Although the pandemic has proven more tenacious than most of us had hoped, our stupefied country has begun its inevitable reversion to “normal,” having learned nothing much along the way. Restaurants are back; cranks have returned to school board meetings; middle-aged columnists and commentators have dusted off their favorite shibboleths, namely, complaints that no one can say what they mean anymore, for fear of social and professional ostracism.
But this is false. For all the hand wringing and heartache, for all the pontificating concern that a censorious and puritanical culture that treats mere rhetoric as harm and provocation as violence, we are in fact living in a historically unique period of political and rhetorical openness, a time when thoughts and ideas, politics and identities that would have been unspeakable and inexpressible just decades ago have become arguable, utterable, and even acceptable, for better or for worse.
You wouldn’t know it from reading our most prestigious newspapers and magazines. The same article about this gets written again and again. The most prominent recent example of the worries that Twitter mobs and college students have moved the intellectual landscape of America “uncomfortably close to Istanbul, where history and politics can be discussed only with great care,” was Anne Applebaum, a center-right commentator (some would say neoconservative) who wrote an extraordinary 8,000 words in The Atlantic under the headline “The New Puritans.”
Applebaum, one of the many peripatetic semi-academic journalists who populate centrist and national-security think tanks or serve as fellows at the vaguely defined institutes of politics at elite American universities, has made her name and reputation as one of the many popular explicators of life under repressive, Soviet-style regimes. She worries that America, thanks to howling social media mobs, or HR departments, or university Title IX offices — it is not always clear which — has entered a grim era of repression unseen since the Eastern Bloc, where in place of official censorship, “political conformism […] was the result not of violence or direct state coercion, but rather of intense peer pressure.” A culture of unofficial informants and snitches, with dire consequences.
Rapidly changing social codes and public mores, she frets, can have dire personal consequences.
Right here in America, right now, it is possible to meet people who have lost everything — jobs, money, friends, colleagues — after violating no laws, and sometimes no workplace rules either. Instead, they have broken (or are accused of having broken) social codes having to do with race, sex, personal behavior, or even acceptable humor, which may not have existed five years ago or maybe five months ago. Some have made egregious errors of judgment. Some have done nothing at all. It is not always easy to tell.
Right here in America, right now! For America’s less-monied classes, this has always been the case: fired for trying to unionize, for being gay, for posting a bikini picture on social media; pressured into contributing to the boss’s preferred political candidates. But Applebaum’s concerns don’t really extend to these lower orders. The concept of “at-will employment” goes without mention, and unions appear only glancingly. Her own “people who have lost everything” may have “made egregious errors of judgment,” or not. It’s hard to tell. When a writer waves one hand so wildly to hedge and obfuscate her own argument, pay attention to the other. It is usually a trick.
There are many dangers in a consensus political reality opening up, as it has done in the past year, and there is no reason to pretend that the present sense of instability is disconcerting and frightening, even as we admit that any prior sense of stability was itself a comforting illusion confined mostly to people of a certain educational attainment and with certain economic means. It also opens up spaces and opportunities for new political formations and actually new ideas to enter public discourse.
Not for nothing, but most of the provocative ideas that our new culture warriors worry are being censored, or self-censored, by Twitter pile-ons and college-student protests, are themselves completely banal, ancient, and uninteresting: that there is some kind of biological hierarchy of races, or that trans people are disordered and just weird, or young people are too sensitive and need to toughen up, or that some or other educational institutions just aren’t as rigorous as they used to be. I can point you to Roman senators making the same complaints 2,000 years ago.
Applebaum’s particular examples will already be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to this debate: Yale Law professors Jed Rubenfeld and Amy Chua, whose travails and controversies may be the most extensively litigated events in the history of the school; former Rumpus editor Stephen Elliott and the 2016 “Shitty Media Men List,” a tiny tremor among the vast, tectonic disaster of written media in the age of tech monopolies and private equity acquisitions. That she is unable to produce anything really new suggests that the ritual invocations of the same half-dozen controversies as metonyms for a society-threatening social reality are disingenuous, or at least, exaggerated by an order of magnitude or two.
Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, the argument does not really turn on examples of self-censorship, nor of some kind of East-German system of distributed social surveillance of political dissent. It is largely about people who have been accused not of advocating unpopular ideas, but of things like sexual assault and impropriety, favoritism, or poor professional judgement. These are not entirely distinct domains, but the examples depend on a degree of question-begging regarding the novelty of it all. Getting disciplined for inviting controversy or behaving outrageously in the classroom is not exactly new in America. I am old enough to remember Dead Poet’s Society. And I am quite certain that more teachers have been ousted in this country for being gay than for quibbling about trans students’ pronouns.
All of this is really ancillary to the central question of this entire debate, whether in the hands of prominent public intellectuals like Applebaum, the grab-bag of writers and academics who signed the much-mocked “Harper’s Letter,” or the innumerable contrarian quibblers on Substacks and podcasts who worry that a new censoriousness — generally, from an imagined, monolithic “identitarian” left — has made it too costly, too annoying, too dangerous to speak unpopular and controversial ideas aloud.
The plain answer to this question is no. We are living through one of the most extraordinary and effluent rhetorical moments in the history of our society, or any society. It is now possible for anyone to find advocates and communities of an almost unimaginable diversity. The expansion of publicly expressible political identities related to gender and sexuality alone has been remarkable. (Quibblers will say that it is in fact a mark of self-censorship that even a liberal like Jon Stewart could never tell an appalling “chick with dick” joke in 2021, but these changes are the result of a democratic expansion of rhetorical and political influence, the new power of a once-silent and detested community to advocate for its own value.)
Socialism, essentially unspeakable in modern America — and often explicitly criminalized in our history — now enjoys a popular freedom that it never enjoyed before, not only in individual political expression, but in formal organization and association. And this new freedom of expression isn’t only confined to the general political left. On the right, Catholic integralists argue for the subordination of popular democracy to Catholic theology. You can find communities of thousands arguing for forms of absolutist corporate oligarchy or even versions of monarchism, including such prominent citizens as billionaire technologist Peter Thiel. Sitting members of Congress publicly call for insurrectionary violence and bloody reprisals against fellow American citizens. There is a rollicking debate about whether or not the U.S. should reduce its imperial posture, disengaging from its “Forever Wars,” or explicitly commit to an imperial colonial presence around the world.
In the wake of the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement brought one of the largest periods of popular protest in American history, and radical ideas about abolishing or fundamentally altering policing and prisons became topics of popular conversation. This was all to the chagrin of many centrist liberals, who found the ideas “unrealistic” and harmful. From a purely tactical perspective that focused on the electoral prospects of a few Democratic candidates, they may have been right, but to have this debate so openly and publicly really is something new. And it has clearly penetrated beyond the narrow demographics of Twitter politics. I have talked about packing the Supreme Court at dinner with my own parents, longtime and perfectly mainstream liberals who, increasingly radicalized by the incapacities and inequities of the American government, now strongly approve. Major writers and thinkers like Jamelle Bouie openly discuss the necessity of a fundamental reordering of the American Constitutional order . . . in the New York Times! Far from a gray and self-same culture of censorship and repression, we are living in the heady, frightening, exhilarating flowering of real and substantive arguments about everything from the capitalist economic order to the structure of our government to the nature of gender and sexuality to the principles of sexual consent.
The day before I drafted this article, the Supreme Court effectively overturned Roe v. Wade in Texas. In failing to overturn a new law in the state that empowers individual citizens to surveil and sue their neighbors, blocking abortions in exchange for pecuniary rewards, the Court has established precisely the system of “intense peer pressure” absent “direct state coercion” that the few brave souls standing firm for the rights of Yale professors to slip favored students into coveted internships claim to fear. The law punishes not only those who perform abortions but, at least potentially, even those who speak about them: who give advice or aid to women seeking abortions, even if those women are their own friends and relatives. It does so by deputizing citizens to act as adjunct agents of the state and immunizing them from any consequences for their perverted voyeurism.
Will this provoke the culture warriors? It might, or, more likely, we’ll get more complaints about wild-eyed leftists trying to delegitimize the Supreme Court, at grave peril to political stability. Powerful and widely read voices will warn that some ideas are too dangerous and some speech is too fraught to be debated in the open, because they might further erode “faith in institutions.” This won’t be considered censoriousness or censorship. Yelling at grown-ups is bullying, but telling the kids to shut up is good order and common sense.
Jacob Bacharach is a writer in Pittsburgh.