End of Discussion
You’re perched in front of your laptop, eyes boring holes into the screen. A familiar, uneasy feeling swells inside you. Moments ago, you logged in to Facebook, where a gray-lettered prompt in small font beckoned you with four innocuous words: What’s on your mind? Something is on your mind, as it happens; it pertains to a viral national controversy, and a lot of people in your feed have been buzzing about it. You’ve entered a few sentences reflecting your opinion into the status field, and now you’re anxiously eyeing the post icon. One click, and your take will officially be on the record, permanently. Sure, there’s an edit button, and a delete function, but the Internet is forever. You’ve posted hundreds of statuses before, accumulating countless “likes” and sparking a handful of debates, but this time feels different.
The hot story du jour is fraught with . . . let’s call them sensitivities. A significant number of people in your “friend” orbit aren’t going to agree with your minicommentary. That’s fine with you, in theory, but you’re increasingly aware that disagreement of this type may not end well. You’ve seen it happen: angry comment “flame” wars erupt, friendships are strained or dissolved, heavy-duty names are called, and motives are impugned. HR departments have even gotten involved on occasion.
Here’s the thing: you don’t want to be lumped into the “bad person” camp--a fate that awaits those who fail to convey the proper feelings on a matter of public debate. You’re confident you don’t deserve it, and you know what is, and is not, in your heart. But other people might not, and some won’t care. They might seize on a word or a sentence fragment in your post, and things could spiral from there. Posting a selfie, or a music video, or that adorable photo of your dog is far less likely to get ugly (one doesn’t typically get called a bigot posting about one’s puppy1), so you select the text you’ve entered and trash it. It’s just not worth it. You click away from the page and move on.
A growing number of Americans are beginning to sense an insidious strain of self-censorship in themselves, either explicitly or subconsciously. You find yourself keeping your mouth shut about controversial issues like gay marriage or so-called women’s issues because you’d rather not suffer the social costs of being cast as the enemy by the increasingly aggressive thought police. They have enforcers everywhere--at the office, at dinner parties, and all over the media. This silencing impulse isn’t born out of normal or healthy self-reflection and restraint; it arises out of fear. Nor is it part of a free society’s natural process of discarding truly pernicious ideas after open discussion, making marginalization the rightful cost of losing to better arguments. Instead, outrage mongers turn this process on its head, disqualifying ideas without debate instead of after debate.
The fear to speak is cultivated by people who actively work to raise the social cost of engaging publicly on any number of issues. We call them the Outrage Circus. They are highly ideological, often deeply partisan, and relentless in their vigilance, ever on alert to name and shame violators of their approved order. Once you’ve violated one of their capricious and fluid “rules”--even unwittingly--malice is attributed, and restitution is demanded. Nothing short of full, professed repentance shall suffice.
But sometimes even that is not enough, as the relentless, pedantic hall monitors of our discourse often see fit to exact economic costs for perceived social transgressions. Think or express the wrong ideas, and they’ll come after your livelihood. Play the wrong Top 40 hit at a club? Pink slip for you, as one college DJ found out in North Carolina. Uncomfortable with hosting a same-sex marriage ceremony in your own home? That’ll be a $13,000 fine, as a couple with a small business in New York discovered. Display the wrong piece of modern art on an American campus, and you’ll bring scandalized activists and professors down on you, as Tony Matelli realized when his realistic tighty-whitey-clad statue Sleepwalker was shunned and vandalized on the Wellesley College campus after being deemed potentially traumatic for women on campus.2 Hell, even Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler has had her work banned because it’s not sufficiently inclusive of women.
Thought policing is strictest on America’s college campuses, so much so that the idea of a campus as a place of freewheeling free inquiry and speech is almost a laughable relic of a bygone era--a theme we’ll expand on in chapter 5. The outrage industry’s most loyal adherents and enforcers are leftist activists, often trained on campus to believe that protecting certain people from offense in the public sphere is a higher calling than defending free expression. Thus, seemingly without irony or familiarity with Orwell, free speech becomes an exercise not in pushing boundaries but in creating new ones, openness is about closing off, and radicals become more puritanical by the day.
In leftist circles, participants vie viciously for the title of most socially aggrieved in pursuit of the ultimate social windfall--the sanitization of the public square of the arguments of one’s adversaries. We’re not the only ones who’ve noticed. A bevy of liberals in good standing, Bill Maher and Dan Savage among them, have felt the sting of violating the grievance hierarchy. Jonathan Chait, in a 2015 essay for New York magazine, called the “new p.c.” a “style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.” This system, he wrote, “makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible.”
It might be fun to watch this snake devour itself from the tail in a paroxysm of censorship if it weren’t for the fact that the Outrage Circus is so intent on exporting these practices to the rest of society. And unhappily for us, their regulations are most unsparingly enforced against conservatives of all stripes.
Commenting outside of the ever-shifting lines of “correct” thinking and preapproved terminology has always been a problem sweated by politicians and their publicists. No more. While public figures still bear the brunt of the Circus’s acrobatics, “normal” people are no longer exempt. If moments of heterodoxy among liberal lights are punished, imagine what, say, a libertarian homeschooling mom might be in for. Thus, some are turning to self-censorship as the hassle-free, easy way out of being attacked. But it also results in being left out of the conversation. This move toward acquiescence isn’t just limiting. It’s dangerous for society.
North Korean and Islamist terrorists brought new attention to the problem in 2015 in dramatic and tragic fashion, throwing into stark relief the choices and dangers free society faces. In the case of Sony’s The Interview and French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, those who found artistic speech offensive launched criminal and unspeakably violent attacks with the object of preventing such speech in the future. A disturbing number of free society’s spokespeople and publications failed to defend that speech, some even arguing for self-censorship, in the face of these attacks. If we’re not willing to fight bullies with keyboards and petitions, we’re certainly not going to stand up to bullies with machine guns.
The Business We’ve Chosen
To our occasional shame, we work in politics. We chronicle, quote, and quantify our country’s least edifying industry. We entered this sordid fray, ironically, based on a belief that said industry should be as unobtrusive to its citizens and their daily business as possible. (We’re conservatives. That’s kind of the whole idea.) To the detriment of our mental health, our job requires us to pay lots of attention to the goings-on of Washington, D.C., every single day. We routinely survey the state of our “national conversation” with great frustration and occasional alarm. As close friends with preternaturally similar worldviews, we often find ourselves on near-daily phone calls that feature some variation of this exchange:
“Wait, is this a thing now? I think this is a thing.”
“WHY is this a thing?!”
We call these cathartic venting sessions “head explosions,” which often commence with some variation of the “I can’t even” meme. There’s much pacing, occasional unparliamentary outbursts, and rending of tiny garments, as Mary Katharine does her baby’s laundry with the phone on speaker. Regardless of how productive our head explosions may be, they’re certainly cheaper than real therapy. Frankly, though, we shouldn’t be surprised by almost anything anymore. We work in an industry whose number-one export is outrage, yet we are consistently amazed at how little it takes to create “an outrage.” Efficient at nearly nothing else, Washington excels at the world’s worst kind of alchemy--what was formerly mundane becomes “a thing” to talk about. Washington is where the oddities of campus oversensitivity and leftist outrage come to get weaponized--something to freak out about, something to obsess over, and most important, something over which to bash political enemies and fellow countrymen.
Pause. Did you see what we just did? Did you catch the thing? We wrote “countrymen” instead of using a gender-neutral term (which is, what? “Countrypeople”?)3 A rational human being might assume we meant no harm by using “countrymen,” out of a customary assumption of good faith, or an examination of our nonmisogynistic careers, personal lives, and public comments. Our political adversaries instead might choose to deem this an attack on women, and with a helpful assist from their allies in the media, brand us infantry officers in the right’s mythical war on women (see chapter 6). Braying like carnival barkers, they’ll pound the table about our “revealing” alleged gaffe until the use of one word eclipses the balance of our careers and lives. The object is not to declare our words or actions offensive, which would be preposterous enough given their innocuous nature, but to slowly but steadily declare our very existence offensive.
To understand how little material the Left’s choreographed outrage brigades require to make a ruckus that completely obscures the record, one need look no further than the 2012 presidential election, and one of the silliest attacks in modern political history, as substance-free as it was ubiquitous.
Let’s try this thought experiment: Please tell us what’s offensive about the phrase “binders full of women,” employed by Republican nominee Mitt Romney in an October 2012 presidential debate. As a refresher, Romney was touting his documented track record of hiring women to high-ranking positions when he uttered the offending phrase. He explained that he used binders filled with qualified women’s résumés for his gubernatorial cabinet after his first round of recruitment was male dominated. He awkwardly consolidated that thought into “binders full of women.”
Seriously, tell us what is offensive about that. No, really. Try. Was the allegation that the former presidential candidate kept actual women in binders, like some ghastly scene out of the Saw franchise? That the clumsy phrasing indicated some sort of odd objectification of women, in which they become mere office supplies in the eyes of a ruthlessly sexist CEO? It couldn’t possibly have been an indication of his unwillingness to actually hire women, because he used the phrase to describe his uniquely successful efforts to get more women into his gubernatorial cabinet. The Center for Women in Government & Civil Society noted his administration’s peak 50 percent representation was the nation’s closest “to parity in terms of the degree to which women are represented in top policy positions.”4
So, what was it? It was Romney’s clumsy omission of one word: résumés. It was beyond obvious what he meant, but the mistake played into a Democratic attack line (namely, that Republicans are antiwomen). The Left found it convenient to be offended, and the circus went to work. As a result, the microscopic gaffe became a meme. If it had remained a goof, that’d be one thing, but it was deemed indicative of “larger truths,” if not prima facie sexism by Mitt Romney.5
This sequence of events wasn’t accidental. Media circuses and “things” may appear chaotic to the untrained eye, but they’re often intricately choreographed events, led by designated ringmasters. In the political realm, a network of well-trained operatives, nonprofits, special interests, PR firms, universities, “thought leaders,” and the media stand at the ready to manufacture and amplify fury over pretty much anything, or nothing at all. One of the most useful things about employing the entirely subjective “offense” of the listener to draw the limits of acceptable speech is that literally anything can be offensive to someone. The same exact words or thoughts are deemed offensive from someone of one political or ethnic identity, but not from another. Again, the idea is to disqualify a target’s views as unacceptable contributions to the public discourse. To demonize and caricature the target, transforming him into a punch line or persona non grata. To establish a cost associated with crossing society’s self-appointed high priests. By disqualifying someone as prima facie bad, wrong, and backward, you’ve shut down their ideas without much intellectual exertion, guaranteeing that they don’t receive a fair hearing.
As we mentioned, the mob may focus most of its attention on public figures, but its effect on others is undeniable. It’s one thing if your humble authors get excoriated for what-have-you. It’s not pleasant, but we signed up for it in a way that the reticent Facebook user we described earlier did not. To quote The Godfather II, “This is the business we’ve chosen.” We actively decided to jump into the political fray and live relatively public lives. Nonetheless, average people are more aware than ever that their association with the “wrong” fried chicken joint, Internet browser, breast cancer charity, packaged pasta, children’s toy, Halloween costume, TV channel, TV show, word, diaper, school, and even comedian can be the source of potential scrutiny and judgment. Choose incorrectly on any of these fronts, and you’re liable to be branded a hater, a racist, a troglodyte.
The weaponization of outrage for ideological and partisan ends is out of control. Widespread use of social media as a debate forum (and an efficient multiplier of outrage), an increasingly sophisticated political organizing class that knows how to build mere offense into campaign offensive, and a twenty-four-hour media environment that thrives on anything that resembles outrage has whipped up a perfect storm of perpetual, mechanized offense.
1 Though that “Yo quiero Taco Bell” Chihuahua could be of questionable cultural sensitivity, so watch out.
2 “Liberals” against art!
3 Our lawyers inform us that the correct term is fellow citizens. We regret the error.
4 In 2012, a look at nine governors in the Democratic Governors Association’s leadership ranks showed the average percentage of women in cabinet positions was a mere 24 percent.
5 In an incident of achingly poetic irony, “Binders Full of Women Writers,” a private Facebook group for the type of female writers and activists who objected to Romney’s phrasing, itself descended into “bitter identity-politics recriminations, endlessly litigating the fraught requirements of p.c. discourse,” according to Jonathan Chait’s 2015 reporting for New York magazine. Perfect.