It’s Time To Ignore The People Who Shut Up Their Opponents By Shouting ‘Racist!’

It’s Time To Ignore The People Who Shut Up Their Opponents By Shouting ‘Racist!’

Too many decry any discussion of group differences as instantly racist. This hurts the very people we need to be helping, and it erodes free speech norms in the process.
Lawrence M. Mead
By

Americans say that we have a multicultural society, but we do not allow discussion of group differences. An ideology of sameness insists that minorities and immigrants be seen as exactly the same as all other citizens, despite all our supposed celebration of diversity. Any suggestion to the contrary is deemed racist. One may mention the contributions each group has made to the nation, but not the social problems each has or the costs it imposes on others.

Even experts who study poverty, crime, or family breakdown are allowed to attribute these problems only to impersonal forces outside the groups most involved, such as lack of jobs, housing, or child care. Skeptics who point instead to the groups’ attitudes or lifestyle are forbidden to speak in leading venues (such as universities or think tanks) or to publish in leading outlets (major journals or newspapers).

They are silenced partly by academic political correctness, which endorses sameness, but also by fear of retribution from their employers. Cries of “racism” have become a trump card that bans all discussion of these issues. Institutions that allow debate scramble to disown any offending opinions.

Before communism collapsed, its defenders accused capitalist countries of false consciousness. Societies were dominated by class differences and were radically unequal, yet the culture denied that reality by refusing to talk about it. Today we are more open about economic inequality, even if it remains an issue, yet in denial about group differences. Supposedly, everyone is the same except for differences in their resources and opportunities. We refuse to discuss why some groups make much better use of their opportunities than others do.

One excuse for this silencing is defining “racism” to include any and all criticisms of the protected groups. Anyone saying anything negative about them is presumed to view them as inferior. But the dictionary confines “racism” to the beliefs that one race is superior to the others and that these differences are inherent, not subject to conditioning.

Outside of the alt-right, very few Americans believe such things today, let alone assert them. The vast majority accept that how people live reflects how they are raised, not racial or ethnic identity. So criticisms of any social groups that avoid racism should be heard, even if they are controversial. The proper response is not suppression but counter-argument.

The Spirit of Free Speech

Another excuse is the common assumption that suppression is allowed by constitutional norms of free speech. That is, it is okay to block sensitive arguments about group differences provided that speech or publishing about them is not literally forbidden. Skeptics who question sameness have a right to free expression, but not to an audience. If they remain invisible, that is only because their arguments are unpersuasive.

But it violates the spirit of free speech to deny visibility to arguments not “on the merits” but simply because they are controversial. Nobody can deny that important group differences in behavior and lifestyle do exist; there is, however, much more dispute about how they arise. That is just the argument that should occur more openly. It should not be denied by elites seeking to avoid upset.

While freedom of speech is not directly violated, current sanctions resemble those that Russia or China use to protect their regimes. In these repressive countries, one can print or say most things publicly, but not in a place where many people will read or hear it. Only the broadcast media and the internet are tightly controlled. In America, a high-minded elite defends major venues and publications against perceived racial heresy. Tyranny of opinion does the work of censorship.

Another offense to free speech is to suppress challenging opinions because of the alleged motivation behind them. If one’s opponents are racists, then one need not respond to their arguments. But adversaries are entitled to a response on the merits of what they say, not on their purported intentions.

Suppressing Ideas Doesn’t Work, Either

Suppression is ineffective as well as improper. The natural response when an opinion is silenced is that it must be true, not that it is false. Most Americans want to hear the facts and form their own opinions. Donald Trump’s election as president was driven in large part by popular resentment against the current thought control. His refusal to honor taboos is the most popular thing about him, even if much of what he says is false.

The general public demands a more honest discussion of minorities and immigrants. It refuses to do more to help them, as advocates demand, without greater candor about their difficulties. And to ask for openness is realistic, not racist.

Identity defenders think they are promoting integration and forestalling an American Holocaust, but the actual effect is to deepen our political division. Current politics pits the sameness ideology, entrenched in the public sector and academia, against the populist movement, which rejects the virtual silencing of the critics. Trump’s challenging manner, of course, does provoke fears that he or his followers are fascists who mean to end all immigration and attention to the needy.

But the danger the other way is greater.  The thought controllers are entrenched inside the establishment, whereas Trump’s supporters are outsiders. Sameness leads the country toward Big Brother and “1984.” The nation would then be powerless to arrest the decay of work, families, and neighborhoods going on at the bottom of society. Our only response would be further income transfers. Absorbed in decline without hope, America would soon cease to be the world’s leading nation.

It is time for all Americans to respect differences of opinion and tolerate even the fiercest of debates. And it’s time for those who control leading venues and publications to stand up and be counted. Do not deny hearing the critics of social problems for fear of backlash. Do not permit cries of “racism” to remain the trump card it has become.

Instead, go with the evidence. Critics who have the facts right about problems and who make a good case should be heard, and those who don’t should not. Form your own view rather than siding with sameness.

No individual and no group can escape reality. Our nation must allow that debate to occur, rather than silencing it. A free society demands it. If the mere discussion of sensitive issues is racist, so be it.

Lawrence M. Mead is a professor of politics and public policy at New York University and author of the new book, "Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power" (Encounter Books).

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