Seriously. Aargh. Do I really want to hear anything that this kook, this Milo crackhead, has to say? How about ignore it? (This would require wearing earplugs, as well as disconnecting the wi-fi and electricity.) I do feel quite convinced — without knowing for certain — that most of it, possibly all of it, would amount to nasty twaddle.
What few blips and squeaks have wormed their way through various media to my delicate ears sound painful, morbid, and truly dispiriting. Can’t I just spray insults at him? Wouldn’t it make sense to throw him to the floor and grind the heel of my Anello & Davide into his yap? To judge from photos — all but unavoidable while hanging ten on the web — Milo is one of those guys who comb their hair after snugging a Bluetooth headset into position.
Part of me thinks that I ought to hear it, and not merely to go on record for listening, for disagreeing respectfully. Nor, while wringing hands, to put on a show of enlightened, pluralistic, liberal empathy. (“Liberal” induces a shudder all by itself: as a leftist, a far leftist, a far far leftist even, I suppose I occupy one of the noisier echo chambers known to the proletariat. From my vantage, liberals are barely distinguishable from Wall Street slime and Tea Partiers packin’ heat.)
But from either end of the spectrum the free speech we mainly promote, being neither about the freedom nor about the speech, barely clears the lowest possible bar of tokenism: “the limits of social embarrassment,” in J.S. Mill’s phrase. Lacking, so it would seem, any basic instrumental utility in life, it’s instead a smug and anodyne emblem of occasional open-mindedness. We grab the gilded statuette, bathe in the acclaim, sufficiently confident in our deeply held convictions to allow others to harangue and carp harmlessly in the background. If for example we voice pious support for an athlete who kneels through the National Anthem, that gets us off the hook from having to ponder (let alone deal with) any serious underlying concerns — disenfranchisement, institutional racism, white privilege, police violence — that might justifiably provoke such protests.
We seem to want to endorse free expression as a sort of bland courtesy, because this speaks to our genteel humanity. It’s all about us. Which puts it in roughly the same category — tools of the empowered — as Seneca’s concept of mercy: “the exhaustion of cruelty.”
What fails to come through is the value — as impartial policy — of uncensored expression (and open, nonconformist, widely circulating discourse generally) in revising the opinions of those whom otherwise we would elect to silence. This is especially important in the case of vicious or ignorant opinions. And it’s the part of the equation that almost always gets left out. Sure, we want to reinforce the vigor of our own positions by submitting them to every conceivable test. That’s Mill’s insight, somewhat attenuated by long association with sentimental bluster: a belief, like a muscle or a tree-trunk, can be no stronger than the pressures it resists. (“What doesn’t kill you … “)
But what about the beliefs of others? Unless these people speak, by which I mean speak to us, there is no conversation. And without conversation we’ve lost the opportunity to make persuasive or appealing arguments to the very persons or groups or subpopulations whose positions we abominate. If our unstated fear is that they will instead persuade us, that’s perhaps worrying evidence of something different from “deeply held convictions.”
So the serious options, then, are what? One, according to the current fashion (as depicted above), would be to shut the asshole up. This strikes me as utterly unrealistic and unfeasible on the face of it. We might be able to stop him from preaching to our choir. But we’ll never keep him silent before his own. There’s just no point in pretending that we can cut off his access to absolutely all audiences. Even to imprison him, as some have proposed, would only place him in closer contact with the most concentrated choir of all: angry males creeping toward parole.
A second option, which I certainly wouldn’t represent as wildly simpler, strikes me as at least mechanically feasible. That is, to change the asshole’s mind — a goal of greater interest, surely, to all of us. The problem with that goal is its being utterly at odds with our sniffy tendency to castigate from a convenient distance. How do we get such a thing to happen, how do we get the asshole to see the world around him, and the people in it, in a new or different way, unless he is in the room with us?
I’ve been thinking about this lately for reasons having nothing to do with — or seemingly nothing to do with — raving fascist crackheads. It’s a more immediate and personally felt concern, the one alluded to, perhaps too coyly, in my title: this weird, rather scary slandering and attempted shut-down of Laura Kipnis, a feminist and public intellectual (as well as fearless, propulsive stylist) who is, as far as I can tell, the absolute opposite of an asshole, not only affable and tolerant but surpringly patient. Hardly what you’d imagine if your only sources are the many videos, Title IX investigations, and administrative policy missives now viraling through the ether. (All of the latter seemingly plagiarized from the script of Invasion of the Bee Girls. I totally get why Sheriff Peters was terrified).
For Professor Kipnis, as FIRE activist Samantha Harris succinctly states, “is no Milo.” I’ve read all of Kipnis’s books and many of her articles and interviews. I’ve listened to every podcast, watched every Youtube chat I could find. In none of this stuff does a single word, anywhere, suggest that she advocates campus predation or male privilege, or in some way turns a blind eye to so-called rape culture. Her most strident-sounding message — among several that, admirably, tend to jab at the rhetorically sacrosanct — appears to be that victimhood, and particularly its institutional consecration, may be a powerful driver of patriarchal supremacy. Whether you agree with her or disagree, it’s not a threatening message in and of itself. In fact it’s not a message of any kind. It’s an idea.
Yet even if — in the spirit of hypothetical inquiry — we suppose that it is a message and that it could be threatening, that its content alone could somehow put women in real, direct danger, nevertheless that message has reached our ears (and the moist gray stuff wriggling between our ears) in the form of an argument. That’s pretty important, I think, because an argument is, perforce, challengeable and therefore open to redress by means of — steady on! — other arguments.
Of course our nation, the United Country Clubs of America, is one of only a handful of self-described democracies — that I am aware of from personal experience — in which the one abiding rule of social probity is to stifle discourse. Silence, but silence of a special kind: avoiding contact with controversial language, on the basis that words may be, must be, far worse than what they sometimes denote: controversial realities, harmful realities, deadly realities.
The thinking here — if “thinking” comes even vaguely close to being the right participle — is that to push down, censor, a particular quality of statement (or opinion or word or slogan, etc) is somehow to eliminate whatever calamity, real or perceived, such statements publicize. If, for example, an epidemic of unintended teen pregnancy were something we’d strive as a nation to reduce, then by this hypothesis outlawing reproductive education — suppressing information about birth control and so on — should be the best way to achieve the result. Good luck with that.
It’s hardly going out on limb to say that censorship remains, implacably, the fundamental tenet — and strategy — of all corrupt autocracies. Silencing a disobedient argument may, in some practical sense, cause the argument to disappear, along with any chance to present convincing, mind-changing counterarguments. What does not disappear is the disenchantment — whether emerging from systemic injustice or outright malice or even introspection — that tends to arouse disobedience in the first place.