By: Jared Marcel Pollen
TO MY FELLOW-CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA:
I put the following work under your protection. It contains my opinions upon Religion. You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it. The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.
This is Thomas Paine’s dedication to The Age of Reason, the first part of which he completed in France on the evening of December 28th 1793, hours before he was detained and imprisoned by a radical faction that had hijacked the very revolution he helped bolster with his treatise The Rights of Man. By the time Part II of The Rights of Man was published a year earlier, Paine was already an enemy of the state in Britain. He was tried in absentia for sedition and forced to seek refuge in France, whose people had watched their nation descend into bankruptcy and warfare, and their efforts to dismantle the ancien régime mutate into terror. The Jacobins, the leaders of the terror, considering Paine as a British citizen to be too dangerous to the revolution, locked him in Luxemburg prison in Paris for seven months. As the story goes, Paine was spared the guillotine only because a chalk mark (signifying the prisoner was to be collected for execution) was mistakenly left on the inside of his cell door, rather than outside. Fortuitously, this went unnoticed long enough for the National Convention to revolt against the Montagnards and execute Robespierre. Paine was set free later that year.
Terror is once again an emergent force in our political discourse––if we can take frightening people into a state of paralysis or submission to be one of the usable definitions for this already overused term. I employ it therefore, with reluctance, but with meaning. I’m mindful of the temptations of hyperbole, but I’m also unable to find a more fitting word to describe the scenes that took place at UC Berkeley and Middlebury College earlier this year.
The footage from Berkeley on the night Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak was like something out of Brueghel––a bandana-faced mob with makeshift shields storming the venue’s plaza, toppling signage and hurling barricades through lobby windows, while a phalanx of police in full riot gear fired on the crowd from above. A similar melee at Middlebury, just a month later, ended with professor Allison Stanger (who was set to interview Charles Murray) receiving a concussion. Of course, none of this should come as a surprise if you watch the news. Indeed, we’re treated to stories like this almost monthly; and, as we approach commencement season, we’re likely to witness further installments.
A few weeks ago, Berkeley lead the way again when an appearance by Ann Coulter was cancelled amid concerns that protestors (as there surely would be) wouldn’t be able to contain themselves to lawful demonstration. In attempt to undo the shame incurred by the Yiannopoulos incident, Berkeley invited Coulter back at a later date when security could be procured for the chosen venue, an invitation she has since rejected. That riot police are being called in to line the cobble courts of our nation’s campuses on an evening when a “controversial” speaker has been invited is not something we should let settle into normalcy. That this intolerance is endemic in the home of the enlightenment is a unique and bewildering betrayal.
The occasionally vicious antipathy towards open debate that has metastasized throughout student bodies across the country is a relatively new phenomenon. It missed me when I was in undergrad, and was just beginning to swell when I entered graduate school not long after. There is nothing objectionable about students challenging through mass demonstration ideas they reject as noxious, bigoted, uninformed, or hateful. This itself is protected under the first amendment. (That this truth requires repeating might indicate just how shabby things have gotten.) But this is not what we’re seeing in what should be the freest enclave of civil society. What we see instead is an over-oxygenated, intellectually fragile demographic committed to plugging its ears to anything it doesn’t like hearing, even if it has to do so violently.
What is this then, but a kind of new Jacobinism? A club of sclerotic moralism that demands ideological consistency at all costs, whose members are charged with theories of power and identity, obsessed with exposing privilege and class unconsciousness and intent on stamping out any idea deemed too dangerous to exist. The terror it inspires is not limited to the images from Berkeley, or Middlebury. It is also the terror of using shame and condemnation to defeat your enemies; it is the cringing, self-censoring terror of the person who fears to opine anything they suspect may cause offense; it’s the terror that is the fabric of victimology, espoused by minority groups who view themselves as inherently vulnerable; and it is lastly the terror of possibly having one’s mind changed, or being proven wrong.
A key feature of this Jacobinism is the forced modification of customs and the management of discourse. Last year, a group of students at Yale lead a campaign to eliminate a number of major English poets (including Milton, Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot) from the syllabi of required courses, on the grounds that teaching predominately white male writers “actively harms” students of diverse backgrounds. Shortly thereafter (in a more justified move), pressure from the student body prompted the university’s president to retitle a college named after former vice president John Calhoun, a race theorist and leader of a pro-slavery faction in the U.S. senate.
The Montagnards had their own injunctions as well. During the Reign of Terror, the people of Paris referred to each other in the streets as “citizen,” because any pronouns associated with the old order––even the commonplace “monsieur” and “madame”––could be seen as aristocratic sympathy, and were used with peril. Most famously, they created a new, decimalized calendar with 1892 as its year zero––eliminating the Gregorian calendar because of its association with Catholicism. Alas, even time itself was not safe.
As usual, one can look to language to see the nasty ways in which inversions of power are manifesting themselves. In recent years there has been a concerted effort to colonize the English vocabulary with a new lexicon of the oppressed. Some of these are well known: “trigger warning,” “safe space,” “micro-aggression,” “intersectionality,” “cultural appropriation.” (I place these in quotations not ironically, or condescendingly, but for genuine want of knowing what they mean.) So far as I can tell, “intersectionality” simply means that oppression is structural, and complex. Okay. A “micro-aggression” I believe, can be illustrated thusly: if I’m a black man and you push past me through the door of the bank, this action is likely traceable to the color of my skin. Of course, no normal person, if they were accused of micro-aggressing or, cultural appropriation, would know instinctively what these words mean without an overlong explanation.
Like most terms of resentment, their value lies in the ability to pigeonhole enemies and cobble together already complicated social phenomenon. And just as you’re unlikely to hear anyone describe themselves as “bourgeois,” so too is anyone outside of the social justice community or the academy likely to adopt this vocabulary to better understand their own condition. Setting aside the question of whether or not it’s needed, what does this phraseology accomplish, other than obscure our ability to reason, make it more difficult to call things by their name, and turn language ugly? Language is the house of thought, and stockpiling morally loaded, quasi-academic speech that invites vagueness while insisting on complexity can only succeed in making it more difficult to think.
The most recent addition to this wordbook is “platforming,” or, “de-platforming.” For example, when Roxane Gay withdrew her new book from Simon & Schuster after the publisher picked up a manuscript by Milo Yiannopoulos, she maintained that the intolerability of this mere association was “not about censorship,” but about not providing “a platform” for his ideas. This was echoed recently in an article in The New Republic titled: “Why Colleges Have a Right to Reject Hateful Speakers Like Ann Coulter,” in which Aaron R. Hanlon argued that “de-platforming” is less tantamount to censorship than it is about judging what ideas are valuable and useful to have on campus––a process of “knowledge prioritization” not unlike creating a syllabus for a course:
If I end up leaving off James Madison in favor of Edmund Burke, I’m hardly “censoring” Madison. And if I deem it important to bring underrepresented voices into my course—like poet and former slave Phillis Wheatley—I’m judging Wheatley more appropriate for that platform. Such decisions aren’t about “shutting down” points of view; they’re about finding the most valuable ways to use our limited time and resources.
It’s reasonable for us to disagree over the value of bringing someone like Coulter to campus; but it’s unreasonable to insist that if people make successful arguments for why Coulter shouldn’t have a campus platform, that’s tantamount to censorship.
And what are the successful arguments? There are three that are thinkable: 1) the ideas held by the speaker are so hateful and false that allowing them is too great a risk in itself. 2) The ideas are so inane and the speaker so buffoonish, that to waste time addressing them would be to confer power on them that they shouldn’t have. What is to be feared by someone like Ann Coulter, or Milo Yiannopoulos, in this regard? Are they such formidable foes that we’re endangering ourselves by hearing their claims? Why rob ourselves of the occasion to take them down? Is this not something we think we can do? Or do we instead take the position that the easiest and most fatuous opponents should be treated as the most threatening? If not, then we’re left with 3) the ideas simply represent a dissent from consensus and thus would rather not be heard. In all three cases, the silencers lose.
Some forms of knowledge are more valuable than others, certainly, and omission of ideas does not ipso facto constitute censorship. I wouldn’t permit that alchemy be taught in tandem with chemistry for the sake of “balance,” nor would I permit even a moment’s consideration be given to creationist nonsense in an evolutionary biology class, even for the inclusion of a “different point of view,” because both are in clear violation of scientific truth. Indeed, the false-equivalence we can derive from the inclusion of unequal claims may be one of the reasons so many Americans remain in unique denial of climate change, as news programs frequently entertain the debate by having one scientist face off against one “skeptic”; when, if the representation were at all proportionate, it would be the ninety-nine percent against the less than one percent who still claim the scientific community is not in agreement.
Of course, none of this is remotely analogous to what took place at Berkeley or Middlebury, nor does it justify the clear hostility in certain sectors of the academy towards contrary ideas. A university doesn’t have an obligation (though it would serve them well) to occasionally invite speakers who espouse contentious, discredited or even hateful thoughts that may be deemed to have little-to-no value. But if they do, and that invitation is stopped by an unruly mob, or rescinded by a petition drafted for any of the reasons mentioned above, then it is a suppression of speech. This hardly requires semantics. And papering over it with euphemistic doublespeak is not only useless but hazardous to the process of changing it.
Intellectual challenges, wherever they are presented, should be welcome for their own sake, and (recalling Paine) those who deny themselves these challenges in exchange for moral outrage do a disservice first and foremost to themselves.
John Stuart Mill was likely thinking of Paine when he wrote On Liberty––the greatest defense of free thought and discussion ever penned––and at one time something of a vade mecum for young Liberals––particularly in this passage, early in the book’s first section:
But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, [people] are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, [people] lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
Mill understood that this “collision with error” is not merely an unavoidable feature of a free society, it is a necessary metric for its health and integrity. It’s the one thing that above all cannot be compromised, since the right to think differently is the right from which all other rights stem, the basis for all social and political progress, and a culture that takes this for granted will be weakened by its complacency. This is where our attention and energy should be. Not “de-platforming,” or whether or not “social justice warriors are a cult,” or if the “regressive left” is “waging a war on free speech.” What should concern us is the ascension an ill-equipped, intellectual feeble generation that can’t properly defend its core values because it’s deprived itself of the opportunity to meet its opponents head on.
A good first step to prevent this is to ask ourselves how we know what we know? Let’s set aside the issues dominating our political conversation––like race, immigration, or Islamism, which are knotty and complicated––and review some simple truths that are pretty much unanimously agreed upon. If you were approached by a creationist who was convinced the big bang is a farce, could you show them how it’s not, citing empirical data? Or would you call them a moron and a religious crackpot? Even simpler, could you explain how the laws of motion work to someone who cast doubt on them? Most people, I fear, could not, without appealing to authority or consensus.
In our current climate of “post-truth” and “alternative facts,” this is especially pertinent: when even a word like “lying” seems to fall tragically short of the organized deception being practiced by the Trump administration, where we have ready access to more information than ever before and yet people remain astonishingly misinformed, pleasantly sealed in their information bubbles, their own little kingdoms of infinite space.
By the time Mill was writing he was less concerned with the kind of state tyranny that muzzles the press and lands thinking people in penitentiaries, and hoped (wrongly) that the time for such defenses had long passed. What he was concerned with rather was how free expression would fair between different groups in a society that had already consolidated the principles of the enlightenment. Thus, in new and struggling democracies, like France’s at the close of the eighteenth century, the threat to free expression is likely to come from the leviathan; in advanced democracies, it is more likely to come from other people.
In mature societies, intolerance can be thought of almost as a mark of decadence, whereby we’ve become so progressive we can’t stand error of any kind, where ideological conflict is often cast as “partisan” and “divisive,” rather than the historical (dare I say, dialectical) process of change itself. We’re so modern we refuse to see any part of ourselves as anything but. If there is an explanation for the allergic reaction to contrary opinions on college campuses, it seems to me to be this, and not the tired pop-psychology that it’s a product of a spoiled, entitled generation in which everyone gets a ribbon.
Liberalism trends ever forward, and thus, dooms us in part to live in shame of our older selves. It can even force us to live in shame in the present. Our current generation, which has been hypereducated in the frequency of injustice and the efforts that have been made to overcome it, is unprecedentedly conscious of its faults and regularly self-blaming. This too, is a luxury that struggling democracies can’t always afford. Indeed, it can be viewed as a sign of progress that the battles chosen by the social justice community appear to be getting smaller and smaller. But this smallness invariably produces pettiness, leaving those on the progressive front to fight over scraps amongst themselves instead of on the real enemies of reason, which unfortunately, is where much of the contemporary left seems to be.
It hardly needs pointing out that many of the ideas commonly accepted at various points throughout history have been proven by later generations to be not only wrong, but absurd. That this strikes us as a truism today might account for our impatience with the process of social change. But how many of our current ideas, practices and institutions will be proven not only obsolete, but perhaps unethical and absurd in the future? Will we soon look back on factory farming as morally equivalent to the holocaust, and a form of barbarism? From the technoscape of the future, will we view our methods of treating cancer by debilitating people with radiation and injecting them with poison as the work of a backward, scientifically sub-literate species? We will one day see our present degree of income inequality as a remnant of feudalism? Perhaps. What’s clear is we are approaching a point now in advanced society where the space between sought after goals and the urgency to achieve those goals in the present is collapsing into an intolerance that is damaging the potential for open and honest debate.
This belongs to a much broader and distressing dissolution of the modern left, for which there isn’t enough time to discuss. The triumph of neo-liberal elites within workers’ parties and the abandonment of class politics in favor of culture politics following the end of the cold war has lead us here. In the United States, the rhetorical formation on the right is, as we sometimes hear, “guns, god and gays.” The left’s territory might be summarized as, “privilege, power and political correctness.” The willful deafness shown to the other side is mutual, but liberals appear to be losing the standoff. The integrity of the conversation lies between these two orthodoxies. Most people will almost certainly go about not caring, neither endorsing the suppression of speech, nor rushing to stand in defense of it unless it directly affects them. Meanwhile, what we’re left with is the sinister irony that the group most on the side of plurality is also working to undermine intellectual diversity, and no political discourse can remain in good intellectual health as long as this is the case. If there is any idea worthy of a “platform,” it is surely this.
Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada. He studied literature and political science at the University of Windsor and received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. He’s written about literature, politics and culture in The Millions (2015), Open Letters Monthly (2015) and 3:AM (2016/17). He’s also recently completed work on his first novel.
Image: Protest in Berkeley, Calif., February 1, 2017. (Screengrab via ABC News/YouTube)