On the Sunday before the 4th of July—a celebration of our nation’s independence from a regime that, among other odious acts, criminalized the criticism of its monarch—commentator Lindy West exhorted us to “Save Free Speech From Trolls.” This doltish ramble is West’s debut as a weekly opinion columnist in the New York Times, suggesting that West’s sense of self-respect and that of the Times somehow correlate inversely.
West, wielding an intellect shaped by long hours of fighting with people on social media, bounteous self-righteousness, and little else, begins by recalling the halcyon days when she thought it silly to be called a “politically correct, anti-free-speech censor.” She muses, “I was not the government. I literally could not censor anyone.” As if being a government was the only way to go about it.
But then Trump got elected, and it didn’t seem so silly anymore. “Since then, the anti-free-speech charge, applied broadly to cultural criticism and especially to feminist discourse, has proliferated,” writes West. “It is nurtured largely by men on the internet who used to nurse their grievances alone, in disparate, insular communities around the web — men’s rights forums, video game blogs. Gradually, these communities have drifted together into one great aggrieved, misogynist gyre and bonded over a common interest: pretending to care about freedom of speech so they can feel self-righteous while harassing marginalized people for having opinions.”
Thus begins a veritable manual on how to preach to the social justice warrior choir.
1. Use Your Psychic Powers To Ascribe Wrong
West possesses a mysterious gift of psychic progressivism that lets her see into the hearts of men and unearth the real intentions behind their stated ones. Or so it would seem. These men are only pretending to care about freedom of speech, for example. They really want to harass marginalized people for having opinions. They want to feel self-righteous while doing so. It is just that simple – they have no legitimate concerns at all, of that West is certain.
Further on in her column, she writes, “Nothing is more important than the First Amendment, the internet men say, provided you interpret the First Amendment exactly the same way they do: as a magic spell that means no one you don’t like is allowed to criticize you.” She adds, “The law does not share that interpretation,” as if someone besides herself had made it.
“They’re weaponizing free speech to maintain their cultural dominance,” she says, obsequiously quoting Anita Sarkeesian, another psychic progressive.
That flushing noise you hear is the sound of productive dialogue disappearing into the rhetorical toilet. Identitarians like West have never grasped that it is impossible to found a good-faith discussion on bad-faith premises such as these. There are great numbers of principled people who worry sincerely, and justifiably, about attacks on the First Amendment in the name of social justice. The veracity of that sincerity is not up for debate any more than West’s – I’ll be happy to prove mine right after she proves hers.
2. Don’t Forget That You Are An Angel
West describes herself as having made on occasion “some relatively innocuous bit of cultural criticism — like, say, that racism is bad and artists should try not to make racist art if they don’t want to be called racists.” Sarkeesian, she says mildly, “started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a series of YouTube videos critiquing the representation of women in video games” and issued some “precise, rigorously argued opinions about the relative loincloth sizes of male and female video game avatars.” For this and nothing more, they were answered with untold abuse, as she frames it.
A typical example of West’s innocuousness is this sentence in an essay she wrote for the Guardian: “As we all know from the anguished howls of quivering white people that erupt any time a person of colour expresses any dissatisfaction about being murdered by police, disenfranchised by voter suppression, trapped in cycles of systemic poverty and/or treated like a criminal when they’re just trying to buy a horrible, $49 mauve bodysack, nobody in the world is ever racist, except for actual KKK members and the ghost of George Wallace.” Exaggeration for effect is a time-honored literary device, but West employs it so often that one gets the sense that it’s not only for effect, but to fill the world of her prose with un-woke whites that justify every last bit of her disdain for those who don’t share her take on these issues.
Sarkeesian, meanwhile, has been fairly criticized for subscribing to a reductionist form of feminism that relies on similar blanket damnations. What West doesn’t tell you is that some of this criticism has come from other feminists such as Liana Kerzner, who were consequently subjected to online harassment from Sarkeesian’s defenders.
West mentions that Sarkeesian recently appeared at a public talk “only to find the first two rows of seats stacked with her online harassers, leering up at her, filming her on their phones.” She elides the part where Sarkeesian addressed the man who organized the filming, “If you Google my name on YouTube you get shitheads like this dude who are making these dumb-assed videos. They just say the same shit over and over again. I hate to give you attention because you’re a garbage human.” Sarkeesian has always been more interested in declaration than persuasion.
None of this justifies threats of violence and death—nor doxxing, criminal harassment, or any other abuse that West or Sarkeesian have had to endure beyond mockery of their arguments. But the truth of the matter is a more complicated picture than the one painted by West, and it doesn’t flatter the author so well.
3. Demand High, Consistent Standards Of Everyone But Yourself
West claims that the “true goal [of defenders of free speech] has always been to ensure that if anyone is determining the ways that we collectively choose to restrict our own speech in the name of values, they are the ones setting the limits.” She knows this because 8,000 people signed a petition to have Sarkeesian arrested for violating the Logan Act when she spoke at the UN. They didn’t get Kathy Griffin’s back when she pulled that gag with Trump’s severed head. They didn’t decry the threats against Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor after she called Trump a “racist and sexist megalomaniac.”
Except that much of GamerGate thought that the Logan Act stunt was indefensible. Reason writer Robby Soave called out the social media mob that went after Griffin. Samantha Harris of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education came out in support of Professor Taylor.
Besides, we can play this sorry game with West: what are we to make of her commitment to free speech and combating sexism given her utter silence about the assault on Allison Stanger? I could speculate tendentiously about West’s real motives, but I’m inclined to think that even West’s capacity for outrage is finite, and like most pundits she tends to reserve her public expression of it for calamities in the news cycle that bolster her own side.
4. Remember The Timeless Adage: I Know You Are, But What Am I?
The irony of this essay is that its main point – that all this defense of free speech is really about deflecting criticism – is coming out of a camp of left-identitarianism that spent much of the last decade answering criticism with charges of bigotry. Even a public figure as minuscule as myself has to put up with accusations of racism, sexism, and fascism for taking issue with the absurdities put forth as Gospel by certain progressives.
The fruit of their harvest is the alt-right. We might have gotten the alt-right anyway, but a style of argument that came to be known among people who study the SJW phenomenon as “point-and-shriek” left little room for rational engagement. Instead, some people took it upon themselves to find out how loud they could get the left-identitarians to shriek. Pretty loud, it turns out, and it’s kind of fun to make them do it. Thus we find ourselves in a situation described eloquently by Jacob Siegel: “The cultural Left became enforcers of rectitude while elements on the right developed an aesthetics of transgression.” Cue the cartoon frogs.
But the identity-politics crowd has never been able to deal very well with internal criticism either. It turns out that liberals and leftists enjoy getting accused of racism, sexism, and fascism even less than libertarians and conservatives, resulting in a backchannel culture described by Freddie deBoer, in which even the believers “are convinced that stepping out of line with the constant search for offense will render them permanently unemployable, even though they are themselves progressive people.” That ultimately harms progressive interests as surely as anything perpetrated by the right.
West should try to understand that our protectiveness of the First Amendment as a legal doctrine falls out of our concern for free speech as a societal norm, and that West is eroding the latter by conflating the two and attributing foul motives to us for wanting to defend them. My politics and West’s likely have nothing in common. But could we at least agree that a society that harbors fundamental doubts about the value of free expression is likely to turn into one that neither of us want?