Not My Liberal Values


This post is the second in a conversation I hope to engage in here at Stone Soup regarding the so-called “free speech crisis,” allegedly conducted by “leftists,” currently underway in America (and more specifically, the internet). My last post can be found here, and some issues raised in today’s piece refers back to that one; more importantly, today’s responds to an article by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic entitled, “Mozilla’s Gay-Marriage Litmus Test Violates Liberal Values.” Again, reading the article is not necessary for moving on to my comments, but it helps.

Today we gather to weep for the martyrdom of an ex-CEO who donated $1,000 to ensuring marriage rights were stripped from a class of people.

But first, Atlantic staffer Conor Friedersdorf wants you to know just how much he supports same-sex marriage. Like, totally one hundred percent “I have a gay friend I swear to god” supports same-sex marriage. He says that in 2008 he “spent more time arguing in favor of gay marriage than any other issue.” He details how he, as a right-leaning moderate (read: conservative), tried to convince conservatives and coworkers about the merits of same sex marriage. Conor Friedersdorf loves same-sex marriage, and don’t you dare think otherwise.

But still, Conor Friedersdorf is not in favor of public pressure to force Brendan Eich, the father of JavaScript and one time donator of $1,000 to Proposition 8, to step down from his position as CEO of Mozilla. Friedersdorf’s title says that this activism “violates liberal values,” and, I’m blushing here, because, oh Conor, how did you know much I like liberal values? They’re like pretty much my favorite type of values (don’t even get my started on neoliberal values or I’ll begin to sweat).

Conor’s first argument is that a majority of Californians at the time, as well as Barack Obama, believed that “gay marriage ought to be illegal.” Here we have to already split hairs. Barack Obama has always been fuzzy with his support on same sex marriage rights, but he was openly against Proposition 8, despite his lack of support for same-sex marriage. You can call it a contradiction in terms, but you you can’t just say, “If you wanna fire Eich, you gotta get rid of Obama too!” Not going to work, Conor, but good call on knowing how much your average liberal reader loves Obama. He’s like the best.

Friedersdorf then writes that if we are to live in a society where people’s professional lives are also affected by the things they do in private, “it will damage our society.”

And so here’s the thing that upsets me: what Eich did was not some political gesturing or belief held only in his mind that had no ramifications. Nor did he not intend for his actions to have consequences (since motive has become a predominant neoliberal concern in discussions of homophobia/sexism/racism). He purposefully donated to an anti-gay campaign, which succeeded. People’s rights were taken away, overnight, in small (but non-zero) part due to action that Eich intended and hoped would come true. How is it that once he becomes CEO of a popular company, a position that is tantamount to holding office in terms of the power, respect and prestige we have for corporate America, we can just ignore that fact? And it wasn’t just holier-than-thou leftists clamoring for Eich’s resignation; it was Mozilla employees themselves who said they did not feel comfortable with a boss who financially contributed to the stripping away of their rights.

But according to Friedersdorf, what’s done is done, so no use crying over spilled milk. He writes: “Proposition 8 was overturned. Gay marriage is legal in California. Having a CEO who opposed gay marriage now would in no way diminish equal marriage rights for gays.” You hear that, same-sex marriage proponents? Demonstrating to anti-marriage activists that if they try to act against equal rights there will be consequences would, according to Friedersdorf, in no way diminish the cause. Move on, nothing to see here.

Except for Friedersdorf, the real fear is in the slippery slope. You liberals might think you’ve got the bull by the horns now, but what about when unpopular opinions are thrown back at you and your for-profit, private sector job (that is where everybody works anyway)? Friedersdorf asks, “Would American society be better off if stakeholders in various corporations began to investigate leadership’s political activities on abortion and to lobby for the termination of anyone who took what they regard to be the immoral, damaging position?” Ooooh he’s got you there, liberals. Conor knows you like abortion, but what if you work for an advertising firm in Oklahoma and one day your political beliefs are revealed?

I’d say that that’s when we can begin the actual martyrdom, but I’m not persuaded it’s going to happen. Because by analogizing to abortion, Friedersdorf is using pundit speak to label both it and same-sex marriage as Divisive and Contentious Issues, and continuing with Lovett’s point from earlier, asking, hey, can’t we all can just agree to disagree about these issues? I mean, do we really live in a country where simply holding a contrarian belief means you’re fired from your job, your livelihood taken away?

No, not really. To ask for people to agree to disagree is to ask for the dominant political voice to win outright. Just because people disagree about abortion and same-sex marriage doesn’t mean (again going back to triangulation) that the two sides are both equal. Opposing same-sex marriage is bigoted, and we need to live in a society where people are held responsible for their bigoted actions. Because remember, Eich did not simply hold a private belief, at which point I would agree that forcing his resignation would be inappropriate.

But that’s probably why, after this article was written, Friedersdorf wrote articles entitled, “Why Gay-Marriage Opponents Should Not Be Treated Like Racists” and “A 23-Year-Old Gay-Marriage Opponent Explains Herself.” You see, this is why Friedersdorf opened his piece trying to convince you, dear reader, why he was so definitely one hundred percent not even a second thought in favor of same-sex marriage: because he really likes defending those against same-sex marriage. Friedersdorf writes in the first of his secondary pieces: “Opposition to gay marriage can be rooted in the insidious belief that gays are inferior, but it’s also commonly rooted in the much-less-problematic belief that marriage is a procreative institution, not meant to join couples for love and companionship alone.”

Oh my god. Really? “Much-less-problematic?” That’s the best you can come up with, a nicer-sounding rewording of the typical ludicrous right-wing argument that gays can’t make babies? The argument that ignores the infertile, ignores the elderly, ignores the fact that gays can adopt except when the same people who think marriage is there to raise babies pass laws saying gay couples can’t raise babies?

Conor, I’m starting to think that your essay should’ve been about why firing Eich violated conservative principles, not liberal ones.

In his other secondary essay, Friedersdorf trumps out a 23-year-old Christian woman who explains why she is against same-sex marriage. Friedersdorf asks, “[S]hould society stigmatize this young woman as a bigot and punish her professionally for the mix of attitudes and beliefs expressed above?” Well, let’s see, Conor. Is she a CEO, a position that requires much more responsibility and public spotlight? Did she use her time and/or resources to make sure gay people cannot marry? If both of those, then yes, her too! But besides Friedersdorf’s attempt to infantilize the anti-gay advocate (“c’mon guys, she’s a young Christian girl! Lay off her!”), her positions are really goddamn offensive:

“I believe that God, who created all people, has His own intention for what marriage is supposed to be. I believe He deliberately created two inherently different, non-interchangeable types of humans so that each one could permanently join and start a family. In both Testaments, the Bible mentions that homosexual behavior is a sin…The reality is that I am trying to show others God’s picture.”

Okay, you can rationalize being against same-sex marriage as being part of God’s will (not to mention how transphobic this point of view is), but guess what, Friedersdorf and anonymous, victimized Christian woman? I can also call you bigoted, and I don’t care much if you like it or not. And I can push for you to get fired as CEO once you try to take away rights of Americans, because I also have a voice.

So here’s where I get angry. Friedersdorf says that those who called for Eich to get fired “should face and own up to the fact that they helped force out a CEO solely because he disagreed with them about same-sex marriage.” No Conor, it was not about disagreement; it was about action. Eich was actively contributing to discrimination against gays. And here’s where it gets very serious, and this may seem like strong language but I believe it with all my heart: Brendan Eich was harming the bodies of LGBTQ Americans. He was acting violently, and it’s not intolerant for a group to defend itself. It was a courageous form of defiance, and I’m proud of them for succeeding.

And so here’s where I’d like to end things on both Lovett and Friedersdorf: when both of you speak, political disagreements sound innocuous and without consequence. Maybe it’s because you are both white, cisgendered, heterosexual males (as am I, mind you). But there are real consequences from the actions of others, whether it’s giving a thousand dollars to strip rights away or using racist language in public. Every day, people from marginalized groups suffer, tremendously, for the transgressions of Polite America, which refuses to acknowledge or even consider that one side of the argument could be bigoted, no matter the lengths to which that side goes to hurt the other side. By reframing active discrimination as just another political talking point, you are euphemizing atrocities.

I do not weep for Stephen Colbert or Brendan Eich. They will be just fine. I do worry that neoliberal triangulation will water down, or shut down, dissenting voices. I do worry, deeply, that discriminated-against groups will continue to live in pain, and when they scream for mercy from the pits of hell, the response from on high will be, “Please stop yelling, we’re trying to discuss the level of your pain up here.”


Wait, Who Should Be Shutting Up Here?

We have, according to many social commentators, a free speech crisis on our hands. In the wake of Suey Park’s #CancelColbert campaign and the resignation of Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla, numerous articles have been written about why it’s not okay to belittle somebody’s right to express themselves. I don’t want to oversimplify the argument, but this classical liberal narrative goes something like this: “America is a wonderful melting pot of diverse ideas where, through healthy discussion and input from all different sectors, we both teach and learn from one another. Sometimes this joint effort requires detested opinions to be broadcast, and although many of us sensible folk agree that these opinions are not always appropriate, we must respect their right to be aired in spite of the unpopularity.” I have some minor grievances with this line of thinking, but like most people I find it to be pretty persuasive. My problem as of late has been that many liberal to moderate pundits seem to be contradicting themselves in their rush to hate the hatred of hate. I hope to produce a series of posts here on Stone Soup that details the quote-unquote illiberal side of the argument. Tonight we begin with an article by Jon Lovett in The Atlantic entitled, “The Culture of Shut Up.” I advise reading it before going onto my comments, but it’s not required.

You can tell why Jon Lovett was able to leave the White House, where he was a speechwriter for President Obama, and transition straight to the world of sitcom writing. “The Culture of Shut Up” is supposed to come off as cutesy but serious, seamlessly blending pop culture references with serious political issues in a way that endears Lovett to the reader. Lovett starts out by telling a story about a remote village where only three elders had the ability to speak. These elders represent the traditionally dominant political class made up of politicians and the media who long ago monopolized societal discourse. Eventually other villagers realized that they too could have their opinions heard—in print, on rocks (i.e. the internet). And so although the rock speech was messy and often devolved into finger pointing, it still served as an important check on the three elders. But now the rock speech is in trouble, and the elders might be on their way back.

If it weren’t for the self-mocking witticisms and Mad Men references, this article would be indistinguishable from a Tom Friedman op-ed (which is not a good thing). Lovett uses drowning imagery three separate times when referring to how much speech there is nowadays: “We are drowning in information…I don’t want those voices to drown out the diverse and compelling voices…[I]f we can live with the noise, even embrace the noise, without trying to drown each other out.” You get the idea. There’s so much shit on the internet that productive discourse is nearly impossible.

But what’s all this speech that’s drowning us out? Lovett says (continuing the village story): “Soon there were really only two kinds of messages people would write—either vicious personal attacks, or self-righteous calls for apology—until eventually the villagers, angry and exhausted and sick of the noise and rancor just started pelting each other with rocks…and turned back toward the smug and satisfied village elders who were just waiting for their chance to regain supremacy—just waiting for the moment when the villagers would come crawling back…desperate for the reassuring simplicity of the old order, the establishment, of the way things used to be.” Lovett is warning us that if we don’t become more civil in our online discourse, the great social experiment that is the internet will be deemed a failure by the powers that be and we will be right back to having no voice at all.

And so but here’s where I start to lose Lovett, because as much as I don’t like the elders being the only voice in society, I also don’t like a watered down rock system where voices that challenge authority are suppressed. But wait, this article is about how we have to stop telling each other to shut up or else bad things will happen, so Lovett and I agree!

But we don’t and here’s why. Lovett conflates two issues: 1) telling people to shut up and 2) vicious personal attacks/self-righteous calls for apology. I don’t think anyone wants to defend “vicious personal attacks” as being integral to the system; they can more or less go, and really even be banned outright, without much worry about institutional damage. But since when are “calls for apology” equivalent to telling other people to “shut up?”

Lovett’s interpretation of “shutting up” is as follows.

“Here’s a list of some other people who were told to shut up, off the top of my head:

The Chick-fil-A guy was told to shut up about gay people…

Paula Deen was told to shut up by everyone because her stuff was racist and crazy…

Stephen Colbert was told to shut up about satire, I think?

The Duck Dynasty guy was told to shut up about gay people…”

Those are pretty demonstrative of the rest of Lovett’s list: people said offensive things and were told to shut up.

Except that they weren’t. I find it interesting that responding to words you find offensive with collective action is tantamount to telling people to shut up, rather than notifying them that their words will not be taken lightly. Because what happens in Lovett’s account is that some people say offensive things and then other people, e.g. the Suey Parks and Mozilla employees and gay rights activists of the world, demanded that the parties now apparently responsible for policing speech in society, i.e. corporations, take action. And the ultimate irony is that these activists were told by many, quite literally by some and more vaguely by others like Lovett, to shut up. They were told they were not contributing to the dialogue, were being irrational, were distracting from Real Issues, did not (despite being writers) understand what satire was, were being racist themselves. I happened to agree with the motives of and means taken by these anti-racist movements; others did not. But the important thing here is that Lovett is asking for these “self-righteous calls for apology” to stop.

Why? He doesn’t engage with the substantive merits of the calls for apology, other than when he tries to be cute by saying Deen’s stuff was “racist and crazy” and Colbert was told to shut up about “satire” (when really he was criticized for using racist language while satirizing, which is way different). But Lovett seems to be concerned that this “bubble of subprime outrage and subprime apologies” (I told you he was clever) leaves us with a constantly boring cycle of outrage that is then capitalized upon by the sensationalist media.

But Lovett is falling into classic triangulation: “you people demanding apologies are wrong because the people hurling insults at you are wrong and since the whole thing is bad overall, both sides are bad and need to be put down.” Maybe that’s true; I don’t think it is, namely because if these rocks are important instrumentally in any way I hope it’s to allow marginalized groups a platform to point out discrimination and biases against them, so saying that a gay Mozilla employee who feels uncomfortable with their boss is doing nothing more than shouting “shut up” by publicly announcing his or her discomfort, you’re completely undermining the activism that has actually been pretty successful recently. But even if Lovett’s reformulated triangulation were correct, even if we need to end the cycle once and for all for the sake of humanity or whatever, he’s completely wrong to say that in this story the ones who are so-called “outraged” are the ones who are yelling, or devaluing the conversation. Because unless you want to tell me why the substance of their complaints are unmeritorious sans the “boring” responses from mean people and the media that inevitably result, I don’t see why these activists should stop doing what they’ve been doing so well. It sounds to me like you’re telling them to shut up.

So Lovett shifts the goalposts beautifully: by telling people that we have a Culture of Shut Up, he’s invoking the peaceful and respectful political discourse that many of us are constantly looking for, but he tells his audience that the ones responsible for our drowning in bullshit are the outraged minorities, who, ironically, need to shut up so that the cycle of outrage->vicious replies back->media coverage can be put to rest. What it seems like then is that the rocks aren’t working anyway, that the same “people in charge,” namely the media and neoliberal institutions responsible for deciding what conversations do and don’t gain traction, i.e. the elders, are still successful in suppressing dissent among the ranks via co-opting the social influence the rocks have. At that point, I’m really not sure if telling the “self-righteous” dissenters to stop taking action is all that much of an issue.

Next up: This terrible article