Let’s start by considering the following opinion, as expressed by some hypothetical U.S. citizen:
As a country, America should be most concerned with protecting itself. We live in a dangerous world, even a deteriorating world, and as it becomes worse, we need to ensure that we value our own safety above all else. Opening our nation to uncontrolled immigration is a recipe for disaster, and while terrible things might be happening to those people outside our borders—and I truly feel bad for them—trying to fix it ourselves will result in a dangerous flood that ends up ruining our country too. It may be true that America achieved its current status in ways that are unfair, but that’s the reality we live in and we can’t change the past. What’s most important now is to ensure that we keep the good life we have for our people, no matter what happens anywhere else. We can’t help them, but we can help ourselves.
For many of us, that idea would be abhorrent, even though the theoretical speaker is taking pains to sound reasonable. We might think there’s an implied racism in the words, even though the speaker doesn’t mention race and, if pressed, would insist he’s not racist and that he supports controlled, i.e. “good,” immigration. We would make other assumptions, too; this person is a Trump supporter, a Republican, and his or her stated values of “protecting Americans” probably fall short when it comes to the poor, minorities, etc., and the display of empathy (“I truly feel bad for them”) is likely bullshit.
It’s also frustrating for a liberal or progressive to encounter this argument, because on a fundamental level, it’s impossible to know if it’s factually right or wrong. We can’t prove the truth or falsity of something that hasn’t happened, and even though it offends the sensibilities, even the smartest immigration expert can’t definitively say that the speaker isn’t more or less right. That’s the price of arguing in a theoretical mode; you can hear some variation of an idea like, “starting a war with Iraq will be a good idea that will help our country,” and you can be damn sure that it’s total nonsense and it’s going to go very badly, but you can’t disprove it until after the war with Iraq has happened and the disaster is evident.
Another frustrating element, and one that goes unspoken because it’s so uncomfortable, is that we can see parts of ourselves in the speaker. Unless you’re exceptionally altruistic, there is almost certainly a part of you that makes moral compromises in order to maintain your lifestyle. It doesn’t have to be anything profound; maybe you eat Chick-Fil-A despite the fact that you disagree with their politics, or maybe you still haven’t given up shopping at Amazon despite feeling that on some level, the company is unethical. Even if that’s not the case, the fact of living in America means that to some extent, you’re essentially forced to participate in systems you don’t like. Conservatives happen to be very good at picking out these small hypocrisies; because they’ve decided not to care, they delight in exposing the inconsistencies of people who do.
On immigration, you can imagine the speaker above asking you a question like, “if you’re so concerned about immigrants, why don’t you let one stay in your house for free?” Even without that confrontation, though, we intuitively understand that many of us are living a compromise; we do want to maintain a good life, and yes, ultimately we understand that our good lives in this global world come at the expense of others, both at home and abroad. And we’re not trashing our belongings or leaving our homes in protest.
Confronted with these dilemmas, it can be tempting to turn on the idea itself; to identify it as poisonous, even violent, and to reach the conclusion that expressing it should be forbidden. I’m not interested in arguing whether that concept is right or wrong; only that it exists. In the past four years, we’ve seen figures from Milo Yiannopoulos to Donald Trump lose their platforms on social media due to expressing ideas that were judged as hateful and dangerous. Obviously, you can never totally suppress a figure as famous as Donald Trump, even if you take away his Twitter account. But Yiannopoulos is a different case; he was removed from Twitter and Facebook, and it’s a plain fact that you simply don’t see or hear about him as much anymore. Before we address the question in the title, about whether an idea can be smothered to death, we have to admit that yes, in some circumstances a person can be erased from prominence.
But even if you can rid yourself of Milo, can you kill an idea? That’s a bit trickier. If you subscribe to the Chomskian theory of manufactured consent, you might argue that yes, the limits of acceptable discourse are set every day by cultural power centers, and even in the age of the internet, those controlling entities can at the very least limit which ideas are palatable to the main body of Americans. Influential figures on the right and left may be able to stretch these boundaries, but ultimately, like a rubber band, the range of permissible dialogue snaps right back to where they want it. That notion has been tested quite a bit lately; it was tested when Donald Trump became president in one way, and it was tested in another when it appeared that Bernie Sanders might be the Democratic nominee. In both cases, the center eventually prevailed, although it seemed dicey then and it still seems precarious now.
A quick study of history, even just American history, seems to indicate that certain ideas are verboten at certain times, and even if they are expressed, and if they are expressed by public figures, the punishment is so swift that it has a chilling effect on everyone else. In the ‘50s, it was a political death sentence to be seen as any kind of socialist. After WWII, you couldn’t be even a borderline fascist, unless your version of fascism was racism; you get the idea. Things had a way of policing themselves, so censorship wasn’t really necessary.
Today, there’s an increasing sense that the status quo is failing us, and so ideas that are not new, but were certainly out of fashion, are beginning to catch on, and they have more outlets than ever before to find expression. Worse, some of the really bad ideas, the ones that seem silly to us, appear to be catching simply because people want to believe them. That’s a threat to the power structure, and at least an imagined threat to people who live comfortable lives. And so we have a renewed push for censorship. With Trump in power, the calls came from mostly from the liberal left, who were (perhaps rightly) terrified about the directions things had taken, alarmed at how these bad ideas were catching and on and being communicated more directly than ever before, and forced to conclude that suppressing the ideas was at least part of the solution. An example: If millions of people are going to believe the election was stolen with no evidence to back it up, and if some of those millions are prepared to become violent, what solution is there but to suppress the idea (or at least its prominent supporters)?
Is this like closing the barn door after the horse escaped? Let’s level: When I ask whether it’s possible to smother an idea to death, I’m really asking whether it’s desirable, from a strategic standpoint, to attempt it. Is it a wise move? Or have the dangerous ideas already permeated the culture to such an extent that, like oxygen to a fire, trying to suppress them will only fan the flames and convince the others of the righteousness of their cause while making us, the left, look like authoritarian ninnies and handing rhetorical weaponry to the other side?
Recently, in a video that went up on Twitter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—one of the most exciting young politicians we have on the left—was asked about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and her answer—my opinion only—was so pitiful as to be depressing:
This isn’t a condemnation of AOC; she was speaking to a Jewish organization, it’s up to every politician to decide which compromises they want to make on which issues, and I certainly don’t believe that a moment I personally find disappointing due to my own personal politics should be used to erase the massive positive impact she’s had and will hopefully continue to have. Instead, the reason I’m bringing it up is because of the reaction of the Twitter user you see above, who called it “incredibly underwhelming.” Two days later, the person who runs that account, Ryan Wentz, was visited by police in California, who apparently insisted that he threatened to kill Ocasio-Cortez. Since then, it’s become apparent that the California police were acting at the behest of the Capitol Police, and that it came about because someone in the replies apparently made an actual threat against AOC. The office of AOC insisted she played no part in reporting Wentz, and the Capitol Police said that, “obviously as you can imagine, anytime there’s anything that could be a perceived threat, we’re going to talk to everybody involved, whether they’re directly involved or indirectly involved”...which, frankly, is ridiculous, because nobody should have to live in a world where they are accountable for the actions of those who respond to a tweet. It’s an absurd standard.
In any case, the story has been covered extensively in right-wing media, from the Daily News to Tucker Carlson, as evidence of the censorious impulse of the left. The annoying thing is, they’re right. Or at least I believe they’re right. It’s been impossible not to notice the ways in which the left has adopted a grievance mindset, in which criticism or disagreement is treated as something more sinister, up to and including “violence.” Remember above when we talked about how the most frustrating parts of an argument made by your ideological opposites are the ones that you kind of agree with, even while disagreeing with the main point? That’s what we have here—we know Tucker Carlson is being manipulative, we know he doesn’t actually care about free speech, but he has, unfortunately, identified a real tendency toward censorship in certain corners of the left, and it seems like this tendency indirectly led to Ryan Wentz being visited by police for a mildly critical tweet.
Now, obviously real threats have to be investigated, and after the storming of the Capitol, the physical safety of congresspeople is a real worry. There is every danger of figures like Trump inciting violence, and even if you believe that the potential for massive outbursts of group violence are overstated, the fear of a random angry man with a gun is legitimate. Still, this state of affairs should be separate from the realm of political ideas.
There are some who argue that no idea, no matter how egregious or how much influence it gathers, should be prohibited. This feels extreme to me, but I wonder now if the looser standards for censorship, and the new power put in the hands of social media companies, isn’t worse. If that practice becomes normalized, the slippery slope is obvious; they can censor any idea they don’t like, and leftists might be the next targets. Plus, even if we hate the ideas that are currently being scrubbed, doesn’t it signal weakness? Doesn’t it signal that we’re so scared that the only way to defeat the idea is for our powerful cultural institutions to pretend it doesn’t exist? And, while admitting to the effectiveness of individual de-platforming measures, doesn’t that fear strengthen the argument, make it seem more potent, and thus make it harder than ever to put the genie back in the bottle?
None of us on the left want to believe that American fascism is an idea whose time has come, just like a rich Democratic centrist doesn’t want to believe that, say, Medicare for All is an idea whose time has come. But the risk of censorship is that you wipe out the good ideas with the bad, and in the end, you can’t suppress them for very long anyway. Placing a lid on a pot of water only makes it boil faster, and a sense of being silenced only empowers the convictions people hold. Maybe, if an idea can’t be defeated in the open field of battle, it can’t be defeated at all, and maybe censorship is the opposite of courage.