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