I’ve been reading Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination with one of our seniors over the last couple of weeks, and we reached the conclusion today, where Frye argues that the study of literature matters because it develops the imagination. This is important because we are constantly bombarded by competing visions of our world and our society. To judge these visions, Frye says, requires a well trained imagination, but like any regimen of training, it can be painful — a truth that is sometimes forgotten in the anodyne phrase “critical thinking.” Racists, sexists, and such are people whose imaginations have failed them — they can’t imagine these other people as having value independent of the quality that offends them, so they resort to cliche, the speech of the mob. But a mob can come from the other side as well, unable to imagine that folks who aren’t Just Like Them aren’t somehow monstrous. They reduce their opponents to cliche, too.
That brings us to Today’s Official Internet Tizzy, which seems connected to Jonathan Chait’s piece at New York magazine that discusses the current efforts of some of the more frantic Victimhood Decathletes (TM Pending) to suppress discourse. Chait is particularly dismayed at the “blue-on-blue” aspect of this phenomenon, where even people who might generally support a leftward cause are pilloried for any perceived insensitivity to any victimized/marginalized/ionized/Simonized identity group. (I see those moments as a nice chance to munch popcorn, myself, but I’m already a doubleplusungood crimethinker, so I’m probably a poor example.)
Chait is complaining about Marcusean repressive tolerance, of course; accusations of “microaggression”, “triggering”, and the like are simply ad hominem (ad cis-hominem?) attacks themselves, attempting to rule certain speakers, topics, and ideas out of bounds in the name of civility, politeness, or getting along. As Ace notes, however, what is actually happening with some frequency is an effort by various mobs to force compliance — silence, if not self-denunciation and collaboration:
Let me stop right here and offer […] some constructive criticism. It is as this point that the typical Political Correctness Mob Enforcer will object [Here — have an example! Prof. M] and say, “But we’re just using Our Speech to mock Rosin; how can it be ‘anti-free-speech’ to employ our own speech? In fact,you’re ‘anti-free-speech’ person here by attempting to de-legitimize my free speech vis a vis Rosin.”
[…]They’re wrong, but it needs to be said why they’re wrong.
The reason is this: There is a difference between […] rational argument and the coordinated attacks of a mob.
Mobs do not “argue.” They intimidate or humiliate (or both). Mobs do not engage in an enlightened, reasonable dialogue. They shout ritualized chants. Mobs are not interested in persuading someone of their wrongness of their claims; they only care about shutting the speaker up, whether he’s changed his mind or not.
An argument from a single author (or group acting together to write a single paper) is an instrument of reason; a mob which selects a target and then attacks that target with wolf-pack like tactics is an instrument ofemotion.
Human beings are in fact hard-wired, as an evolutionary matter, to cringe before the baying mob; and they are further hard-wired to feel empowered by being part of an angry, screaming mob.
So it’s not quite true that joining up with a mob is “speech” just like any other speech. The “speech” of a mob is emotionally abusive and personally intimidating — and it is hardwired into our brains to find it such, when directed at we ourselves.
In short, what we have here are the old Bolshie questions: “Who? Whom?” And again, if one is a totalitarian sort, for whom everything is judged the area of the State and therefore subject to political scrutiny, everything — including discourse — is seen through the lens of oppressor and oppressed. And if someone has to be the oppressor, by golly, they think it should be them. That’s understandable — reprehensible, but understandable. But you know what? I refuse to accept the contention that I can inadvertently oppress someone simply by being white, male, or straight. Oppression requires intent; it is not an a priori function of my genetic arrangement or cultural inheritance — none of which anyone actually chose from behind some Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance. And if you attempt to render me suspect because of those unchosen qualities, I will treat you with all the scorn and derision I can muster. You may believe yourself to be a victim (although who gets through life unscathed?), but I refuse to accept the label of victimizer, particularly if I’m behaving without malice. I assure you: If I victimize you, it won’t be subtle.
And all this brings us to our QotD, from Reason‘s discussion of Chait’s piece. Commenter “Pro Libertate” observes:
I get that [the people Chait discusses] think that victimization somehow constitutes moral superiority, but that’s not automatically so. People can be shitty human beings and be oppressed, for instance.
It all goes so horribly wrong when one substitutes a class for an individual. Only one of those has morals, can be happy, can suffer.
And none of this will get any better until we develop the imagination to recognize that. Until then, we’re just watching the dueling cliches and suffering in the meantime.