I read a lot of opinion pieces about the ‘regressive left.' Usually, they accuse liberals of enforcing a new kind of fascism by advocating for increased government spending or social programming. I usually dismiss these as the kind of clickbait, rabblerousing, oversimplistic divisive garbage as they so frequently are – but lately, I find myself oddly in agreement with one point.
The left is developing a problem with freedom of speech.
Now, I don’t mean this statement unilaterally. There are still plenty of liberals out there who hold the virtue of freedom of expression above all else, but there is no denying that there is a small and vocal faction giving the rest of us a bad name. Call them our Tea Party.
And they’re just as dangerous for the brand. They eat up media time and develop an inaccurate narrative that those of us in the liberal camp want to police what you say and think. British activist Maajid Nawaz has referred to this phenomenon as the ‘control left’ – that is, the group of people who prioritize group identity above individual rights, are themselves post-truth, and who attempt to censor freedom of speech.
Let’s start with post-truth; it’s the easiest to identify and the most dangerous.
Take the German press’s response to the New Year’s Cologne attacks as an example. It was widely reported that the culprits were homegrown, that they had likely been in Germany a long time or were German citizens. In the ensuing weeks, it became clear that almost all of those guilty of assault were refugees. The press was afraid of a backlash over accusations of racism and so failed to accurately report the events as the information was available.
There is, of course, no good reason for the press to assume that the violence was perpetrated by refugees, but neither was there a case for a homegrown organized assault. The reality was that they didn’t know but were afraid to say it. Politico reported that in the wake of the Cologne attacks, 40% of Germans felt that they could no longer trust the mainstream media to deliver an accurate account of events.
This is where shit gets messy. Because by espousing a well-meaning narrative (i.e. that we can’t blame refugees for everything, sometimes this stuff starts at home) rather than the truth (yeah sure, sometimes it does start at home but not this time) the German media drove those patrons into the arms of alternative news sources.
The problem with media that you can’t trust is that you’re liable to start getting your news from places that reinforce your already-held views. If everyone is peddling half-truth, then you might as well listen to the one that makes you feel good and affirms what you believe. That choice is dangerous. It is a distortion of reality, a never-ending feedback loop of opinion that makes us good at building walls and shit at building bridges.
When it comes to censorship and group rights over individual rights, it’s hard to ignore the microcosm of academia. Universities across the world have become host to protests over all kinds of issues, but more and more frequently they seem to be over speakers whose politics do not align with the agendas of the student body.
On December 6th, hundreds assembled at Texas A&M to protest a speaking engagement by alt-right leader Richard Spencer. The protests were mostly peaceful, and Spencer was allowed to speak – and we should congratulate Texas A&M for allowing both sides to be heard – but the issue I take is with the protest itself.
I’m all for civil disobedience. I’m all for the right to protest injustice in all its forms. Say, when the government wants to build a pipeline across your land. Wherever you come down on the issue, I think reasonable parties can agree that it is the inalienable right of the people to assemble peacefully and petition the government (also handily written down in the first amendment). The differentiation I make between Standing Rock and the Texas A&M protests is that one fights for land and livelihood while the other is a mere ideological attack.
Sure, you can think that Richard Spencer’s white nationalist rhetoric is disgusting (and I do), but he has every right to speak his mind without being silenced. Disagreement is healthy, but many of the protestors at A&M were unhappy that Spencer was there at all. They said that the university should never have allowed him to speak in the first place. This has been called “anti-normalization,” the idea that by not allowing people like Spencer to speak they become delegitimized and people won’t take their ideas seriously.
Two problems with this approach: one, it doesn’t hold up the liberal ideal of freedom of expression; two, it leads to a persecution complex among those being anti-normalized. They aren’t silencing Spencer- they’re fueling his bigoted fire and giving credence to the notion that white men are persecuted in America. Which, as a rule, they are not. But Spencer sure was, and now it’s going to be easier for him to convince other white men that they are too.
The ‘control left, ’ and the politics of fear-of-offence and silencing voices we don’t agree with are just plain bad for democracy and discourse.