One writer on freedom of thought reminds us that in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, firemen do not show up to burn books because public authorities feel threatened. Firemen want your books because other people feel threatened. Other people feel unsafe around people who read books. Their solution is to ostracize you, and by the way, your books have to go, too.
Mari Uyehara writes in Gentleman’s Quarterly that campus activists who want to protect themselves from free speech are just fine, thank you. In fact, she praises them as just the jolt society needs right now: we won’t improve our community without their energy and vision. She ridicules people who think campus efforts to limit free thought eventually confine everyone.
To begin with, Uyehara’s essay is illiterate, in the sense that when you select an incorrect word in your title, nothing else you say hangs together. In this case, she sets her readers up to look for a grift, which is a petty or small-scale swindle. Instead, you read about her contempt for people like Bill Maher, who suggest campus limits on what comedians can say can’t be a good thing.
To begin with, Uyehara’s essay is illiterate, in the sense that when you select an incorrect word in your title, nothing else you say hangs together.
Uyehara goes after anyone who criticizes young campus rebels, whom she praises and compares to the SDS, of all groups. If any sixties political group did more to destroy the sense of idealism that led to its own founding, I can’t think of it, unless perhaps you want to give that recognition to the Communist Party. Few who came of age during the sixties admire the SDS, I can tell you. The entire enterprise was a failure, launched by people who wanted to play Che Guevara.
To borrow from Uyehara’s title, you might even call SDS and groups like it revolution grifters, but that would be a bit incoherent as well. SDS and Communists did not fail because they swindled people, though they practiced plenty of deception about their aims. Groups like SDS fail because they commit, or threaten, violent acts. That is why current rebels and resisters, who attract Uyehara’s favorable eye, will fail. They have no program but intimidation and power, along with an ideology that degenerates into nonsense.
Witness the cheapness of political speech, whose major aim has become not good outcomes, but ostracism and destruction of your opponents. Does that kindle hopes for improvement? Then you remember that only the woke and the deplorables seem to care about this grotesque language, where no one actually speaks to anyone, except perhaps your comrades in the firing line. Vituperation offers a brief, cathartic sense of revenge and supremacy, and that’s about it. Why bother?
Efforts to suppress thought and speech impress all observers, young and old, with their dull appeal to uniformity.
I’m happy if someone calls me a ‘big public intellectual’, except I’m not. I’m happy, too, if someone tells me I’m mistaken about the cheapness of political speech, but on that score, I know I’m not. One might call me a ‘free speech fulminator’, and that would be accurate enough. The fulmination seems to bother Uyehara the most: that older people sound so indignant in their response to Red Guards who patrol campuses to confront anyone who wears a MAGA hat, or who wears earrings made in Mexico. Why would those old people understand current campus poltiics? They have not seen a campus for forty years.
Dismissive attitudes about the old almost always miscarry. Moreover, efforts to suppress thought and speech impress all observers, young and old, with their dull appeal to uniformity. Intolerance assumes that minding other people’s business succeeds if you manage to carry your obnoxious, boorish behavior far enough. When success means you silence, and put away people you do not like, then you do in fact succeed – especially if your targets, such as school administrators, have no mettle to counter your angry self-righteousness.
Activists argue that disagreeable people make them feel unsafe. Their belief that nothing they do, no matter how threatening, lies outside the bounds of safety they define merely discredits everything else they have to say. Their inability even to perceive or understand the concept of a double standard suggests they must be cynical, or stupid. Either way, you wonder why they expect anyone to listen. They waste our time.