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? Some- thing 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 puppy), 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 every- where—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 with- out 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.