Thursday, April 09, 2015

Free speech is OK for everyone

Emily Mills writes about one response to Purple Wisconsin blogger Claire Van Fossen's call for an end to the police and her "resolution" not to call the police when she is "in a jam." It should surprise no one that the post was met with strong and widespread criticism and even derision.

Those responses should have been directed at what she wrote and not at her. But the comment sections on blogs are cesspools. Someone apparently thought it clever to suggest that Van Fossen might safely be sexually assaulted since she wouldn't call the cops. While it probably wasn't intended as a threat, that type of personal attack is disgusting. Ms. Mills' point is that women are often met with misogynistic responses to their arguments.

I want to get beyond that, but it would be wrong not to acknowledge that she has a point. While I wouldn't say its common, I've heard men express anger at or disagreement with a woman in misogynistic ways before and it has always struck me as creepy. Putting aside considerations of gender fairness (which I do not discount), I am old enough to remember when young men were taught that a gentleman did not do things like that.  More fundamentally, there is something dehumanizing about it.  As Mills points out, it's quite OK to disagree sharply with a woman but there is no need to treat her like some lesser form of being.

I wish it were a more isolated phenomenon. But Judge Rebecca Bradley was subjected to crude and dismissive innuendo when she had the gall to stand for election as Governor Scott Walker's appointee to the Circuit Court. There were misogynistic attacks on Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Outspoken conservative women are regularly accosted with the "c" word. It is quite OK to disagree sharply with conservative women, but there is no need to treat them like some lesser form of being.

 I don't mention this to claim equal time for my side in the victim sweepstakes but to pose a question. My guess is that the people who attack conservative women in this way would otherwise regard themselves as "feminists" or "pro-women." I suspect that in some ways they are. So what moves them to turn into Tucker Max whenever a woman doesn't think like she's supposed to?

The answer may be that their animus is not based on gender. Gender is simply the way in which it is expressed. Attackers try to find the most hurtful thing they can say. That can take the form of racial or gender based insults, but it can also take other forms. The problem of civility in public discourse involves a lot more than hatred calibrated in the categories recognized by the political left.

For example, during the last Presidential cycle, the Vice President of the United States likened Republicans to slaveholders. Another Vice President, Al Gore, not too subtly hinted that opponents of affirmative action intend for blacks what hunters wish for ducks. Last week, a pizza parlor in Indiana was subjected to vile threats for holding retrograde views on same sex marriage. What's going on?

Jonah Goldberg recently wrote about Francis Fukuyama's coining of the term "megalothymia"- the compulsive need to feel superior to others:
And boy howdy, do we have a problem with megalothymia in America today. Everywhere you look there are moral bullies utterly uninterested in conversation, introspection, or persuasion who are instead hell-bent on grinding down people they don’t like to make themselves feel good. If you took the megalothymia out of Twitter, millions of trolls would throw their smartphones into the ocean.
We see cheap traffic in terms like "bigot" and "hate" to describe those we disagree with. It is easier to attack the motives and "intent" of the other side rather than engage its arguments. We are all too sure that we're right and that being right clothes us in a type of moral authority that excuses what we'd otherwise recognize as atrocious behavior. If the other side is evil or psychotic or corrupt, then we can't fiddle with civility while flames are lapping at the city gates.

What can be done about this? Nothing. Even the suggestion that the government police discourse ought to be off the table. But if much of what we see as hatred is motivated by megalothymia - by the rapture of holding oneself righteous - then it may be susceptible to self correction.

I find that in most cases - and this includes the Van Fossen post - the position taken by people I disagree with are based on explicable premises (even if I think they are wrong) and an articulable logic (even if I believe it doesn't bear scrutiny). In other words, they are sincere and there is a reason they say what they do. That reason can rarely be reduced to corruption, hatred, bigotry, insanity, etc.

I don't claim that I always succeed in this, but you ought to try to understand the other side as they understand themselves. You'll probably still disagree with them. You may even disagree sharply. You might still respond with sarcasm and strong language. But you will be far less likely to make that disagreement personal and far less likely to regard your interlocutor as an awful human being. You might pause before you liken them to slaveowners, Nazis, traitors or terrorists. It will be less likely that your argument includes references to rape  or suggestions that someone be killed and the fruits of their ill-gotten white privilege liberated.

I am not suggesting that we can all just get along. Political differences are important and I don't think they can be minimized through some magical "third way" or "evidence-based" approaches. What I am saying is that we live in America in 2015 and not in Germany in 1933.  Our political differences, thank God, generally do not involve or require hatred.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

good piece,

now live by it.