Think Before You Speak

My mother admonished me to think before I speak, and now sometimes I do. Sometimes I even think before I write, and take a breath, which was good advice I was given early in my career of sending professionally damaging e-mails. Before that though, the Senate confirmation hearings for Robert Bork and the presidential election campaign of Bill Clinton argued strongly that an ambitious man should avoid a public opinion or carefully construct a mask. Or, as Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Aaron Burr puts it, “Talk less. Smile more.”

But all that was before the Internet’s instant publishing platform let everyone’s hot takes wash over anyone daring to read the comments. No editor except myself will stop me, either from putting two spaces after a period or publishing an opinionated screed railing against the latest fad in the war against culture. The young, and those with no filter, properly took to this state of affairs like fish to water, which, as those of a certain age or with children know, led to warnings from the school principal to be more careful of one’s online activity than of one’s reputation in the cafeteria–because the Internet never forgets and a youthful indiscretion might harm one’s future.

Somehow all of this is forgotten in the current uproar over woke cancel culture, whatever that is, stifling debate and making it risky to say the wrong, i.e. unpopular, thing. One wouldn’t want to diminish one’s prospects now, would we?

The current flavor of public opinion differs from that enforced by Mrs. Grundy, but the enforcement is not at all dissimilar. Contracts for public school teachers contain morals clauses, for example, limiting their behavior outside of work, as one would not want to provide a poor example for children by public consumption of alcohol or by wearing a lewd dress, but the primary means of enforcement is a frown or tsk tsk. In some regions, while it may be illegal to fire someone explicitly for organizing a union, other excuses are found. Some have lost employment over racist remarks made outside the context of work, while others, notably James Bennet, have lost employment due to not doing their job–editing does involve reading, after all–which seems not all that different from any other time in history. Admittedly I have not had the audacity to enjoy video games while female or to appear in a Star Wars movie while black, nor have I given a speech on a college campus–though I have made many a stupid remark–but I think it’s still possible to distinguish between the harm caused by death threats and heckling. The signatories of Harper’s letter on justice and open debate are not stupid; to pretend that chilling effects are new is disingenuous. The difference is in who is affected. What appears to be even more different is how quickly the Internet lets everyone pile on, ad absurdum.

But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.

To a large extent public opinion works through shame and opprobrium, but carries a latent undercurrent of violence. It’s physically unsafe to ask the wrong questions or make unpopular opinions known. Recently this has involved driving automobiles into crowds, most notably in the 2017 incident in Charlottesville that killed Heather Heyer, or police rioting–or abstaining from suppressing rioting–in response to Black Lives Matter protests. These events are little different from 1970’s student strike and the killings at Kent State, Jackson State, and the Hard Hat Riot; or even the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X.; or, earlier, the West Virginia Mine Wars, the Red Scares I (1917-1920) and II (1947-1957), the Palmer Raids, and the Sedition Act of 1918; or, earlier still, Haymarket. The common thread is that the violence is, more often than not, on behalf of the status quo and established power.

Businesses offering a service to the general public, such as hotels, are, even though they are private businesses, required to offer accommodations to everyone. Bus companies, shippers, telephone companies, and railroadscommon carriers all–must do the same, for the same reason. In the United States, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, these accommodations were segregated, and not open to all. One counter-argument offered against the legal requirement of public accommodation was that discrimination is economically inefficient, that it is in the best economic interest of an Atlanta hotelier to let rooms to blacks as well as whites; in addition, because of this economic interest, public opinion, will, over time, change so that discrimination would no longer be popular, and that, thus, there is no need to require active de-segregation measures such as busing. That is, the choice of the public to boycott a discriminatory enterprise is sufficient to change behavior.

Well, that time of changed public opinion would appear to be here. The marketing departments of large corporations have noticed that certain images may have adverse effects on their branding, and adjusted their masks a tad. Ross Douthat and others suggest this has other, unspoken, advantages for the corporate consensus.

Indeed the successor ideology seems particularly adaptable (as DiAngelo’s career attests) to the corporate world, where it promises a framework for regulating an increasingly diverse work force that conveniently emphasizes psychology and identity rather than a class solidarity that might threaten the corporate bottom line.

Ross Douthat, “The Tom Cotton Op-Ed and the Cultural Revolution,”
The New York Times, June 12, 2020

I’d sign that Harper’s letter; no one asked: not sure why they didn’t. It would be nice if we could have reasonable conversations in good faith. I’d like that, especially if we could have them in person, perhaps around a campfire or over dinner. The idea of a secluded, quiet place for discussion has been a dream since Socrates corrupted the youth in Athens’s agora. The privileges and immunities of the autonomous university provide a framework for that. It’s not a coincidence that such a life is sheltered, cloistered, away from the rough-and-tumble cannibalism, as it were, of the polis.

Or at least of Twitter.