Let’s be clear at the outset. The world is populated by the victims of injustice. Aside from an incredibly small coterie of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) people, it’s difficult to find many individuals whose family tree is not somewhere populated by people who have been oppressed, marginalized, or brutalized by the privileged and powerful. Examples of vicious, criminal exploitation and fiery intergroup conflict are littered across the reaches of history. Deeper still, into prehistory – written in depressed skull fractures and broken bones and embedded projectile points that tell the story of some anonymous group’s inability to recognize the members of another as fully human.
Most of the time, when a person claims to have been the target of racism or sexism or ethnocentrism, politically or economically disenfranchised by a culture indifferent to their experience, it’s worth taking them seriously. But there is a segment of Western intellectual culture that has inadvertently begun to corrupt these legitimate grievances into an engine for authoritarian control. Rightly recognizing the colossal disparities in opportunity scattered across modern social, political, and economic landscapes, they seek to champion equality by creating strict parameters on the bounds of permissible speech and rigorously silencing dissent. Laudable intentions aside, they have launched a campaign that begs for resistance from those who prize intellectual liberty and cherish diversity.
Nowhere are the battle lines more clear than on university campuses, where social justice warriors (SJWs) are pressing a hard front against what they perceive as a system that has consistently marginalized minority and fringe groups as a matter of institutional design. Universities are, for them, mechanisms for neoliberal indoctrination, where students are taught to perpetuate a destructive social and economic order.
Generationally speaking, most of these people are my peers – millennials who have been taught to frame the world in terms of narratives and identity. It’s impossible to understand their motivations without recognizing this. Whether they realize it or not (and many of them don’t), they are acting on the tradition of idealist thought that begat postmodernism, a pernicious school of intellectual pedantry wherein subjective experience is given primacy as arbiter of truth. Grossly misguided on a number of fronts, the postmodern tradition nonetheless exerts a powerful influence on the reasoning of those who seek to foment social change by either co-opting or reframing what they see as the prevailing narrative.
This places them in conflict with defenders of classical liberalism, who view truth as something discoverable. In this view, reality has a singular nature and there are objective truths about the world that can be uncovered through criticism, discourse, observation, and experimentation. Importantly, this goes beyond the realm of physical reality and hard scientific fact. Even in the social world, there are conditional facts. These take the form of statements like, given goals A, B, and C, social system x is better than z and y. Classical liberalism sees progress as not only possible, but desirable. Necessarily, this breed of liberalism celebrates diversity, debate, and boundless inquiry.
Sparks fly between classical and “postmodern” liberalism when it comes to setting up the conditions of discourse. Given their view on truth, adherents to the classical school oppose most limits on expression. Absent forms of speech and lines of inquiry that lead directly to measurable harm, everything ought to be on the table. This sets the stage for reciprocal patterns of criticism and feedback that, however gradually, tend to improve our understanding of how the world works – and the lives of those who live in it. In the postmodern view, discourse is a matter of narrative – it’s about who can do the best job of disseminating their ideas about how the world does or should work. No one is searching for truth because they don’t think truth – in the strict sense of objective, universally applicable facts – exists. Instead, they’re trying to get their personal truth the highest platform and loudest megaphone. Not surprising, those sympathetic to this line of thinking are far more comfortable with tactics that involve limiting the speech of their ideological opponents. All they are doing is clearing a path for what they perceive to be a more righteous narrative.
To this end, trigger warnings, no-platforming, social and/or institutional sanctions on microaggressions, and concern over cultural appropriation are being wielded by social justice warriors on the postmodern left as instruments of social control. They seek to advance narratives of marginalization and disenfranchisement (that, I can’t stress this enough, are far too often rooted in reality) by erasing the narratives that have served to justify or perpetuate cycles of oppression and victimization. Correctly, they recognize that black Americans, transgendered people, immigrants, and other minorities have been systematically mistreated and abused by a dominant social and economic order that is, at best, indifferent to their concerns. Partial resolution and recompense, in their view, comes from stifling the vectors by which the ideas perpetuating that old order are spread.
For the postmodern left, to countenance – or even listen to – the expression of ideas that run contrary to their agenda is to legitimize them. Thus motivated, they frequently pressure university authorities to disinvite speakers who promote concepts and perspectives they feel are controversial or threatening. Failing this, they berate and harass speakers, hoping through sheer voluminous and cacophonous antagonism to prevent the expression of viewpoints that make them feel angry or uncomfortable.
In some cases, the targets of the postmodern left’s righteous ire are truly reprehensible people, trumpeting discredited or hideous notions about race and sex and inequality. Other times, their crimes are more mundane – regular folk who happen to have said something in poor taste. Bad manners – recently rebranded as “microaggressions” by the authoritarian left – are often sufficient grounds for excommunication from the realm of civil discourse. As a result, everyone from leftist comedians and former democratic politicians to right-wing ideologues have seen their opportunities to speak in university venues threatened or outright rescinded.
The problem with all of this is, chiefly, that using one person or group’s subjective experience of offense to curtail the speech of another makes the field of legitimate discourse an infinitely retreating frontier. In classical liberalism, the threshold between acceptable and unacceptable speech is clear. For the postmodern left, it’s nebulous and fluid, changing with the company. Taking their strategies for muffling opposition seriously immediately begs the question: who gets to decide who says what and where? If the answer is that everyone has a right to hit the mute switch on any ideas they find hurtful or distressing, limitations on speech become an unstoppable kudzu, spreading and choking expression into a pacified husk.
In my experience, members of the postmodern left recoil at the suggestion that their views on speech – and the range of mechanisms they feel are appropriate for protesting the speech of others – are tainted with such blatant authoritarian overtones. It is, according to the common refrain, about privilege and positionality. Privilege is, of course, highly germane to any discussion that touches on concerns over the politically and socially disenfranchised and positionality is just an obnoxiously pedantic repackaging of a childhood truism: different people have different perspectives.
Properly boiled down, concerns about privilege return to the problem of unequal access to the tools and mediums that help people promote their perspectives. This is, in the vernacular of the postmodern left, a worry over who has the capacity to get their narrative to the most ears. Granting the obvious, they are right to note that not everyone has equal access to platforms for spreading their ideas. For instance, I could get my ideas about the ills of society and their appropriate remedies to a lot more people if I had a TV show somewhere in the quagmire of banality that is the 24 hours news cycle. But, to the detriment of humanity, I don’t – which places me in a relationship of unequal access to those that do. By the same token, there are those against which my access to tools for self-expression looks remarkably privileged: I have the Internet in my home – not everyone does; I have a passing grasp of written English – not everyone does; I have a college education – not everyone does; and so forth.
According to the SJW playbook, expression is a zero-sum game. Those who have extraordinary access to the most effective means for disseminating their ideas do so because other people do not. Consequently, efforts to limit the speech of the privileged – and thereby curtail the spread of the narratives they promote – are considered valid ways of leveling the playing field. If everyone can’t have their own TV show on a major network, no one should. If this sounds puerile in the extreme, it’s because it is. Nevertheless, it is precisely the reasoning SJWs have deployed to justify their efforts to badger their ideological opponents into silence. Recently, the activist and author Yassmin Abdel-Magied used this line of thinking to argue that white novelists shouldn’t be permitted to convey the perspectives and experiences of minorities in their fiction. Doing so, in her mind, represents a form of theft. If a white author tells the story of a gay black woman, it spells fewer opportunities for gay black women to tell stories of their own.
The absurdity of this argument should be self-evident, but allow me to expound. It’s not that members of marginalized groups don’t deserve better, more effective platforms for sharing their perspectives. They do. But getting them to that point isn’t a matter of putting caps and boundaries on the expression of other people. My lack of a cable news show or book deal isn’t due to the fact Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly have lucrative contracts in both domains. That’s not to say there aren’t people who face real – even insurmountable – institutional barriers. It just that getting the right people over those barriers, or – better still – permanently obliterating those barriers for everyone, isn’t a matter of erecting new obstacles for the people lucky enough to have been born with more privilege and power.
Positionality, on the other hand, fuels a brand of identity politics that inadvertently justifies and encourages authoritarianism. Because the postmodern left disavows the very notion of objective, discoverable truth, they are disturbingly sympathetic to the view that personal experience is the source of an infinitely expanding world of subjective truths. This opens the door to arguments of the form “as a person of identity A, I have access to experiences a, b, and c, creating opinion X, which – due to identity A – cannot be questioned.” The idea that anyone’s personal experience grants them unique access to an unassailable personal truth is, in no uncertain terms, absurd. Individual identity and personal experience gives one access to a unique opinion and perspective – open to endless challenge and dispute and, by metrics independent of their identity and experience, potentially wrong. Individual opinions on the causes of climate change, the efficacy of vaccines, or the roots of police brutality are immaterial to the hard reality of their causes, efficacy, and roots.
Privileging personal perspective in this way is not only logically fallacious, it’s also incredibly dangerous. Make no mistake – this line of thinking has the capacity to corrode the very foundations of civil society. If objective reality is either entirely unknowable or directly dependent on personal experience, all claims to truth are automatically granted equal validity. A postmodern SJW campaigning against racial discrimination or economic disenfranchisement has no basis for questioning the views of her ideological opponents. She can’t claim that the bigoted, hateful beliefs that motivate many of Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters are wrong – the inferiority of black people, the chaos wrought be Mexican immigrants, and the inane white victimhood narrative aren’t ill-founded nonsense, they’re a part of that person’s lived experience and personal truth. It would be surprising if most SJWs did not find this line of argument repellent, but it is implicit in their worldview. If you think truth is subjective and “positionality” grants a person special access to distinct, unquestionable realities, you can’t claim that a member of the Aryan Brotherhood’s opinion on white superiority or a Wall Street hedge fund managers opinions on economic equality are unfounded. You’ve abdicated your entire basis for evaluation by rejecting the notion of objective, discoverable truth.
Paradoxically, this is problem of privilege on all fronts. It’s difficult to spot a person pleading for trigger warnings or bemoaning the proliferation of microaggressions from a gutter. These are concerns for people who attend liberal arts classes in a rich, modern, industrialized country. Imagine a person complaining about the apparent misuse of cultural emblems while struggling to get out from under a predatory title loan, forced into poverty because a stint in prison over a petty drug offense is strangling their job prospects, or starving to death in a third-world hovel. Certainly it’s not impossible, but it seems strikingly unlikely. The recent authoritarian push from the postmodern left is only possible in world where people have the luxury to fret on behalf of the truly marginalized and oppressed.
Likewise, it’s easier to disparage the notion of objective truth if you live in a social climate that distances you from the costs of your ignorance. Objective truths about the nature of illness and efficacy of vaccines have eliminated diseases and extended human lives. Living in a society where at least some influential segment of the population – including scientists, entrepreneurs, and some politicians – have consistently endorsed the notion of objective, discoverable truth and rigorously applied that perspective for generations has gone a long way toward buffering the postmodern left from the costs that would be entailed by taking their views seriously. They don’t have to worry about catching smallpox, have the ability to navigate unfamiliar cities via GPS, and maintain virtually limitless access to numerous outlets for instantly communicating their identity narratives because other people have accepted the idea of knowable reality and universal truth and made incredible scientific discoveries as a result. In the same vein, all social progress – representative government, the abolition of slavery, public education, women’s suffrage, civil rights, marriage equality, social assistance programs – emerge from the work of people who accept the proposition that there a conditional truths about how to build good societies.
Certainly there are students whose ethnicity or gender identity presents them with unique challenges. For me – a white, cisgendered male from a middle-class family – to criticize their activism places me on incredibly fraught ground. In many ways, I am privileged. But the notion that my privilege bars me from the conversation, fatally hobbling my capacity to offer constructive criticisms or a defense of cherished liberal values like unfettered speech and intellectual freedom is reprehensible. It suggests there is gulf between me and my fellow humans that is fundamentally unbridgeable, and that kind of thinking has never been a recipe for building a more just, inclusive society. Yeah, I’ll never know what it’s like to be a black man in routine traffic stop or a transgendered woman searching for a restroom in the rural American south. But these are graver instances of a more mundane truism, because I’ll never really know what it’s like to be my white, male neighbor either. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value in trying. Putting bounds on what people can and cannot say seems like a reliable way to make sure no one ever succeeds.
Conversely, no one’s individual identity or personal experience supplies them with exclusive access to information about the causes of or solutions to the world’s social, economic, and political woes. These are subjects for rigorous, boundless investigation and intense, open discussion. No one’s personal truth will solve racism, nor will putting limits on what varieties of personal experience and individual heritage are considered germane to the debate.
By all means, advocate for the disenfranchised. That is immensely important work. Those who make it a driving force in their lives are worthy of immense admiration. But no part of a campaign to make the world as good as possible for the most possible people can entail a reduction in anyone’s capacity to express themselves or engage in their favored intellectual pursuits. Bigotry and oppression won’t be erased by silencing their advocates. They’ll be erased by open criticism and debate, by exposing people to other points of view and showing them the inherent humanity underneath superficially insurmountable cultural divides. It’s not about the triumph of individual identity narratives. It’s about the triumph of a single, inescapable truth – that all human lives are inherently valuable – and making that truth manifest in the lives of more than just the socially and economically privileged.
Accepting that aim necessarily entails accepting that there is still a hell of a lot of work to be done. It doesn’t entail establishing endlessly malleable strictures on who can contribute and a priori constraints on what types of contributions are useful. That’s not a recipe for utopia, it’s a recipe for misery. Progress demands accepting the truth of our shared humanity and convincing people that progress entails maximizing the happiness and well-being of all humans. Then we can set about the business of discovering how to best achieve that end – which, it turns out, is a matter of measurable fact, not infinite subjective opinion.