The past few years have seen college campuses, with characteristically dramatic and maladroit gusto, thrust themselves back into the heart of our continent’s culture wars. The politically correct (PC) left of the ‘90s has come back with a roaring vengeance, mobilizing factions of both the left and right into a resistance against the policing of speech.
In one of his less controversial statements, Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos bisected the battleground not along the traditional line of left and right, but rather of libertarian and authoritarian.
This alliance of ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ could very well be a novelty in the decades-old free speech debate; in the ‘60s and ‘70s, liberals fought against the speech-curtailing stances of their conservative opposition. But a blurring of the distinction between the two groups may not be wise. The alt-right insurgency has proven time and again that, for many on the right, the defense of free speech simply acts as a guise for more dangerous impulses.
Here at U of T, a number of student-led movements and Facebook groups created in the wake of the Jordan Peterson affair have adopted this façade. Whatever your stance on the issue, Peterson raised and continues to raise important concerns over compelled speech, governmental and social authoritarianism, and the influence of partisanship on culture.
The controversy galvanized the university, and provided classical liberals and so-called ‘cultural libertarians’ of both the left and right with an articulate and reasoned critique of PC ideology. But, as has been the case in all the clashes characterizing this feud, a sizable fraction of the coalition’s right side broke from valuable discourse on speech, and devolved into a consortium of Neanderthal memes and openly avowed racism and anti-Semitism. They perverted Peterson’s stance on preferred gender pronouns into an apologia of hatred for trans people, and they took the defense of free speech proffered by their moderate counterparts and weaponized it for use against Jews, Muslims, women, and other communities.
Now, with the rise of Trumpism, the same people see their casual violence reflected in the conduct of the most powerful person on Earth. I see no fault in a rebellion against the speech standards of the modern left and, as a true liberal, I am alive to the dangers posed by a relentless retrenching of ‘what is okay to say out loud.’ But absolutely nothing excuses the mendacity and malevolence of the student alt-right. To call these nascent social-media uprisings defenses of speech is frankly absurd.
I have idly observed a handful of the Facebook groups born from support for Professor Peterson’s initial comments through to the rise of President Trump, and watched as the groups morphed into hateful echo chambers. Many were created with the intention of stimulating useful conversation on the nature of speech, but none have so remained.
More than anything, these groups now serve as Trump fan pages at best, and havens for the most ideologically backward opinions out there at worst. Much of what is posted in the way of prejudice comes as an agitated response to the left’s undue proclamations of racism and bigotry: this is not to say that these injustices no longer exist, but rather that the left has grown increasingly reactionary.
Some portions of these online postings are thus attributable to trolling, tongue-in-cheek criticisms of the predominately liberal cultural hegemony. It is only natural, especially for younger people — who happen to make up a substantial segment of the online alt-right movement — to reject commanded behavior, and brashly do the opposite.
This is doubly true for those that hold political opinions on the more conservative side of the spectrum, as the left’s apparent hold on morality becomes more and more absolute. Today’s rebel isn’t the Mao-toting hippie or sexual libertarian of the 1960s: it is the alt-right troll. People with legitimate concerns about illegal immigration, government overreach, the infusion of Marxist dogma into the left’s platform, and Islamic extremism, tired of being demonized for their beliefs, become self-caricaturizing just to get under the skin of their accusers.
This form of satire is a reasonable rejoinder to oppressive social norms, and, in my opinion, even has a place in a well-functioning democracy. But the line between it and genuine hatred is ill-defined and far too easily crossed. The danger comes with the ease of slipping from one to the other. And what’s more, in its more extreme forms, this protestation is indistinguishable from bigotry.
I would unequivocally identify myself as left of centre, but even I am often moved, by their sheer ridiculousness, to parody my side’s arguments. I do not, however, use this as an excuse to pollute the evolving dialogue on the nature of free speech. This is where I feel the distinction between the left and right halves of the ‘cultural libertarians’ becomes important. The old demons of the right are on full display in its modern incarnation.
The left-leaning, anti-PC crowd seems motivated only by an expansive view of free speech: they see speech as John Stuart Mill did, as a means of arriving at the truth, and as a means to expunge outdated and ineffective thinking from society. Their alt-right counterparts, on the other hand, have transformed a much-needed debate on the limits of expression into a vindication of poisonous trolling. They have found in President Trump a champion of the unverified, and defender of all that falls under the banner of what is considered ‘non-politically correct,’ however vitriolic it may be.
If this debate and revolt against the stultification of the regressive left is ever to yield a constructive outcome, the shrinking moderate right needs to reel in their growing extremist wing. This conversation is far too important to be destroyed by an autocratic politician and his trolling multitudes.
Sean Goldman-Hunt is a fourth-year student in Chemical Engineering, Environmental Engineering, and Sustainable Energy Development.