Thought police

In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, an old friend from Portland and I have been writing each other discussing thought police, and the tendency of progressives and lefties in the US to display their own brand of rigidity and intolerance. And it’s true. (OK, go ahead with the Portland joke. Get it out of your system now…)

In all the years I’ve been doing public political opinion, the only death threats I’ve ever gotten have been from either 1) seriously mentally ill people (two of whom went to jail for stalking me and others); or 2) people on the left who were angry that I’d rejected one or another piece of dogma. (Right wingers can be verbally abusive, sometimes extremely so, but I’ve never had any urging or threatening my death.) That’s the extreme version of what seems to be a pretty widespread problem. People on the left just aren’t expected (or, in some cases, allowed) to disagree with one another.

“Black bloc” anarchists, those champions of rejecting authority, are in my personal experience the worst at trying to impose this sort of internal authority. Not all, but some. (I guess it goes with expressing one’s rebellion against conformity by wearing identical uniforms. “My tribe is better than your tribe.”) Sectarian Marxists of one or another stripe (again, some are worse than others) are almost as bad. But the problem extends to all sorts of people with whom I broadly agree on values and issues.

I suspect at least part of the problem is that progressives of all types in the US have gotten lazy about having to actually offer coherent justifications of their policy and value preferences – not because such arguments don’t exist, but because more conservative Democrats and especially Republicans are prone to offering up such lazy and/or transparently ludicrous arguments that the overall level of discourse is dismal; and because the questions of what policies actually get enacted, and which candidates elected, in this country have almost nothing to do with issues or ideas anyway. Political power here hinges mostly on money, marketing, personalities, and tribal identification. Whether someone is competent enough to wield power, or whether their ideas make any sense at all, rarely factors into it. (C.f. Congress.)

The “thought police” problem on the left is a function not just of tribalism, but also laziness and (ironically) insecurity. Charlie Hebdo is a good example of an issue that might divide people on the left – not the murder of journalists, of course, but the appropriateness of publishing depictions of the prophet Mohammed. It pits two progressive values against each other: the desire not to offend the deeply held cultural beliefs of a group (and, in this case, a persecuted religious minority to boot) and the right of publications to free speech and free thought, especially (as with the new CH cover) when the depiction has enormous news value and cultural import. There’s no truly “correct” progressive answer – depending on one’s priorities, either can be well argued.

But way too many of the discussions I’ve seen are more like ADD arguments: “Of COURSE people should have free speech!” “Don’t you know that’s OFFENSIVE?” And so on. So it goes for just about any issue where such discussions might arise, either within leftie circle or with other political (or apolitical) family members, friends, co-workers, fellow students, or bar patrons. Let’s set aside for a moment the problem that political arguments rarely change anyone’s mind, since it’s the non-substantive things (personality, tribal identification, money, etc.) that determine so much of American politics. Even if political arguments can change some minds, they’re not going to if we’re making crappy arguments. It’s even less likely if we can’t defend our ideas or tolerate dissension in our own ranks.

You, of course, may disagree. 🙂

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