Magazine | July 20, 2015, Issue

The Speech Police, Ascendant

The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech, by Kirsten Powers (Regnery, 304 pp., $27.99) End of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun), by Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson (Crown Forum, 304 pp., $26)

Some lives matter more than others. Smith College president Kathleen McCartney learned this lesson the hard way after sending an e-mail last December that declared “All Lives Matter.” The e-mail was designed to help Smith students process and protest the decision of grand juries not to indict the officers involved in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. McCartney of course apologized almost immediately, realizing that declaring that every person’s life matters could “minimize the anti-blackness of this the current situation.” A Smith sophomore said that McCartney’s original e-mail “felt like she was invalidating the experience of black lives.”

As with so many incidents in this new resurgence of political correctness, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Does one just chuckle and shake one’s head at a movement so hyper-sensitive that it reacts angrily even at its friends and allies when they don’t use exactly the right language at exactly the right time (as defined by the most sensitive and angry campus activists)? Or does one lament the trajectory of a culture that is narrowing the range of acceptable discourse so dramatically? Do both. Now is the time for laughter and lamentations.

Two new books will help. Kirsten Powers’s The Silencing and Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson’s End of Discussion cover similar cultural and political ground, but each does so in its own, distinctive man-bites-dog manner.

Powers writes regretfully, as a liberal — a lifelong leftist who used to believe, for example, that “George Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court didn’t really count as a female appointment because she was conservative and an evangelical Christian.” Though still liberal, she is no longer tribal, and she is consequently appalled at systematic leftist intolerance of dissent. Her book is a scholarly lamentation, a meticulously documented journey through a political movement that is rejecting debate and dialogue in favor of shame, censorship, and stigma.

Because of my experience with infringements on free speech on college campuses, Powers interviewed me for the book (she interviewed a wide variety of people, left and right), and I’m honored that she quotes me in the epilogue. She used very few of the examples of intolerance I shared, but she had no need: As she was writing, the Left kept censoring. Her result is a well-researched, meticulously documented book that feels as timely as a magazine essay. Powers was reacting to events as they occurred, not merely collecting a grab bag of stories from years past, a “greatest hits” of liberal censorship.

Where Powers’s book is a lamentation, Ham and Benson actually managed to write a book about intolerance and the demise of our democracy that is laugh-out-loud funny. In my favorite passage, with an exquisite sense of timing they transition from highlights of leftist hypersensitivity over identity and language to a brief but glorious discussion of former Harvard law professor and current Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, known to many as “Fauxcahontas.”

Both books are long on stories of intolerance and short on solutions. At the end of her book, Powers urges greater intellectual diversity — people should go and make “unlikely friends.” It’s a message clearly aimed primarily at leftists such as the person she used to be, walled off in her own cultural bubble. Ham and Benson call for the creation of an informal “coalition to chill the hell out.” The theory is that “small circles of zealots” exercise disproportionate (and irritating) cultural power, and that what America really wants is for “people to chill the hell out.”

Ham and Benson would like to create a vast petition drive that responds to the outrage of the day with a decisive statement of indifference, giving corporations and others subjected to outrage campaigns the assurance that the vast majority of their customers just don’t care. Ham and Benson are joking, but they raise a key point: Over the long run, the cultural battle is unlikely to be won by joyless scolds. While they can achieve short-term results, people tend to gravitate away from anger and misery.

In reality, both books are better for their lack of solutions. It often feels false when books describe a crisis, then tack on an unrealistic five-point plan to address it; and it’s particularly false when the crisis is more cultural than legal or political. In a significant way, Powers and Ham and Benson (and people like them) are the solution. Political correctness won’t end until liberals share Powers’s anguish at their own movement’s illiberalism. And conservatives won’t slay political correctness by mimicking the Left’s joyless and malicious intolerance. With wit and fun, Ham and Benson model the culture that conservatives should build. With regret and pain, Powers rejects the culture that liberals should abandon.

There are signs that Powers is not alone on the left. Since the publication of her book, fresh incidents of liberal intolerance have been called out not by angry conservatives but by frustrated liberals. At Northwestern University, a leftist feminist professor, Laura Kipnis, found herself in the crosshairs of a Title IX investigation merely for publishing a provocative essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Her story led to widespread academic soul-searching, as professors and administrators began to realize that they’d created a politically correct monster they could no longer control. Soon after Kipnis shared her ordeal, a leftist professor wrote his own (anonymous) essay in the Chronicle, describing his fear of offending liberal students.

Nor are liberals only protecting their own. In the very liberal Slate, David Auerbach called out a computer-science conference for canceling a software presentation simply because the presenter also happened to be a “neoreactionary,” a member of a small, anti-democratic philosophical movement that holds controversial racial views.

These are small signs of progress, to be sure — especially when set against the avalanche of intolerance that these two books so meticulously describe. But small beginnings are still beginnings. Or at least that’s the hope. It’s entirely possible that the examples I outline represent outliers, the efforts of the last few truly liberal leftists, people who support free speech for its own sake, as a social good worth preserving. In any case, to make real progress, many more of the liberals who dominate the high ground of campus and culture will have to be persuaded that true tolerance has value. The alternative is further anger and misery, as the outrage industry piles up its victims until the true backlash finally, inexorably arrives.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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