcolm Gladwell is, to take one example).  While the letter works very hard to be vague about the specific content it has in mind--more on that to come--I can't see how they would not group Oswalt's actions within the ambit of their criticism.  Oswalt's reaction was certainly swift, the consequences are potentially severe, and I for one definitely "perceive" what the CEO of Solid8 was saying as a "transgression[] of speech and thought."  

So, the question.  Is Oswalt a toxic, censorious bigot who is destroying the core principles of American life and intellectual freedom.  I'll cut to the chase--no.  The Harper's letter is, in my opinion, bullshit.

The core conceptual problem with the letter is that it presupposes some default state in which all points of view and opinions were tolerated and even welcomed, which is now threatened and undermined by the New Censors on the Left.  I simply do not believe that any such default state has ever really existed.  There have always been ideas and points of view that were outside of the bounds of acceptable discourse.  And, more importantly, those boundaries have always been contested and have always been a moving target.  In the 1930s, it was socially acceptable to publicly and clearly advocate for the Soviet Union, and for Soviet-style economic and political systems in the United States; in the 1950s, it was absolutely not acceptable, and people lost jobs and livelihoods for such beliefs (including having had such beliefs in the 30s); in the 1970s, it was once again acceptable, though not as clearly so as it was in the 30s.  Or, take another example--the sort of open advocacy for the self-determination and dignity of LGBT folks was not within the bounds of acceptable discourse prior, really, to Stonewall.  LGBT people existed, of course, and there were greater or lesser degrees of active persecution versus looking the other way, but the kind of public witness and advocacy that you saw even in the 1980s would have been unthinkable thirty years prior.

What is and what is not acceptable to say in broader society is socially conditioned and socially determined, and it always has been.  And, as the Communism example shows, it doesn't flow in a tidy way from darkness to enlightenment, but can move back and forth in response events in the broader society, cultural, political and economic pressures.  There is no question in my mind that the first few years of the Trump administration have empowered and encouraged public expressions of anti-black, anti-Latino/Latina, and anti-Semitic ideas and positions.  The last few months have seen the pendulum swing back in the other direction, as folks get tired of having to listen to what they (and, to be clear, I as well) think is toxic racist sludge.  It's a cliche and a meme, but "We Live in a Society," and societies set and negotiate the bounds of acceptable speech and opinions.  That's what societies do.

What the letter is ultimately reacting to is not the existence of boundaries, but the manner in which those boundaries are being negotiated.  The culture of the United States has always, wisely, favored a "loose hand on the reins" with regard to setting speech boundaries, recognizing that people are a rowdy bunch and getting everyone on the same page with everything is impossible.  American-style "free speech" is not a meaningless concept, and does represent a broad liberality.  But it is not, and never has been, the absolute principle that the signatories frame it as.

Instead, what happens is that the boundaries are defined in terms of what is considered broadly acceptable, or at least tolerable, by the dominant cultural majority.  Contrary to some, I don't think this is generally speaking a conscious process, some sort of intentional enforcement of hegemony.  It's just people not thinking too much about this issue, and defaulting to an instinctive sense of what seems "reasonable."  It's kind of like the scene in The Blues Brothers, where the owner of the honky-tonk tells Jake and Elwood that they play both kinds of music, Country and Western.  If those are the only sorts of music that anyone in that place would ever think to listen to, then it might as well be the only two types of music that exist.  So, what you end up with is a regime where, if you are part of this dominant cultural majority, you can say or believe anything that someone in your position would reasonably say or believe.  Because the boundaries of speech are the same as the limits of your field of vision, it is easy to convince yourself that there are no limits on speech at all, because you are never going to approach any of those boundaries anyway.  Staying only on the land is not a meaningful limitation if you can't swim. 

So long as boundaries are being set by elite opinion, then folks like the signatories truly have free speech.  But when the boundaries are being pushed and challenged by folks outside of those spaces, their freedom of action is being constrained, and they feel the boundaries for the first time.  So, it's not that boundaries are being generated where there were once none, but that the boundaries may actually be impinging upon them.  That, it seems to me, is the core fear at the heart of the letter.

But this raises a secondary question--are the boundaries really impinging on you?  What is really being advocated for here?  If the Oswalts of the world "win," then the default state will be a cultural norm where openly expressing clearly racist views at random ethnic minorities in a restaurant will have serious social and personal consequences.  As someone who is not in the habit of doing that, I fail to see the problem here.  "Racism is bad, don't be publicly racist, and if you are racist you will be shunned" is no skin off my back, and seems to me to have lots of positive social consequences.

The standard reaction to this line of thinking is some variation of "first they came for the racists. . . ."  In other words, the slippery slope.  But the slippery slope defense is predicated on the idea that these boundaries only move in one direction, toward less speech and less expression.  And that is clearly not the case.  Some ideas that were once beyond the pale are not considered broadly acceptable, and others that were unchallenged are not verboten.  The boundaries ebb and flow.  

And, critically, they ebb and flow based on the merits of the particular views at issue.  Oswalt is not against "free expression" in some generalized, abstract sense--after all, he's a comedian.  He's against racist expression specifically, because (I presume) he views it as bad and destructive and harmful on their merits.  It's the merits that are at issue in these conversations, not the ultimately fake abstraction of free expression.  What annoys me about these sorts of conversations so much is that they are stalking horses to give people an out for not having to lay down a marker that [insert controversial opinion here] is OK, actually, or at least not bad enough for their to be any consequences for holding.  

This is particularly true since, as I have said before, no person actually believes in the "marketplace of ideas," at least in the maximalist way it is presented.  Even the signatories of the letter do not.  For example, and I pick her because I think she is the clearest example, New York Times columnist and editor Bari Weiss signed the document.  Weiss has an extensive history of being very vocal about what she views as anti-Israel speech in academic environments from those who support the Palestinian causes.  Pro-Palestinian, or as she would frame it anti-Israel and/or anti-Semitic, views are for her beyond the pale of acceptable discourse on their merits.  But when we move out of that realm, to anti-black racism or transphobia or ordering the United States Army to shoot protesters or whatever the individual signatories had in mind when the signed the document, none of that is mentioned and we are completely in abstraction-land.  It's a shell game--the ideas that I disdain can be silenced because they are bad; the ideas you disdain can't be silenced because to do so is censorship and undermining our democratic values.

So, look.  If you think that there is value in allowing the Solid8 guy to say and believe what he said and believes, then go ahead and defend it on that basis.  Ditto with every potential contested boundary.  There is a reason these boundaries are contested.  It is not at all assured, and if I can be cynical I'm skeptical, that it will really come to pass that racist people or TERFs or whatever will actually be socially marginalized.  Fight for the boundaries that you believe to be appropriate.  But don't hide behind abstractions and insincere hand-wringing.  


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