The Free Exchange of Ideas Is Good

Ideas are good. The exchange of ideas is good. Thought is good. Thought begets thought. Ideas beget ideas. Energy begets energy. Wealth begets wealth. The universe is infinitely complex. Let people be free — free to exchange goods and ideas — and all people will grow and prosper and flourish as a result. Introduce force — shut societies down by force — propound force, forbid certain thoughts, cut-off the free flow of all ideas except the ones you already believe in, and you’ll only bring misery, hatred, depression, death.

I have a friend named Joseph who is by any standard imaginable politically and economically liberal. He votes a straight democratic ticket. He believes in a “robust” welfare state. He’s a runner and a triathlete. He’s getting a second degree in environmental science. We go back several years, and we once worked together for while. He is my friend. He’s also an increasingly rare individual: someone who knows fairly well my laissez-faire-classic-liberal views, doesn’t agree with much of it, and yet he likes to talk about these and many other subjects, including fiction, poetry, and basketball, and he’s stayed my friend. We make each other laugh, and I genuinely enjoy his company. I believe he genuinely enjoys mine. We never run out of things to talk about.

I crossed paths with Joesph a few weeks back — we hadn’t seen each other in a while — and he told me an interesting and frightening story: something that had recently happened to him. He’d received an email, he said, from his university — part of a mass mail-out — which spoke of the importance of #Black Live Matter. He told me that he’d replied to this email, not realizing that his reply would also go out to the thousands of others who had, like him, received the original message, and in his reply, my friend Joseph wrote that while he was very sympathetic to the #BLM cause, he wrote also that he believed all lives matter.

Let me ask: reading that just now, did you wince, as I did, at that last part? You were right to wince.

He was harassed, hammered, and threatened like hell.

Just for the record, Joseph is an exceptionally sweet person, polite, kind, articulate, and as gentle as a dove. He’s also neither white nor cis nor hetero.

He told me he was harassed so viciously, receiving a number of death threats, in fact, that he seriously feared for his safety.

In addition to that, as you would suspect, he was strongly encouraged to make an appointment to come in and speak with one of the university faculty, who would fully explain to him why his saying that “all lives matter” is racist and wrong.

I myself can tell you a little about harassment. Ask me sometime. So I commiserated with my friend Joseph. Harassment is one thing, he said. When it spills over and in any way starts to involve friends, family, or co-workers, it becomes something else entirely. Yes, I completely agree.

Faddish theories, such as those advanced by Jacques Derrida, born out of the 1930’s Frankfurt School and then taken to stupefying lengths by today’s Critical Race Theorists, teach students that all language, whether written or spoken, is shaped, conditioned, and structured not by the conceptual apparatus of the human brain but rather by “power” and “power structures.” So that any thesis or argument, no matter how reasonable, rational, and logically valid the thesis or argument actually is — no matter how much internal consistency and sense it makes, no matter how precisely it corresponds to actual reality — it can and should be rejected based purely upon the skin color and gender of the writer or speaker.

This means that the content of words and sentences do not matter.

I repeat: to people who subscribe to this nonsensical fad, the content of words and sentences do not matter.

It means that unchosen things (like skin color) are primary — even over and above logic and sense.

It means that wrong and right — i.e. virtue — is predetermined. In this way, like all forms of determinism, it contradicts itself at the outset. (That, incidentally, is one of the many ways the entire theory is invalidated and obliterated.)

Belief in this sort of fashionable nonsense is one reason that, more often than not these days — and this never used to happen — when a progressive-liberal acquaintance of mine sees the books I’ve got under my arm or am reading at a coffeeshop, this same acquaintance will often scoff or even reprimand me these days for having books by, for instance, Friedrich Hayek, Christopher Hitchens, Ludwig von Mises, and even (this happened very recently) The Discovery of Freedom, by Rose Lane Wilder, which I’ve read several times and was rereading in order to quote for an article. It goes without saying here that none of these acquaintances has ever answered yes when I’ve asked if they really know these writers or the contents of their books, and not a single one has ever, when I’ve asked, been able to give me any kind of real recapitulation of what these writers actually think. The exchanges are not usually ever confrontational — although that has happened a time or two as well — but they’re not exactly friendly, either. At the same time, I’m never questioned or scoffed at when these same people see me reading, for instance, Martha Nussbaum or Noam Chomsky or Paul Krugman or Naomi Klein, all of whom I’ve read and do read, to better understand their exact ideas and arguments and to better grasp where they’re coming from.

Even more interesting, however, at least to me, is that when my more conservative acquaintances see the same books under my arm or sitting upon my table, I am never — and I mean never — scoffed at or reprimanded or chastised by these acquaintances, and usually it’s the precise opposite: I’m asked with curiosity about the books I’m reading, whether by Krugman, Nussbaum, Hayek, von Mises, Chomsky, or whoever, and I’m as often asked to share my views and opinions. Do you know what that used to be called?

Conversation. A good conversation. I would note also that my laissez-faire-classic-liberal views are much too freewheeling and radical for these same conservative acquaintances of mine, without a single exception that I can think of, and yet this doesn’t ever, not once, outrage them or bother them, at least not in any way that is noticeable to me. On the contrary, they like to talk about it and are even amused by my live-and-let-live views.

That is the truth, and I ask you to consider it. Please take a moment and consider my last three or so paragraphs. It is stupendously significant.

The fact is that today’s progressive left in America are now closer to thought-police than they are conversationalists.

Thought-policing is now regarded as a virtue by a great many — the majority, I think — in today’s leftist circles.

The seriousness of this cannot be exaggerated or overstated. It is only a short step from this to book-banning and book-burning.

Answer this honestly: if ten or even five years ago, I’d have said to you that in the year 2020, progressive-liberals would be banning books like To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men, would you have believe me?

Me neither.

This is testament to how cocooned-off today’s progressive left has become, but not only that. It is also a testament to how hard-core this mindset is hammered into school curricula all across the country: specifically, I mean, how any ideas that might stand opposed to their own — the ones they’ve already been told are the only valid and legitimate ideas — they are to be rejected categorically and condemned with religious fervor, without weighing a single word from any of these oppositional ideas. And more: anyone who holds ideas that are not the same as their own, they are enemies. Outright. The instigation of force now is no longer off the table.

That is one reason that right-wing rhetoricians and lawyers, like Dennis Prager and Ben Shapiro, who whatever you think of their views, routinely beclown even the best and brightest of the progressive-liberal set: because the progressive-liberal worldview is so patently insular and out-of-touch.

Here’s how one writer recently explained it, in a true story, which he titled “I Was The Mob, Until The Mob Came For Me”:

I was a self-righteous social justice crusader. I would use my mid-sized Twitter and Facebook platforms to signal my wokeness on topics such as LGBT rights, rape culture, and racial injustice. Many of the opinions I held then are still opinions that I hold today. But I now realize that my social-media hyperactivity was, in reality, doing more harm than good.

Within the world created by the various apps I used, I got plenty of shares and retweets. But this masked how ineffective I had become outside, in the real world. The only causes I was actually contributing to were the causes of mobbing and public shaming. Real change does not stem from these tactics. They only cause division, alienation, and bitterness.

How did I become that person? It happened because it was exhilarating. Every time I would call someone racist or sexist, I would get a rush. That rush would then be reaffirmed and sustained by the stars, hearts, and thumbs-up that constitute the nickels and dimes of social media validation. The people giving me these stars, hearts, and thumbs-up were engaging in their own cynical game: A fear of being targeted by the mob induces us to signal publicly that we are part of it.

Just a few years ago, many of my friends and peers who self-identify as liberals or progressives were open fans of provocative standup comedians such as Sarah Silverman, and shows like South Park. Today, such material is seen as deeply “problematic,” or even labeled as hate speech. I went from minding my own business when people told risqué jokes to practically fainting when they used the wrong pronoun or expressed a right-of-center view. I went from making fun of the guy who took edgy jokes too seriously, to becoming that guy.

When my callouts were met with approval and admiration, I was lavished with praise: “Thank you so much for speaking out!” “You’re so brave!” “We need more men like you!”

Then one day, suddenly, I was accused of some of the very transgressions I’d called out in others. I was guilty, of course: There’s no such thing as due process in this world. And once judgment has been rendered against you, the mob starts combing through your past, looking for similar transgressions that might have been missed at the time. I was now told that I’d been creating a toxic environment for years at my workplace; that I’d been making the space around me unsafe through microaggressions and macroaggressions alike.

Social justice is a surveillance culture, a snitch culture….

Aggressive online virtue signaling is a fundamentally two-dimensional act. It has no human depth. It’s only when we snap out of it, see the world as it really is, and people as they really are, that we appreciate the destruction and human suffering we caused when we were trapped inside.

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Perhaps the most frightening part of the whole phenomena — a phenomena that’s becoming more urgent by the day, as America inches closer and closer to outright civil war — is how catastrophically dangerous, politically, economically, epistemically, and morally, the ideas of today’s progressive left are, precisely because they explicitly advocate, in one form or another, whether by banning, burning, barring, looting, vandalizing, extorting, and more, the instigation of force and coercion. And yet it is people like me, who have a lifelong and uncompromising commitment — a commitment well-documented and simple to verify — to individual rights and the absolute, inalienable equality of all humans before the law, property and person, as well as the absolute abolition of the initiation of force, governmental and otherwise, we are the “anti-democratic fascists.”

This, ladies, gentleman, and everyone else, out-Orwells George Orwell.

It is also a matter of mathematical fact that the economic views of today’s progressive left can and will only ever end in economic ruin, as they only ever have.

It is a problem when a student goes through university where each and every course is taught by a left-leaning professor. For more conservative students, the toxic and hostile university environment needn’t cripple their intellectual development. These students arrive at university with conservative ideas and will naturally seek out and read conservative authors in their own time to balance out the latest application of progressive doctrine to which they are subjected in class. The most ambitious will be familiar with both Mises and Marx, Keynes and Hayek, Galbraith and Friedman, Krugman and Sowell, Picketty and Peterson. But we ought to worry about the progressive student who arrives with progressive ideas, and is then showered in class with more of the same and reinforces them in their own time. Such students live in a much smaller cultural universe than the cosmopolitan intellectual world through which the conservative will be made to travel. This isn’t to deny that bigoted reactionaries on the opposite side of the spectrum also inhabit a tiny intellectual space. But that does not excuse the closing of the mind at a university.

In 2014, one of the world’s leading scholars in the field of moral psychology was publicly accused of homophobia for showing his class a video about the phenomenon of ‘Moral Dumbfounding.’ A transcript of the video Jonathan Haidt showed his class can be read here, and a transcript of the apology he offered his class the next day can be found here. A subsequent investigation by the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity found no evidence of wrongdoing. But, rather than being put off by this brush with reputational disaster, Haidt became fascinated by the problem of hypersensitivity at university. “It’s a crazy time, but it’s also a fascinating time to be a social scientist,” he has since remarked, “It’s the dawn of a new religion, and I study moral psychology as though religion, politics, even sports, they’re all manifestations of a tribalism.”

In his remarkable book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt recalls a telling experiment. He and his colleagues Brian Nosek and Jesse Graham sought to discover how well conservative and what Haidt terms ‘liberal’ (ie: progressive) students understood one another by having them answer moral questions as they thought their political opponents would answer them. “The results were clear and consistent,” remarks Haidt. “In all analyses, conservatives were more accurate than liberals.” Asked to think the way a liberal thinks, conservatives answered moral questions just as the liberal would answer them, but liberal students were unable to do the reverse. Rather, they seemed to put moral ideas into the mouths of conservatives that they don’t hold. To put it bluntly, Haidt and his colleagues found that progressives don’t understand conservatives the way conservatives understand progressives. This he calls the ‘conservative advantage,’ and it goes a long way in explaining the different ways each side deals with opinions unlike their own. People get angry at what they don’t understand, and an all-progressive education ensures that they don’t understand.

Haidt’s research echoes arguments made by Thomas Sowell in A Conflict of Visions and Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate. Both Sowell and Pinker contend that conservatives see an unfortunate world of moral trade-offs in which every moral judgment comes with costs that must be properly balanced. Progressives, on the other hand, seem to be blind to, or in denial about, these trade-offs, whether economic and social; theirs is a utopian or unconstrained vision, in which every moral grievance must be immediately extinguished until we have perfected society. This is why conservatives don’t tend to express the same emotional hostility as the Left; a deeper grasp of the world’s complexity has the effect of encouraging intellectual humility. The conservative hears the progressive’s latest demands and says, “I can see how you might come to that conclusion, but I think you’ve overlooked the following…” In contrast, the progressive hears the conservative and thinks, “I have no idea why you would believe that. You’re probably a racist.”

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As I’ve written before, the real paradox of dogma is this:

If you successfully shut down all public debate and discourse, is this a way of making sure that you win? Or is it an admission that you’ve already lost?

To ask that question is, I believe, to answer it.

When you succeed at last in getting everyone to utter the correct words, to say the right slogans and shibboleths, no matter that fewer and fewer of the people saying them understand the actual ideas and the ideologies behind the words they’re speaking, you have definitely succeeded in the task of indoctrinating an entire group of human beings. And that is ultimately why today’s left has already lost: like all insular groups, it’s eating itself to death.