In a previous blog, I mentioned how 1930s liberals and 1960s liberals were strange bedfellows, despite some shared principles. The same could be said of post-1960s liberals and post-1980s liberals. The continuity comes with shared progressive goals on social, economic, and environmental fronts, as well as in foreign policy. The fault line runs along the general concept of political correctness and the specific idea of policing offensive speech. (And even in this area, we share a long-term vision of a society less hamstrung by hate and prejudice, although we differ on how best to get there.)
The 1960s hippie liberalism was more wide open in what forms of expression were to be tolerated. The conservative “Establishment” culture of war, money, and machines was held in place by conventional restraints on what to say, what to think, what to wear, how to live and with whom. The hippie idea was to break down all conventional restraints and open up free expression, whether in clothing, thought, speech, or lifestyle and communal forms of organization. Let everyone express themselves freely at the communal table, without fear of reprisal, and even offensive speech will be recontextualized and find its natural level.
1980s liberalism in some ways took a 180-degree turn. The 1980s paradigm shift in liberalism was largely academia-driven, as opposed to the grass-roots, street-level, lifestyle-based paradigm of the hippies. 1980s liberalism introduced the idea of speech codes and of standing ready with a stifling challenge should anyone say anything offensive, especially on topics of race and gender.
Although I share the progressive goals of my 1980s liberal colleagues, and I sympathize with the idea of foreclosing particularly hateful speech before it becomes toxic, I think a cost-benefit analysis favors the 60s approach. The risk of the 60s approach is that hateful speech, if tolerated, can become toxic. The benefit of the 60s approach is that everything is aired unfiltered, ideological fault lines on issues like race and gender are exposed, not hidden, and are more likely to be dealt with in a swift and communal manner. The benefit of the 80s approach is that there is less toleration of prejudicial ideas and therefore a lesser risk of those ideas going toxic. I see two risks to the 80s approach. The first is that the prejudicial attitudes go underground, where they might coagulate and do more harm. Were this the only risk, I’d say the benefit of the 80s approach outweighs the risk. Better to marginalize hate groups than to tolerate them too easily in the mainstream.
The second risk, more problematic in my mind, involves a kind of self-censorship that affects the whole community and not just the hateful minority. With very smart people parsing every speech act for implications that might be hurtful to this or that demographic group, regardless of intent, discourse in general becomes a little icier, less open.
Consider two periods of my own life. In my days as a blues-joint bartender in Austin, I had a motley circle of friends who would go out frequently in random combinations of black, white, Hispanic, male, female, gay, straight, working class rowdies, and scholarly grad students. This involved many late nights of deep conversation and frequent banter of a wildly “politically incorrect” stamp. Then, in the very late 80s, as a graduate student and then faculty member, my circle was composed largely of academic (English and related departments) liberals. Although I benefited greatly from the intellectual milieu, the halls of academia fostered a tendency to pause and filter before every utterance, lest someone catch you in an utterance that inadvertently validated the dreaded dominant paradigm. Although I share to this day the political goals of “academic liberalism,” the “lifestyle liberalism” of my unfiltered, anarchistic days in Austin produced warmer, deeper, heart-to-heart connections across demographic lines, albeit with some topsy-turvy moments along the way. As a capsule community, the Austin group was probably closer to the long-term progressive ideal of a society that is open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact.
Still, the differences between post-60s and post-80s liberalism are not absolute. Although my center of gravity is post-60s, I don’t say that anything goes. Harassment (e.g., writing hateful speech on someone’s dorm door) or using racial or gender slurs in the presence of one’s employees should be codified violations subject to swift and severe punishment. I agree with the U.S. Supreme Court that some speech warrants only limited protection and some none at all. But in the vast mess of rough-and-tumble discourse that is not subject to legal scrutiny, the lines of what is tolerable get blurry, and must be negotiated not only by 60s and 80s liberals but by and with our conservative friends as well.
As to where to go from here, I’d like to think we can back off a little on the gotcha readings of speech acts by others. Post-structural theory has taught us that we can always extract varied and contradictory meanings, including offensive ones, from every speech act. But that doesn’t mean we should do it. Especially where there is no offensive intent, where someone perhaps less politically or academically up-to-date than us implies something that current academic practice has deemed unfit, public attack or humiliation is probably not the best fix. Why alienate a potential ally over an unintended faux pas? Better to give a gentle nudge or a good-natured counterpoint. Even where the intent is malicious, or favors older paradigms that are clearly inequitable, all out attack or humiliation may not be warranted (although it may be, on a case-by-case basis).
Mandela and Gandhi are great examples of political activists who always stood up to bigotry but never wrote off the bigot. When Mandela entered the prison on Robben Island, his white guards were predictably brutal, and yet he never gave up on them; he engaged them, believing that “our occupation of the moral high ground could make it possible for us to turn some of the warders round,” and as years passed he won many of them over into “appreciating our cause” (Anthony Simpson’s biography, 214, 275, Part II passim). And how, Gandhi asked, could he be angry with his enemies when “I know that they sincerely believe that what they are doing today is right” (Autobiography, 166). Gandhi’s bottom line is that “it is quite proper to resist and attack a system” but one should never “attack its author” (242). My concern is that perhaps too much of our current critical practice has veered into that ad hominem zone, making it more difficult to see that, like it or not, we are all on this journey into the future together.
So when it comes to sensitive subjects, we never need to countenance overt bigotry, but we can err in favor of behaving generously to each other rather than humiliating each other for wrong-headed ideas or statements. When it comes to our own behavior, I’d rather speak unfiltered, make my mistakes, and make my adjustments, than interact with others in a partially shut-down mode to avoid some unintentional offense.
And now I welcome any feedback from my post-80s liberal colleagues, whose point of view I value but to which I am not entirely privy, having formed my own political core values largely in the 1970s.