The Illiberal Left

Class Enemies will not be tolerated! (via wikimedia)

Class Enemies will not be tolerated! (via wikimedia)

Over at the Nation, Michelle Goldberg uses the #CancelColbert kerfuffle to comment on the rise of what she calls the anti-liberal left. Here’s Goldberg:

It’s increasingly clear that we are entering a new era of political correctness. Recently, we’ve seen the calls to #CancelColbert because of something outrageous said by Stephen Colbert’s blowhard alter ego, who has been saying outrageous things regularly for nine years. Then there’s the sudden demand for “trigger warnings” on college syllabi, meant to protect students from encountering ideas or images that may traumatize them; an Oberlin facultydocument even suggests jettisoning “triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.” At Wellesley, students have petitioned to have an outdoor statue of a lifelike sleepwalking man removed because it was causing them “undue stress.” As I wrote in The Nation, there’s pressure in some circles not to use the word “vagina” in connection with reproductive rights, lest it offend trans people. …

At times like this, politics contract. On the surface, the rhetoric appears more ambitious and utopian than ever—witness, for example, the apparently sincere claim by Suey Park, creator of the #CancelColbert hashtag, that Twitter activists intend to “dismantle the state.” But at the same time, activism becomes less about winning converts and changing the world and more about creating protected enclaves and policing speech.

Goldberg is not alone the only leftist concerned about such ideas. Freddie deBoer recently asked “is the social justice left abandoning free speech?” Like Goldberg, he also seems to be concerned by the fact that activists are more interested in scoring points and stifling debate than they are in winning converts to whichever cause they happen to support at any given moment. As if to prove Goldberg and deBoer’s concerns are completely and utterly reasonable, Adam Weinstein last week suggested it was time to start imprisoning people who disagree with him about climate change.

There is this odd idea on the left—one that Goldberg shares, apparently—that “political correctness,” as a concept, is something that kind of died out in the mid-1990s. There was this horrible wave of pseudo-academic race- and sex-baiting that just went away. As I noted in this post, that’s the explicit point Chuck Klosterman made in his latest book about Andrew Dice Clay. This is, of course, insane. Read Klosterman’s description below and ask yourself if this hasn’t been the way American society has generally operated these past 20 years:

But then—somewhat swiftly, and somehow academically—it felt as if the Left was suddenly dictating what was acceptable to be infuriated over (and always for ideological motives, which is why the modifier “politically” felt essential). This created a lot of low-level anxiety whenever people argued in public. Every casual conversation suddenly had the potential to get someone fired. It was a great era for white people hoping to feel less racist by accusing other white people of being very, very racist. A piece of art could be classified as sexist simply because it ignored the concept of sexism. Any intended message mattered less than the received message, and every received message could be interpreted in whatever way the receiver wanted.

Emphasis mine, because it dovetails with the point made by Freddie and by Alyssa Rosenberg, another member of the left, here. If you strip a cultural figure or a piece of writing or a film or a television show of its right to dictate its own intentions—if you say to an artist or a politician or a blogger or a tweeter “Hey, it doesn’t matter what your obvious intention is, all that matters is your microaggression made me uncomfortable!”—you are not only willfully misinterpreting them in order to score cheap points, you are also narrowing the discourse and preemptively forcing people to shut up, lest they cross some line that they couldn’t possibly see.

“Every savvy person now accepts that uncomfortable ideas can’t be expressed in public without some consideration for how various levels of ideologue will misinterpret the message. Self-editing is far more important than creativity (and only Quentin Tarantino appears immune),” jokes Klosterman. But I don’t find it terribly funny—and neither does a certain subset of the left (finally).

As my colleague Andrew Stiles has asked, What did you people expect? The left has spent much of the last few decades trying to narrow the confines of debate, especially when it comes to issues of race. A Republican literally can’t say a single thing about any domestic issue without being accused of uttering a dog whistle that only the hypersensitive ears of MSNBC pundits can discern. Twitter has turned into a sort of perpetual motion machine that operates solely on outrage. Did they think the digital lynch mobs would focus solely on the right? When one exists solely to demonstrate one’s outrage, one will always find an outlet for that outrage. Political affiliation is no saving grace.

There is, unfortunately, no easy answer here. Outrage generates clicks, boycott calls lead to TV bookings, and the smarmy self-satisfaction that comes from bringing the establishment to heel is its own reward. It’s heartening to see a few responsible folks stand up and say “Hey, kids: Knock it off. You sound like a pack of gibbering morons.” Perhaps it will help engender a bit more charity toward the right.

After all, as they now see, you can disagree with the left without being an evil bigot.