The Culture of Shut Up

Too many debates about important issues degenerate into manufactured and misplaced outrage—and it's chilling free speech.
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Albert Gea/Reuter

There once was a remote village deep in the rainforest that had no contact with the outside world. And in this small village there were only three village elders who had the ability to speak. So they were in charge. And they’d have arguments. One would say, “I support a woman’s right to choose.” Another would say, “I oppose a woman’s right to choose.” And then the third would say, “A real debate here on a woman’s right to choose. When we come back, Justin Bieber arrested!”

Now if you were one of the many villagers who didn’t have a way to speak, you just hoped that one of the three elders who could speak would make the argument you wanted to make. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. And it was okay, but it bothered you that these three voices didn’t really speak for everybody. They were, after all, pretty rich and all one color. (Green. These were green people.) And they didn’t really understand what it was like to be aqua or purple or gay or poor like you were. You’re a gay poor purple person. They tried to cover the whole world, but generally they focused on what was on the minds of green people from the big cities who watched Mad Men and went to Middlebury.

And even as the elders spoke with confidence and seriousness, it felt like they kept getting it wrong. They invaded neighboring villages, occasionally the wrong village altogether. They trusted the CEOs of the village banks even after they plunged the village into a Great Village Recession and then went right back to village business as usual as if it never happened. They built a massive village prison system that punished non-violent village offenders at higher rates than anywhere else in the rainforest. They rigged the village economy against the interests of ordinary villagers in favor of those with close ties to the three elders, those who had donated money to their village campaigns, lobbied their village offices.

Then one day you found this rock and you realized that you could use the rock to write on a leaf. And so you developed a written language and taught it to everyone. And at the big village meetings, when the three elders at the front would have their arguments, villagers could participate. People would write things like, “I agree with you and appreciate your position.” Or “I hope you get cancer and die.” Or “Here’s a picture of what I ate for lunch.” Or “Please stop drawing pictures of food, no one cares what you ate for lunch.” Or “Check out this cat in a shoebox because adorable.”

But it turned out by the time we finally had this great way to communicate in our hands, we were already so angry and suspicious that the rock and leaf became a way to vent our frustrations not just as the elders but at each other.

Bill says, “I support single-payer village healthcare.”

And then Mary writes, “Bill is a faggot communist.”

And then Ted says, “I won’t shop at Mary’s boutique until Mary apologizes to Bill.”

Then Angela says, “Stand with Mary against the assault on her freedom of speech!”

And then Bill says, “Angela is a racist.”

And Jeff says, “Anyone who shops at Mary’s boutique is a racist.”

And Ted says, “Check your privilege.”

And Mary says, “I don’t remember who I am in this story but I’m furious.”

And then someone writes, “FUCKK YOU TED!!1!” in all caps with a bunch of typos.

Soon there were really only two kinds of messages people would write—either vicious personal attacks, or self-righteous calls for apology—until eventually the villagers, angry and exhausted and sick of the noise and rancor just started pelting each other with the rocks until all the rocks were broken and all the leaves were shredded and finally in the silence, after the dust had settled, the villagers shrugged their shoulders, and turned back toward the smug and satisfied village elders who were just waiting for their chance to regain supremacy—just waiting for the moment when the villagers would come crawling back, desperate to be led, desperate for the reassuring simplicity of the old order, of the establishment, of the way things used to be.

And that’s the story of that village.

Anyway, I was thinking about the First Amendment and the freedom of speech, and what lessons I could draw on my time in politics, working for then-Senator Hillary Clinton and our first foreign-born president, Barack Obama, and I kept coming back to a quote by Homer Simpson. Now when I Googled this quote it turned out to be from 1997, which made me realize I am reaching the age when my references stop at a certain year in the culture, and that while you know the Simpsons, that episode aired just after today’s college freshmen were born and the fact is eventually we all return to the earth.

Anyway, Homer Simpson once said that alcohol is the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems. And I kept thinking: That’s actually a pretty good description of the Internet and how it’s changing our discourse. It’s basically the cause of, and solution to, everything that plagues our culture.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. The Internet didn’t cause Donald Trump, and it certainly can’t solve Donald Trump. The way you defeat Donald Trump is by getting the ring of power into the hands of a pure soul, a hobbit, say, and that hobbit must journey to Mount Doom and release the ring into its fires. But the Internet: Did you know that every single day, the Internet produces more speech than was created between the dawn of civilization and the year 2006? You didn’t know that, because I just made it up. But it feels true. We are all bombarded. We are drowning in information. It’s no longer thrown on our doorstep each sunrise, or even just broadcast into our living rooms; it’s in our hands every waking hour; the endless stream of talking, as we spend all day moving our eyes from screen to screen to screen; it’s the first thing we see each morning and the last thing we see before we go to bed. The shower is the last safe space, which is why it’s the only place where we have decent ideas anymore.

In many ways this is good and getting better: We have unlocked the gates and we are removing the gatekeepers. We aren’t beholden to the views of the three green elders in the village. (See, I tied it back.) But what happens next—how we face the downside of so much connectedness—will determine whether or not this revolution empowers us, or once again empowers those gatekeepers. And I don’t want that to happen, because those gatekeepers suck. They’re arrogant and easily swayed by big, nice-sounding dangerous ideas; they’re ambitious and careerist and forgetful and unimaginative and shortsighted; they’re subject to groupthink, beholden to corporate interests, and enamored of fame and power.

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Jon Lovett is a writer based in Los Angeles. He previously served for three years as a speechwriter to President Obama in the White House.

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