The Atlantic carries a trio of articles by Conor Friedersdorf about call-out culture: on Clinton and Omar in 2019, Bari Weiss in 2018, and campus culture in 2017. Here is a response, what my political theory professor in school called a reaction paper.
In the piece on Bari Weiss, Friedersdorf writes, as a refrain: I don’t understand… I don’t understand why people would engage in this kind of vilification. In practice, this pattern of vilification appears in fluid political situations, where participants act decisively to destroy opponents.
In practice, this pattern of vilification appears in fluid political situations, where participants act decisively to destroy opponents.
Three cases illustrate:
The first case, related to Olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu’s championship performance for Team USA, highlights moral and social issues. We celebrate achievements of all Americans – in this case athletes – because we’re proud of who we are, proud of being part of the same team. When athletes’ families come from other countries, this pride counteracts the ugliness of nativism, and increases healthy cohesion.
A second case emphasizes political and social unity in groups that already hold power, where members hold common interests. Through party discipline, group loyalty, circumspect behavior, and reciprocal favors, members head off actions that might undercut solidarity among people who want to maintain their positions. Mutual support matters for people in power.
The third case is common during revolutions, and periods of turmoil or conflict. During these transitions, people cannot reliably identify groups who hold power. More importantly, they cannot predict which groups will hold power. You get jumpy and preemptive. Consequently parties that preach moral values and unity turn on their own. We see these patterns in all four major revolutions since 1789: French, Russian, National Socialist, and Chinese. In each case, fierce conflict broke out in the revolutionary party. To establish dominance in your party, you had to call out your opponents, to silence them, remove them from the arena, or if necessary, extinguish them.
During these transitions, people cannot reliably identify groups who hold power. More importantly, they cannot predict which groups will hold power.
I think we are in the beginning of that kind of revolutionary period now, or entering its middle stages. Some time ago I thought the current conflicts, along with breakdown of democratic norms, would develop more slowly. In that case, I would not be around to witness them. Instead, the consequences of 9/11 and its aftermath accelerate, to a point where the first goal in any social dispute is to destroy your opponent. When you and your group adopt that aim, you do not waste your time with reason.
I graduated from Reed in 1976, entered the college shortly after the Vietnam war ended. After that I taught at a small college in Wisconsin – not at a campus with Reed’s liberal reputation. Because I had been a faculty member, and a student at Reed, I wrote extensively about what happened at the Portland campus, as well as about the riot and attacks that occurred at Middlebury College. I concluded that, whatever campus activists said about their aims, their actions showed their principal interest was power. As The Atlantic articles indicate, a mode of political behavior that incubated on campuses now extends well beyond that environment.
In the 1960s, the anti-war left turned violent, as did police who tried to suppress the movement. The civil conflict that followed did not accomplish a lot for the country. We have had our share of violence during the last several years, but it has a different feel now. We cannot predict how that violence might evolve. It might even subside. For the present, social media create a militant atmosphere, and one where public action occurs without leaders. We have not been in this kind of situation before.
Someday I’d like to assemble The Jeffersonian‘s posts about free speech into a book – a worthwhile project, but harder than it looks! I do appreciate the chance to write about these problems. To read more, search The Jeffersonian for Reed, Middlebury, or simply free speech. I’ve thought I’d like to assemble these articles into a short book, but that’s hard to do! Meantime, read and comment on these arguments here.