Last week, David French issued a call to courage, urging conservatives to stand up for their beliefs even at the risk of falling victim to the PC mob. In response I noted that for “regular” folks — those with normal jobs and friends to lose — the risk of speaking out far exceeds the benefit. I also half-seriously suggested some reforms, such as requiring newspapers to print responses from the people they attack or to make distinctions based on whether subjects were unwillingly dragged into the media spotlight. French found my reforms and, I think, my overall attitude to be severely lacking, so I’d like to explain myself a bit more.
What, Exactly, Do We Want People to Do?
Much of our exchange has focused on a situation in which two Christian students sued Georgia Tech over its anti-free-speech and anti-Christian policies. In my post, I detailed how I argued with my fellow students over the case — an experience that was frustrating and time-consuming and brought me no benefit. In his response, French emphasized how the students’ courage resulted in a court victory and improved policies at the school, and how Christian groups and tenured professors left these students to fight alone.
While we’re talking about same case, we are actually talking about slightly different things. There are moments in life when we find ourselves in exactly the right position to take a stand and make our voices heard. I agree that Christian groups and professors should have been tripping over themselves to support these students. That could have had a significant impact.
But that was a reactive situation. That wasn’t about being afraid to speak generally, but being called to speak in specific defense of an important principle and choosing to demure. In that, I join French in his frustration. But this “moment of truth” is not what I’m talking about.
For example, one of my Christian colleagues related, “If I were forced to approve of something antithetical to my faith to participate in [my industry], I hope I’d tap out and defend the faith . . . but I’m not sure there’s a proactive behavior [French] can call us to. I’m not even sure what courage means here. What am I supposed to do? Start sharing NRO articles in my company chats? I consciously try to avoid divisive topics because that’s just not the kind of work environment I want for anyone.”
Most of us, liberals and conservatives alike, just want to do good work. We don’t want to talk politics at work. We don’t want to alienate people. We don’t want to be the annoying in-law at Thanksgiving, ready with 15 hard-hitting talking points to take down the other side.
To give a more concrete example: What should we do about our companies’ increasingly annoying “diversity” initiatives? Just practically speaking, what would be the forum for that? The company Slack? Random emails to colleagues? Should we stand up at the company meeting to interrupt the HR manager in the middle of her presentation to voice our concerns? Should we object to the company’s Pride events, noting that our Muslim and Christian colleagues tend to get awfully quiet when these things roll around?
There is something about disrupting the workplace in this way that is deeply anti-conservative. We don’t want to pick battles that mark us as trouble employees. The time might come to fight those important battles, and we should make sure we’re fighting the ones we win or the ones we can’t avoid. Otherwise, we’ll be long gone before we get to fight them.
Courage Is Not Magic
I’m going to beat this drum until the day I die: That courage may not make any difference does not mean we should not have courage. Far be it! Courage on its own terms is valuable to our souls. Even in the face of certain failure, courage is important to defining who we are and where we stand. I don’t want to deride the quality of courage or discourage its application. But let us not be fools.
While offering a powerful and needed defense for the value of courage, I think French overestimates the impact of courage, certainly as we have seen it applied in the last few years. He promotes courage not only as a vital personal trait but also as the single path to liberty of voice and conscience, which I think very much underestimates the nature of the problem. He fails to grapple with the chance that courage will backfire; he hasn’t articulated a backstop if courage fails to bring us liberty, fails to convince, fails to protect. And backfiring is certainly what we’ve seen at major tech companies.
Almost exactly one year ago, French pointed to an internal conservative revolt at Facebook and issued a spark of hope that “one dissenting voice can alter the entire dynamic of the conversation and moderate the whole.” Then he suggested that Brian Amerige, the leader of this movement, might be “the engineer who lived — the man who dissented, gathered a coalition, and made a difference.”
Three months later, Amerige’s job title was “former Senior Engineering Manager at Facebook.” He’d found that his memo made little difference in Facebook’s direction or policies, and he left the company.
Amerige is now one fewer dissenting voice inside Facebook. James Damore is one fewer voice inside Google. Mike Wacker was also fired from Google, after pointing out that the courageous act of sharing a National Review article was enough to throw one’s career into jeopardy. Brendan Eich’s $1,000 donation to California’s Prop 8 was an act of courage for which he would ultimately resign his post as CEO at Mozilla.
I suppose it is possible that the problem in each of these cases is that there wasn’t enough courage, that we needed ten simultaneous dissenting voices rather than one. But I find it more likely that an increase in courage will result in an increase in firings and intolerable working conditions until all the courage from the right has been forcibly removed from these companies.
This is why I advocate discretion and caution, not out of cowardice but out of practicality. It’s not only that I don’t want to lose my job or expose myself to the mob; it’s also that I’d rather conservatives be quietly influential if the alternative is to be courageously fired.
The Power of the Mob
In my previous post, I referenced my appreciation for my liberal boss at a job who stood up for me in the face of people coming to him and demanding I be fired. We need more of that on the left and right. We need people to stand up to the mob when it isn’t their life on the line. It’s not enough that conservatives show courage, we need liberals and moderates in power to show courage, too.
But the second part of that story is also important. That’s the part where my boss, having told the mob to go pound sand, advises me to keep a lower profile. This is because the mob doesn’t stop at your boss. It will go to any level in the corporate ladder or social chain that can secure a scalp.
There is no level above which you and your family are safe from the mob. They have taken down everyone from café workers to CEOs. A VP of Facebook was reprimanded, and then he issued an apology simply for existing in the near vicinity of Brett Kavanaugh. And that story should be considered a major victory, since he got only a reprimand when the goal of Facebook’s internal mob was to see him removed.
In years past, there were social norms that protected us from the tiny minority that would prefer to see the “wrong thinkers” suffer. A disgruntled loser on the far left may approach a company to complain about a particular employee, upon which the accuser would be appropriately derided and dismissed. He may take his complaint to a newspaper, which would ethically conclude that this was nothing but a childish vendetta unworthy of news coverage. Social conventions of tolerance, restraint, and integrity reined in the worst of these actors.
Social conventions enforced by gatekeepers act as a valuable buffer around the law. The individual-level interconnectedness of the Web has swept these away, exposing us to the raw id of the mob. This power is seductive and has found traction on the right as well as the left.
Further, our conversations online have neither the safety of a private space nor the formal protections of a public space. You may think that your private online conversations with friends are a safe place to speak your mind, but there is always the danger of betrayal, and everything you say either is automatically logged or can easily be captured via screenshot. Many conversations are subject to search and scrutiny even a decade after the fact. Everyone is hostage to his worst moment, just waiting to be unearthed and presented to the mob, and norms evolve rapidly enough that an innocuous conversation at one time becomes an offensive one a few years later.
This is the context in which most conservatives I know live in fear and feel silenced. This state of affairs is hostile to liberty. It is unfair and intolerable, and it scares people. And courage on the part of the attacked will not solve it. To the contrary, courage paints a target on our backs and invites the mob to dig into our past, to mine our every statement for our worst moment.
Where are the weapons we need to fight this?
“You have the Constitution,” French writes. Will the Constitution help us keep our jobs? Or will we be smugly reminded (by both the Right and the Left) that private companies can do what they want, hire and fire as they please? Sure, the First Amendment secures us the God-given right to shout our opinions from our front lawn — until our house is repossessed. The First Amendment is not a meaningless protection, but this is something of a category error.
“You have nondiscrimination laws.” Do we? It is not at all clear to me that Damore will emerge victorious in his suit against Google. Additionally, there are all kinds of career-paralyzing tactics that are hard to challenge in court. And does this mean that French is willing to endorse the addition of “political activities or affiliations” to the current list of federally protected anti-discrimination categories, alongside the usual ones such as race and sex?
“You have the power of your voice.” When the modern equivalent of the printing press is in the hands of a few enormous companies that have repeatedly shown no compunction about silencing dissenting voices, are we really to rely on the power of our voice? And doesn’t insisting that we have a right to make our voices heard in the modern public square make us “grossly entitled”?
French also references the Founding Fathers, past generations, and even the apostles’ endurance of torture and death for the cause of the Gospel. But conservative politics are not the Gospel. I would die in service of the Good News of Jesus Christ, but I’m sure as hell not going to die because I think the rhetoric around climate change is ridiculous.
Courage alone will not save us. It must be paired with caution, shrewdness, decency, and, if those qualities prove insufficient, carefully crafted legislation.