|"What are you? Chicken?"|
I fail to understand why the left in the western world has become so averse to open debate, especially on university campuses.
Are leftists afraid they won't win debates against climate change deniers, creation scientists, race realists, trickle down economists, the war on drugs, "Pray the gay away", alt-right blowhards, holocaust deniers, anti-vaxxers, men’s rights activists, 9/11 truthers, guys who go on about "cultural Marxism" or "women's place is in the home" tradcons?
Collectively, these do not strike me as an especially high bar. So what gives?
It is rightly asserted that many far right wing ideologies are fundamentally irrational and so appeal to irrational people, and you're not likely to convince their core adherents outright, no matter how good your case may be. Many also are little more than rationalizations for rank hatred and bigotry. Others still have been debunked repeatedly and long ago, so to do so again is just tiresome and redundant. Can’t we all just bury these stupid ideas and move on already?
Nevertheless, here are seven broad reasons why I think controversial reactionary opinions should be debated, or at least deconstructed in public forums.
1 - You'll bring moderates and fence sitters into the more rational camp. This happened a lot back in the days when the new atheism, the kind represented by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, went on the rational offensive against right wing Christianity. I saw it happen online countless times during Bush’s second term in office. In fact, it's precisely what happened to me.
Regrettably, progressives are not repeating this prior success with the alt-right movement today.
No-platforming the alt-right actually contributes to the image they’re seeking for themselves as a force to be feared. A force to be feared is a force to be respected. Maybe even a force to seek the protection and allegiance of in uncertain times. When Hillary Clinton presented the alt-right and its internet icons in terms similar to the way the religious right fear-mongered over rock music back in the 1980s, she virtually handed Donald Trump the presidency.
Contrast this with the scathing deconstruction and ridicule to which the new atheists subjected the religious right. The liberals - at long last - took the initiative. Rather than no-platform the religious right, they made damn good and sure everybody heard – from the evangelist’s own mouths – exactly what they believed and how nonsensical and stupid it really was. Memes that ridiculed religious conservatism – invisible pink unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters and the like, were viral phenomenon.
Yes, hard as it may be to believe today, it was the progressives who were using meme magic in those days. That makes Hillary Clinton’s campaign fear mongering and hysteria over a cartoon frog all the more laughable and tragic. Let’s look at it from a different angle: guys on 4chan were using – among other things - a cartoon frog and an attendant “Cult of Kek” to attempt to revive fascist ideology in order to get Donald Trump in the White House. The comedy – mixed in with a no-nonsense critique of their antiquated racial pseudo-science - pretty much writes itself at this point. Had Hillary taken that approach, would world affairs now be different?
With all due respect to Pepe – I must admit, I do have a soft spot for the guy. I can sympathise with him. I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of baseless moral panic.
2 - You avoid the "lure of the forbidden fruit" effect that fringe opinions have with certain kinds of people. If you explain the reasons why you think the way you do, you prove that you and the political faction of which you're part have nothing to hide. If you rely instead on getting offended at the mere suggestion that an unorthodox opinion be explored, and pursue options for punishing people who hold such views, you lend legitimacy to the conspiratorial narratives that fringe right (or left) wing views tend to hold and come across as abusing your power. This may even generate sympathy for those views - people naturally sympathise with the underdog.
I think the present growth of the alt-right has been due in part to their quite deliberately exploiting this whole dynamic. Compare this with the so called “Streisand Effect”, when attempts to smear or censor something actually give it exposure and contribute to its success. Openly debunking controversial ideas, if indeed they are so wrong, takes that wind right out of their sails.
3 - You are conveying respect. Respect not necessarily for the reactionary or the conspiracy theorist you are arguing with, but for the reasoning capacity of 3rd parties and any audience such a debate might have. The kinds of high-minded refusal to debate contentious matters that liberals so often display comes across as patronizing and condescending. They assume audiences are like small children who need to be protected from potentially "harmful" opinions and too stupid to tell good ideas from bad. Liberal people especially, with their professed egalitarianism and respect for the marginalized, have no business adopting such elitist views.
These kinds of assumptions are, of course, true of some people, and those who refuse to change their views to accord with the facts should be held to censure and ridicule. But surprisingly large numbers of people are put off by smugness, and may not care what you have to say no matter how right you are if you come across as a pompous know-it-all.
This is especially true when progressives imply, as they often do, that to disagree with them on anything is to be racist, misogynist or Nazi. Increasingly, people are not taking kindly to the emotional blackmail implicit in this kind of argumentation, and are taking their loyalties elsewhere. And so they should. Progressives are not owed loyalty or support any more than anybody else is, and need to stop using the good names of anti-racism and feminism as a legitimizing cover for their own snobbery and propensity to disrespect other people.
4 - It is an opportunity to illustrate what good and bad thinking are and how they work. This is especially true in educational environments. Explore the fallacies, and not just straight out logical fallacies. Explore the deeper psychological appeal that extremist politics and conspiracy theories have, at least for certain personality types.
Do not assume that the reason people hold reactionary or radical views is always bigotry, stupidity or some kind of vested interest, although any of those may be the case and the use of ideology to rationalize privilege, prejudice or abuse of power should, of course, be explored. But people’s reasons for believing what they believe are surprisingly complex. Subtle shifts in mental framing, for instance, can cause the same issue to appear very differently to two different people, and both views may be held and advanced in good faith and with the best of intentions. It becomes increasingly important to understand this as politics grows ever more polarized.
There are certainly times when it’s appropriate to call people out for advancing spiteful, hateful or flagrantly self serving views. But be reasonably sure all other possibilities have been explored before resorting to this, or it is you and your own side that will ultimately come across as looking vindictive and power hungry when it turns out the victim of your self righteous wrath really was acting in good faith. Failure in this regard is damaging the image of progressive politics today, at a time when such politics have never been more needed.
The current tactic of moral outrage and no-platforming risks leaving students vulnerable to bad ideas down the road.
5 - It is intellectually honest. If you've been right 19 times out of 20 in a dispute with your neighbor, that does not mean that you will automatically be right during the 21st dispute and thus have no need to make a sound case. To believe otherwise is to forsake the very soundness of logic that you're presuming makes you right in the first case.
I get the sense that in the Obama years, progressives were coasting on the winds of earlier success against the evangelicals. They assumed that because they were usually right in their disputes with the conservatives, that they would always be right in their disputes with the conservatives, and so felt at liberty to dispense with those disputes entirely. This led to intellectual arrogance and laziness.
The problem with simply coasting on the winds of prior success is that those winds do not blow forever. When they stop, you'd better still be able to keep flight of your own accord. Progressives during Obama’s second term did not consider this. As a result, Donald Trump is in the White House, the very evangelicals who were in abeyance only a short time ago again have access to the levers of power, and it is now the progressives who are being smeared and ridiculed as hypersensitive politically correct snowflakes. Tragically, the lesson does not appear to have been learned.
6 – It sets a far better precedent. Liberals are taking their dominance in media and academia as much for granted as they’re taking their sense of moral superiority. And in doing so, are casting both away. Do they really think they will enjoy the advantage of institutional power and media bias forever?
When the right is able to marshal sufficient force to themselves no-platform leftists, the progressives will have no right to complain about it. Don’t think it can happen? Surprise, it already has. McCarthyism, anyone? The red scare, anyone? This is what’s so unfortunate about the left’s new found enthusiasm for getting so called racists and homophobes fired from their jobs. They didn’t like it when socialists and trade unionists were blacklisted for their politics, and rightly so.
When white male identity politics reaches critical mass, and are able to get leftists fired from their jobs for misandry or anti-white racism, progressive insistence that you can’t be racist or sexist against whites and males because “power plus prejudice” will fall on increasingly deaf ears. Because guess what? That line of thought is going to stop working sooner or later. It will be called out for the self serving sophistry it really is.
You know what they say about those who live by the sword.
7 – Reactionary positions may be right about some things. While their overall world views are heavily distorted, there’s often a kernel of truth at the heart of them. This seems especially hard for progressives to deal with. It’s also especially essential for progressives to deal with, or else they cede whole areas of valid concern to the reactionaries, and thereby give them more fertile soil in which to take root in public opinion.
Mass immigration, especially in Europe, has had serious negative social consequences, as tragic incidents such as the Rotherham Affair make clear. Islamic theology really does have many retrograde elements, especially around women’s rights and LGBT rights. Being a white male isn’t always all about power and privilege, especially since most white males are not among the truly rich and powerful. Men do indeed face disadvantages that women do not, all other things being equal, as any divorced father dealing with the family court system would be happy to tell you. Sexual liberation has contributed to family breakdown.
Concerns over “globalism” aren’t merely anti-semitic conspiracy theory fear mongering. Economic globalization and the financialization of the economy have been devastating for the working classes, have decimated organized labor and it wasn’t all that long ago that opposing globalism was top priority for the political left. It still needs to be. Left wing thought really has become hegemonic on many college campuses as a result of a long march through the institutions; cultural Marxism so called.
If progressives fail to acknowledge any of the above, or worse, try to suppress expression of any of the above, it will be their own reputation that suffers in the end. It is impossible to completely suppress information and ideas in the internet age. If the progressives do not listen to and acknowledge the legitimate grievances at the heart of many reactionary ideologies, those grievances will then serve to lend legitimacy to the illegitimate bigotry, paranoia and scapegoating that reactionaries build up around those grievances. And leftists will have no one to blame for that but themselves.
Conclusion – It’s easy to simply dismiss reactionary views as stupid, not being worth the time of serious thinkers, as base fear mongering, bigotry or mere self serving rationalization for privilege and abuse of power. Too easy, in fact, and a culture of smugness, arrogance and ideological entitlement has set in among liberals, especially in media, in academia and online.
But it is culture that threatens to undermine the very virtues and principles upon which liberal and progressive world views professes to rest. More and more people across the political spectrum are simply not accepting the progressive’s sense of entitlement to be agreed with on all things without question or explanation or else racist, misogynist or Nazi.
Taking the time to marshal the facts and build a case against reactionary views from the ground up is not easy. Taking the time to advance and defend such a case in a public forum is likewise not easy, and does not guarantee immediate results. Many reactionaries will cling to outmoded and disproven views no matter how strong the case against them, will argue flagrantly stupid positions in rude, obnoxious ways and shamelessly grandstand on behalf of such obviously shameful ideas. This is, quite understandably, frustrating.
But in the long run, progressives have no choice. Especially in an era of social media, and ease of access to information. The criticisms of liberal snobbishness are not going to go away just because liberals happen to have access to most agenda setting media and can use it to handwave these criticisms. Liberals don’t get to be right just because they want to be any more than anybody else does.
The ash heap of history is littered with pompous elites who mistook what successes they did achieve for an intrinsic greatness that is owed the loyalty of all. Assuming that one is owed agreement and loyalty today because of successes earned due to hard work yesterday is easy. Understanding that one must keep doing the work today in order to earn agreement and loyalty tomorrow is hard. But if progressive values are to continue to have a tomorrow, what is hard is what must be done today.