Protecting Our Space

According to a new survey, 20% of American college students now say it is acceptable to use physical force to stop a speaker from making “hurtful or offensive comments.”  Catherine Rampell, in the Washington Post, reads this as a growing rejection of the principle of free speech.  I think she’s right.  It does seem that Americans are increasingly willing to accept censorship and silencing.  Or at the very least, they are more willing to take active measures to protect their discursive space.  Why?

The first and most obvious answer, I believe, is the dominance of consumer logic.  The world of late capitalism is ruled by “choice.”  Through our consumption habits, we are expected to construct our own reality.  I can customize my home or outfit—sculpt it to the exact image I want to project—so why not my information stream?  Of course, as Cass Sunstein has argued, exposure to opposing views is a necessary social good.  Consumer logic undercuts such thinking, though.  It sidelines the expert (Sunstein), and long-term (democracy) in favor of immediate, emotional satisfaction.  When we think as consumers, therefore, it is only logical to censor and silence.

So people shut down speech because they want to, and believe as consumers, they should get what they want.  Where does this desire to silence originate?  Of course, the alien is always disconcerting.  Still, this new survey data indicates that people are increasingly troubled by opposing views.  Or perhaps we are simply more attuned to them.  Perhaps because of the homogenization of our discursive space the alien sticks out, demands our attention (and challenge), more than it once did.  When I spend most of my time in a filter bubble, the sliver of the outside world that sneaks through is bound to be upsetting.

I do wonder though if there are other factors at play. This is very speculative, but I wonder if the structures of belief which we use to define self and world are shakier than they once were.  In our multicultural, multivocal world even the most closeted thinker must know—at least on some level—that other views are always out there.  Perhaps in earlier, less connected times these views were more distance, and hence less threatening.  And/or perhaps our relation to knowledge has changed.  Perhaps we can say that with modernity and postmodernity some sort of ground has disappeared, and this makes us fundamentally insecure.

We can imagine, for example, a true believer, someone so confident in his views that opposing beliefs are seen only as objects of amusement. Such would be the position of a medieval Christian laughing at a Hindu, perhaps.  The Hindu’s gods are so distance, and the Christian’s understanding of how the world “is” so solid, that the former’s religious claims cause no offense.  Now compare this to students trying to shut down a conservative speaker, Ben Shapiro at Berkeley say.  They find it intensely offensive that Shapiro claims there are only two genders. Shapiro’s views fundamentally hurt these students.  Why?  Why can’t they just laugh at him?  Certainly, they “know” that gender is a spectrum, a social construct.  They know it as certain as the medieval Christian knows the true nature of God….

My point is that it seems that what it means to know has changed.  On some (subconscious) level we have internalized the idea that knowledge is relative, rhetorical and shared.  Leftwing activists need Ben Shapiro to acknowledge gender is a spectrum because, simply put, we can’t be sure of anything anymore.  There’s an abiding sense of unreality, a feeling that everything is up for negotiation.  The negotiation is public, but the outside works its way in, shaping how the individual thinks.  This would explain why we see students chasing conservative speakers off campus.  And why we see Trumpian attacks on the “lame steam media.”  In both cases the principle is the same: I want (or need) to believe the world is X.  When you say it is Y, it makes my life harder.  I must therefore stop you from saying Y.

In short, in a world of excess—of connection and unbridled choice—we recognize that everything is shared, everything is unstable.  We must take an active role in constructing our reality.  And this means being constantly on guard against threats to that reality.

Rise of the Bottom-Feeders: Online Discourse, Politics and the Academy

Rhetorical practice is, of course, inherently unstable. With the introduction of new actors, issues and technology, the way people talk and think changes. Anne Applebaum claimed recently that the rhetoric of “The Donald” is representative of such a change. In short, she sees Donald Trump as bringing the vulgarity of online discourse into the political sphere. He’s the “voice of the bottom-feeders.”

I agree with Applebaum that vitriolic online discourse can have (and is having) real-world impact. What defines this discourse though? And what should we do about it?

First, when discussing online discourse, it’s important to keep in mind the extent to which to it represents a radical democratization of language. The barriers to rhetorical dissemination have dropped, those formerly silenced can speak. Viewed in this way, one can easily label Applebaum an elitist. She’s a celebrated foreign policy analyst, a graduate of Yale and Oxford. Certainly the way she speaks (and thinks) diverges from the proletarian norm. And who is to say that her rhetorical style– the one she implicitly advocates for in her attack on Trump– is superior? Rhetorical practice is, after all, inherently unstable. And allowing more people to bring their ways of knowing and speaking into the conversation is good, right?

Yes. But letting more people into the conversation has consequences. In a crowded room, with everyone speaking at once, there’s a strong incentive to yell the loudest. This is what we often see online. On Twitter and Facebook discourse is coarsened, nuance disappears. This often (but not always) acts to undercut the benefits of rhetorical exchange. The experience of the other is not substantively engaged with, opinions do not shift, new bonds are not forged. Instead of conversation we have rhetoric as a sort of therapeutic primal scream.

Applebaum’s concern is that this type of rhetorical practice, via Trump, is infecting politics. I have similar concerns with regard to the academy. Though generalizations are always dangerous, it’s fair to say that a certain mode of sensemaking is typically practiced in the library, lab and classroom. This involves listening, questioning and complication. It typically does not involve yelling really loud about your feelings. Such discursive practices are contingent, of course, but they are not arbitrary. We talk this way because it helps us accomplish the goals of the academic enterprise.

So, assuming that Applebaum is correct and that destructive communication practices are migrating off the internet into other spheres, how should academics respond? As a starting point, I would urge teachers and scholars (and anyone else interested in promoting healthy discourse) to consider their own online behavior. Do we engage with a multitude of opinions? Do we seek to promote this sort of engagement in others? As we move through loud, crowded digital rooms do we insist on speaking (and thinking) with nuance and respect?

Unfortunately, even among educated, left-leaning subjects such behavior is often not the norm. This makes the role of those of us well-versed in academic discourse even more important. We must bring our mode of sensemaking to the public sphere. We must provide a coherent, workable rhetorical model for others to follow. Otherwise, as Applebaum suggests, our students, and eventually our colleagues and we ourselves, are going to be talking (and thinking) just like The Donald.

The Call of the Donald: Republicans and Anti-Immigration Rhetoric

Could Donald Trump possibly be the next president of the United States? There’s a part of me– an impish, nihilistic little part– that wishes the answer were yes. The Donald is such a repulsive character that his electoral success would confirm every negative notion I’ve ever had about democracy, the current media climate, the American electorate, etc.

Atlas, the Donald is not going to be president. Though in the current summer media doldrums Trump is filling conference rooms, it seems that even the people coming to ogle him aren’t really serious about his candidacy. To my friends on the hard left– those who are certain (and have been since 1848) that capitalism is on the verge of collapse– I can only say sorry, still not there.

That said, I do think Trump has tapped into something. Specifically, I wonder if his hyper-aggressive anti-immigration rhetoric will cause other Republican candidates to recalibrate their positions on this issue. Perhaps I’m delusional, but it seems that there is room on the right for a populist, stridently anti-immigration candidate. Let me explain how this would work.

Since George W. Bush, if not earlier, establishment Republicans have tried to placate a number of competing constituencies on the immigration issue. First, there are business interests, who want lots of immigration, both legal and illegal, because it drives down wages. Second, there’s the white working class, flag-waving folks who love Jesus and guns, but of late have been decimated by falling wages. Finally, there’s Hispanic voters. Generally, when weighing the value of these groups Republicans have favored the business and Hispanic blocks (perhaps feeling that the white working class vote is guaranteed). This has resulted in policies that talk tough about illegal immigration, but in the end, maintain the pro-business, pro-immigration status quo.

As noted, I don’t think many people take Trump seriously. Those who do though are mainly rural white people who respond viscerally to his anti-immigration rhetoric. They’re hurting economically and immigrants, illegal and otherwise, provide a convenient scapegoat (blaming “wetbacks” is a lot easier than trying to suss out the workings of the global economy, after all). A candidate who could stir up enough passion among this group, it seems to me, could largely offset loses with Hispanic voters and maybe even the business set. This becomes especially plausible when you consider, in the general election, that certain areas with many Hispanics (California, Texas) aren’t really in contention. This is in sharp contrast to places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri– finely balanced swing states with lots of angry, economically disadvantaged white people.

Looking over the Republican field, my attention is drawn to Scott Walker. Among all the Republican candidates he seems to be the most capable of capitalizing on a bluntly “pro-American” message. He has even made some noise about seeking to limit legal immigration. This is a big move. It will be interesting to see if he can siphon off some of the Donald’s nativist energy.

Against Bigness

There is great news out of Turkey today. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party has been defeated in an attempt to win a super-majority in parliament. This would have allowed Erdogan to change the constitution and greatly extend his power. For the record, I think Erdogan is a fine (if only moderately democratic) leader. Why do I cheer his defeat then?

William James writes, “I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets….” This sums up my understanding of the attitude which must underlie any healthy society. Bigness, be it in the form of a powerful leader like Erdogan, or the fetisization of an idea (racial or religious purity, for example), is the enemy of efficient administration. In short, for a space to be optimally governed, there has to be a constant circulation of ideas and personalities. Too much power (or faith) concentrated in any one person or idea, for too long, short-circuits this process.

On the level of macro-politics, I think the above idea can be empirically justified. If you look at the most materially advanced nations– the US, western Europe, etc.– the time any one individual spends at the top of the pyramid seems universally quite short. The same is true, interestingly, of China, which while not conventionally democratic, changes leadership every 10 years. My hypothesis is that the sharing of power among different groups of elites in these nations has factored in their success.

On the micro-level, this view also has consequences. Within any society, some groups may have too much symbolic power. Cops, for example, or the military, or priests, or even professors. It doesn’t matter who they are– when any group gets too big or too great we must challenge them, “steal in through the crannies,” as James says and shatter their aura of invincibility. The internet is a great tool for doing this. One of the goals of this blog, undoubtedly, is to assist in the smashing of idols.

Finally, on a practical level, this view has one important political implication– it makes me hesitant to support Hillary Clinton. Though I generally agree with her policies, I worry that extending the power of her group of elites may have a negative effect on the long-term health of the system. In short, the Clintons and their friends have already had a chance to make their mark and fill their pockets. It may be best not to let them back in the game. We don’t want them to become idols.

A New (Conservative) Feminism?

Like many net-dwellers, I’m fascinated by Laura Kipnis’s ongoing struggles with campus activists / university administration at Northwestern. Is this a case, as one commenter put it, of “feminism eating itself”? Let’s discuss.

First, I will admit, I love Laura Kipnis. (If you want a youngish male to flirt with in a charmingly cerebral way, professor, hit me up!). As I see it, her brand of feminism is one of female empowerment—she views women as active agents, capable of controlling their own lives, sexual and otherwise. This vision informs her rather laissez faire attitude towards professor/student relationships (the topic which sparked the current row). As Kipnis indicates, this vision of feminism is quite different than that practiced by campus activists. These subjects are primarily concerned with female vulnerability. They highlight this perceived vulnerability and often, as the Title IX action against Kipnis indicates, use it as an offensive weapon.

The ideological disparity here is fascinating. And I can’t help but think it stems from a generational gap. Kipnis, I imagine, is a product of the era of high Theory. Following Foucault, she and her cohort view power and agency as fundamentally distributed, residing in discourses and structures, rather than autonomous subjects.¹ Within such a world, power, when exercised on the interpersonal level, can always be resisted. Kipnis illustrates this point vividly in her discussion of a young female writer who is sexually pestered by a “powerful” book editor. To Kipnis, this man is “nebbish, hard to see as threatening.” To the young author though, he is apparently terrifying, an embodiment of male privilege, even when he’s Skyping in his underwear.

So if Kipnis is postmodern what is this younger generation? I don’t know. Certainly their understanding of power seems, from a postmodern perspective, strikingly retrograde: women and students are weak, men and professors and book editors are strong, etc. Like Kipnis, I worry that their rhetoric infantilizes students (and women). Like Kipnis, I suspect helicopter parenting factors in somehow.

I must note though the skill with which these young people, via their Title IX complaint, used the institutional bureaucracy to punish a perceived enemy. If there’s eating going on, they seem be the ones doing the devouring.

1) Admittedly, I have not read any of LK’s many books (though I want to!). This understanding is based solely on her recent Chronicle pieces.