Spare a moment to remember Brendan Eich. He was the techie forced out of Mozilla a few years ago for opposing same-sex marriage. At the time, the Left rejoiced in the burgeoning power of online outrage mobs. They were going to stick it to the Right and drive us out of public life. However, in the outrage wars there will be no winners, only losers.
Left-wing mobs, boycotts, and sanctions are still rolling along, but now the Right has adopted many of these tactics, especially the deployment of Internet outrage mobs to make people unemployable (as, among others, a NFL quarterback and a string of non-tenured radicals in higher education can attest).
President Trump has gotten in on the action, calling for NFL owners to fire players who protest during the national anthem, and for fans to boycott games. Mass NFL firings will not happen, but an intensifying culture war over and within sports will.
Such domestic economic and cultural warfare is not entirely new—remember the Dixie Chicks?—but it has escalated dramatically in recent years as technology made it incredibly easy to select targets and bring self-righteous Internet wrath down upon them. In the world of social media, nearly all intemperate and offensive remarks pass unmarked, but a few lead to ruined lives as the outrage mob descends in force.
Everyone is a potential target, from the famous to an ordinary person who publishes a tasteless Twitter joke or a foolish Facebook rant. Like Eich, some victims of online outrage frenzies do not even say anything obnoxious, but are targeted simply for quietly adhering to the wrong political or religious views.
Adopting Cruel Tactics in Revenge Is a Win for Nobody
Is it any wonder that Trump has flourished in such a vindictive and intolerant environment? He would likely be calling for firings and boycotts even if leftists had never used these tactics, let alone used them as promiscuously.
However, many on the Right only reluctantly decided to use such methods. They made a deliberate choice to try to force the Left to live by its own rules, such as the precept that those arousing the wrath of Internet mobs should be fired. The level-headed Jim Geraghty of National Review recently argued that conservatives can live with toleration or with outrage mobs, but that “what we won’t accept is a world where the rules only apply to one side.”
This is a rational response to the Left’s campaign of online mobs and economic sanctions, and I sympathize with those who have reached such conclusions. When the other side is maliciously using these tactics to punish dissenters, it is hard not to respond in kind. It was easy to conclude that we could not allow an outrage-mob gap.
But there are problems with this approach. The first is that outrage mobs and aggressively using economic pressure tactics are symptoms of spiritual disorder, which they will only worsen. Furthermore, conservatives ought to be suspicious of mobs, in which people abandon their better nature and common sense in exchange for unchecked indulgence of their passions. Conservatism and outrage mobs are incompatible in the long run.
If such concerns are dismissed as impractical fussing about theory, there is another, very practical problem with embracing outrage mobs: what are the victory conditions for their use, and how do we attain them? The Right is matching the Left outrage-mob for outrage-mob, with a Republican president leading the way. Now what?
Raising an Uncontrollable Mob
Absolute victory by silencing dissent is impossible and undesirable. A culture that stifles free speech to that extent would be evil, whether established by the Right or the Left.
Some argued that Right-wing outrage mobs would force the Left to reconsider its use of mobs and economic pressure tactics, but it was never clear how this détente would play out. The two sides can’t sit down, sign a cease-fire, and exchange prisoners; outrage mobs don’t have a central command that can negotiate a truce.
Even if some on the Left are now realizing the dangers of allowing Internet mobs to make personnel decisions and drive political dissenters out of business, it is not clear how they can reign in the mobs they previously tolerated and even encouraged. And those on the Right who embraced (however reluctantly) such tactics are likewise unable to control the rabble on their side.
Even if majorities on both sides grow sick of outrage mob tactics, they will be difficult to stop so long as fervent minority factions embrace them. That will only drag people back into the cycle of reprisals. There will not be a winner in the outrage wars, only losers. Perhaps it was necessary for the Right to flex its muscles to make this clear, but now it is time to seek peace, and to reengage in politics without using outrage mobs to inflict economic punishment for political disagreement. But this will be difficult. It is hard to restore broken norms.
How can we build, or rebuild, a culture of free speech and political tolerance? There is no easy solution; cultural problems like this are not susceptible to simple fixes. I am certainly not advocating for further government intervention. Legally, businesses should have a great deal of freedom in managing their affairs, even though this freedom will sometimes be abused (to, say, punish political disagreement). However, our culture should tolerate political differences, rather than aggressively use private means to punish political disagreement.
The liberty our Constitution grants us will not endure if our culture devolves into endlessly shrieking outrage mobs and economic tribalism. The solution isn’t another law, but for us to be better citizens and persons. That is the burden of liberty. The First Amendment protects us from government interference with speech, but cultivating a culture of free speech is up to us.