America certainly is a land of diversity. On one hand, students at our nation’s universities are encouraged to flee to “safe spaces,” complete with Play-Doh and fluffy blankets, the instant they encounter any idea they might find even slightly troubling. On the other, many in the elite media celebrate the destruction of private and public property as an “uprising,” and often seem more troubled by the contents of Charlie Hebdo’s free speech than by the slaughter it engendered. At first glance, it seems weird that many elite voices should simultaneously apologize for such terror in the face of words and be ambivalent about the acute fear provoked by physical violence — many in Baltimore this week would be glad for a space safe from “uprising” (and they wouldn’t even need Play-Doh). But this toxic combination of intolerance for intellectual dissent and a surprising tolerance for physical violence is actually a natural outgrowth of contemporary weaponized cultural politics.
Sharing our communities with people who have different creeds is not a microaggression, but a basic requirement of life in a free society.
Civil society creates a space for pluralist living, where an atheist can have coffee with a devout Muslim, an issue of The Nation can sit alongside a copy of National Review, and cat-lovers and dog-lovers can together fawn over their respective beasts. In helping to ground the public square, civil society also affords a space for debate about sometimes-contentious issues. Instead of a winner-take-all environment, civil society offers a compromise body politic, in which different creeds, belief systems, and forms of expression can proliferate. The resulting discourse can be messy and is not always for the faint of heart, but it also ballasts life in a free republic. Civil society reminds us that sharing our communities with people who have different creeds is not a microaggression, but a basic requirement of life in a free society.
The fact that civil society restrains, moderates, and complicates radical tendencies can frustrate extremists at both ends of the political spectrum. When these moderating aspects are viewed as an impediment to justice, radical — and even violent — attacks on civil society’s foundation become much more widely accepted.
Weaponized cultural politics deal a considerable blow to that foundation, suppressing the pluralism of ideas by unleashing a selective, haphazard torrent of vitriol, threats, and denunciation on random targets. Whether they’re attacking two guys at a tech conference or the owners of a small-town pizza shop, the modern-day mandarins of intolerance have learned much from Saul Alinsky’s advice to “pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” But cultural total war sabotages efforts at a broader, more productive discourse. Assailing the legitimacy of differing opinions and the sphere of private belief, such scorched-earth tactics ultimately lead us back to a war of all against all, where no one is safe and everyone is a soldier for the imposition of his own self-righteous ideals.
One of the traditional ideals of civil society (albeit one not always realized) is that violence is an unacceptable way of settling differences in the public square: The fact that you do not like a given church does not give you the right to burn it down, and Republicans and Democrats had best not resolve their differences with fisticuffs. This brings us back to Charlie Hebdo and the Baltimore riots. From a civil perspective, it really shouldn’t matter whether cartoons are hateful or benign, juvenile or profound, once violence is threatened against those who create those cartoons. Attempts to silence speech with violence are assaults on the foundation of free society; the content of that speech is a second-order concern by comparison. And yet many in the media often fixate on that second-order concern. Garry Trudeau’s recent Polk remarks seem to express far more anxiety about free-speech “fanaticism” than about those who through violence would destroy the civil space that makes free speech possible. Nor is Trudeau alone here. Some members of PEN, an organization that is supposed to be dedicated to protecting the rights of writers, find it problematic that the organization should recognize those who were slaughtered by the enemies of free speech. (Many PEN members, including Salman Rushdie, are more willing to live up to the founding principles of their organization.)
The turn toward violence may be a symptom of a weakened civil society (as is pervasive police brutality), but violence only worsens the underlying disease.
Violent riots are the antithesis of civil society. For those interested in advancing the cause of justice in Baltimore, the fiery mayhem witnessed by the city in the past few days is a terrible turn of events. Burning down a CVS does not help the people of Baltimore one bit. Instead, such destruction of property only discourages investment in a community, encourages urban flight, and wrecks economic opportunity. Attacks on private property are bad for the property owners themselves, but they are also harmful to the community at large. The turn toward violence may be a symptom of a weakened civil society (as is pervasive police brutality), but violence only worsens the underlying disease. What a troubled city such as Baltimore needs is stronger civil institutions — not weaker ones — and riots attack those institutions. There are real issues in Baltimore and in many municipalities across this nation, but these issues are best addressed within the civil process, which includes voting, public demonstrations, and the hard day-to-day work of building communities.
Weaponized cultural politics and rogue violence assail civil society and the private exercise of personal freedom. Civil politics offer imperfect improvement in place of the utopian ideal, but, in this fallen world, imperfect improvement is often the best we can hope for. As we look ahead, we should not forget that strengthening civil institutions can help us promote liberty, justice, and happiness.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.