‘In My Isolation, I Searched for Sanity on the Internet’

A collection of reader concurrences and dissents with responses.

Andrew Cullen / Reuters

Last month, I argued that the left’s rhetoric can sometimes fuel support for the populist right and that folks who want to defeat its most bigoted incarnations should act accordingly. For example, they should cease mislabeling others “alt-right” so promiscuously and study up on the factors that trigger authoritarian tendencies.

The whole article is here. Lots of people responded to it. Below I’ll air a selection of concurrences and dissents. And I’ll begin by highlighting two common misreadings:

  1. Some critics imagined me to be arguing that the left is morally responsible for bigotry on the right. But as I wrote, “no one deserves racism or authoritarianism” and “no one is morally responsible for its ills other than its perpetrators.” Note the distinction between the claim that rhetoric on the left can cause some people to move right and the totally distinct proposition that the left bears moral responsibility for whatever choices those people make.
  2. Other readers took me to be counseling the left to stop objecting to bigotry. In fact, I wrote that the phenomenon I was describing “doesn’t mean ceasing to fight racism or sexism … or refraining from telling the truth about them. It doesn’t mean thoughtlessly accepting every smug claim of ‘that’s how you got Trump,’ or excusing the GOP for its culpability in elevating a misogynist bigot.” As ever, I would advise all Americans to actively oppose racism and sexism.

A civic discourse that forces writers to answer for arguments that they explicitly disavowed benefits no one.

There are many ways that rhetoric on one side of the political spectrum affects the other side. Some correspondents suggested possible mechanisms that I did not address. Austin Anthis emailed, “I was a moderate student at Duke University and found myself so attacked for my beliefs there that I would escape into my room and watch conservative pundits talk some ‘sense’ that I could not find on campus. I’ve seen what you described take place in my own life. I hope people take it to heart.”

I wondered, Exactly what views were others attacking? Was he advocating for racism? Sexism? Torture? The return of prohibition? Some views ought to be savaged. He was gracious enough to clarify on the record. He began by writing about his formal training as an RA and the norms inculcated by his boss and coworkers:

One memorable example…

Another RA expressed concern about a “Trump” sign hanging outside a resident’s window. There seemed to be unanimous consent in the room that the sign was inappropriate or at least undesirable and my boss made that explicit. She said that although policy forbade her from taking down some signs without taking down all, she would stop by the resident’s room and “remind them that their behavior affects other people.”

When I voiced concern about censoring political speech, I was blasted by a fellow RA who called Trump’s name “hate speech” because of what it represents.

I myself did not vote for Trump and do not respect him. But it was shocking to me that what seemed like the majority of students and faculty would be fine with censoring political speech they disagreed with. The culture was more concerned with silencing dissent than fostering it.

Another example concerned an incident on campus. One morning, a small rope tied in the shape of a noose was found on the main yard. The administration and students were outraged at this overt display of racism.

I was ready to condemn the racist perpetrator with them.

After several days of protests and threats, news slowly leaked that an international student had hung up the noose to text his friends and ask them to “hang out.” While the joke wasn’t the most sensitive or wise, there was absolutely no racist motivation. And yet, I heard students calling for the student’s expulsion. Luckily, I do not think the administration complied, but for my next few years on campus, I would hear students talk about the “noose incident” as an example of pervasive racism on campus. I am as morally opposed to racism as anyone else, but it rubbed me the wrong way when some people insisted on bolstering their claims with stories that were demonstrably false.

[Note: An official Duke investigation attributed the incident to the international student’s “ignorance” of the symbol and “bad judgment.” He was not expelled. Excerpts from his apology are here.]

In these and other scenarios, I felt like there was almost no one who I could confide in without being shamed for my stance. It seemed beliefs as innocuous and bipartisan as the right to political speech on campus were too outrageous to hold. In my isolation, I searched for sanity on the internet. I still remember the first afternoon I discovered the videos of brash conservative pundit Steven Crowder on YouTube. I gorged for hours, feeling pent-up aggression alleviate as I heard someone else condemn the hypocrisy I found at every turn on campus. I found similar refuge in Sam Harris and Ben Shapiro.

With some time and distance between Duke and me, I do not look to them nearly as much. I find Steven Crowder’s habit of mocking his opponents’ appearances petty and annoying and Shapiro’s lack of expressed empathy frustrating. I even listen to NPR these days and regularly read The Atlantic, both of which I consider to be left-leaning (I could not have tolerated more liberal media at Duke than I already received).

However, in the toxic campus environment of incessant virtue-signaling, counter-factual victimhood and thought suppression, I was driven into the conservative ‘intellectual dark web’ where I found solace from the barrage. Duke faculty and students want the world to see things the way they do. But I think they push away all but the most-progressive.

Politically, I stand close to where I did before but I have become embittered by the arguments on the left and view them with much more distaste. Even today, reading the opinion section of the Duke Chronicle will make me angry.

Remember, the point here isn’t whether one agrees or disagrees with the positions that this correspondent staked out—the point is that people like him exist, people who voted against President Trump, do not respect him, and feel inclined to condemn perpetrators of racism, but who reacted against leftist rhetoric, whether rightly or wrongly, in a manner that caused a move toward the right.

Whether or not that should happen, it does happen.

I don’t recommend that anyone ground their politics in reaction. There will always be people on every side who behave badly. And neither the left nor the anti-Trump coalition can totally purge themselves of people who attack others unfairly. No broad coalition can.

However, given the narrow margin that propelled Trump to the White House, and the coming contest for Congress, marginal improvement by the anti-Trump coalition that causes fewer people to be attracted to right-populism could be the difference between Trump and the strain of populism he represents winning or being defeated.

Was there a way for the Duke community to risk less negative polarization that didn’t involve ceasing to fight bigotry? Here, Anthis’s classmates could have validated rather than stigmatized his concerns about protecting core political speech and refrained from attacking those who sought an accurate, nuanced understanding of an upsetting campus incident.

In Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral psychology, he argues that conservatives care more than liberals about the moral foundations of loyalty, authority, and purity. People with a predisposition to authoritarianism prize oneness and sameness, the scholar Karen Stenner has said, while those who most typically resist authoritarianism tend to greet difference and diversity with excitement and enthusiasm.

Those asymmetries suggest that liberals will have a much harder time cohering around a politics of oneness, sameness, loyalty, authority, or purity than conservatives. The left coalition relies more heavily on difference-loving people who care less about loyalty or authority. Many of them will rebel against petty orthodoxies.

All that came to mind as I read this email:

As a lefty, one disconcerting trend I’ve noticed among my peers is a growing tendency to avoid nuance, uncertainty, and complexity in discourse. I guess this isn’t a new phenomenon, but it seems to be gaining intensity especially in discussions around appropriation and identity.

My tendency, and I think you can trace it back to the Enlightenment, is to complicate and interrogate truths, not to police them or take them as given.

This tendency comes with a certain amount of rebellion and questioning of authority, not submitting or conforming to norms. A lot of this kind of rebellious, questioning energy seems to be happening on the right, or with thinkers that you might have thought of as “left,” but are moving in some other direction, like Sam Harris. I don’t agree with everything Harris is saying, but I like his style, his method, the way he challenges and complicates things.

...there is a reflexive move for some on the left to resist complicating or adding nuance to their arguments in order to strengthen social cohesion right now. As a lefty, I personally would like a way out of that trap towards a freer, more progressive and life-affirming kind of political discourse.

The reader’s use of the word “trap” is apt.

It is understandable that some leftists are tempted by the notion of a pure, loyal, cohesive coalition, and look enviously upon the right’s greater success at achieving some of those attributes. But attempting to build that sort of left-leaning coalition is almost certain to fail. The liberal left is too diverse and rebellious to make it work. Those eager to interrogate prevailing norms and to embrace nuance, uncertainty, and complexity will go elsewhere rather than adopt a politics of crude stigma.

Here is a possibly correct critique of my article, via Reddit:

...when men call me a FemiNazi for expressing what I believe to be fair and reasonable feminist ideas, it does #1) piss me off and #2) make me less inclined to engage with anything else they have to say. There is a loss of trust that they are willing to engage with me in good faith, so why waste my time? I do not think it makes me more "radical", though. As in, I don't think "fuck you now I think men are scum." BUT, over time, do I become 'more feminist' as a natural result of spending more of my time in feminist safe spaces and less time with centrists and conservatives?

Well, I dunno, maybe. Seems plausible at least.

That said, I don't think that this kind of marginal influence matters enough to start up a big argument amongst leftists concerning our collective tone. I have a feeling that people who are naturally inclined to be inflammatory/ combative are going to behave that way despite any warnings from their peers about how it could alienate the other side.

I do think it matters enough, but I could well be wrong.

Here’s another Reddit user : “This idea that the left is making the right more racist needs to die a thousand deaths. This shit only goes in one direction, too. Nobody claims that far leftists were driven there by the right.” Even skipping past how the Redditor misstates my actual argument, I must say I am baffled by this response.

Of course rhetorical effects don’t go “in one direction.”

The right’s rhetoric has caused millions of people, including many who are reading this article, to move left in their voting patterns or their ideological allegiances.

Donald Trump provides a glaring example. Trump’s bigotry toward immigrants and Muslims will, I would wager, hurt the GOP with millennial and Hispanics for a generation, much as Pete Wilson’s inflammatory campaign against Proposition 187 cost the California GOP a generation of the youth and Hispanic vote in exchange for a single term in the 1990s.

More broadly, the leftist response to Trump has labeled itself “the resistance,” taken to the streets in “nasty woman” t-shirts, and drawn many into activism for the first time. Of course needlessly inflammatory rhetoric on the right helped push people there.

Chas Licciardello posits that it is impossible to understand the mechanism by which people on one side are driven into the other’s arms without using the word “tribe.”

He writes that politics today is less ideological than tribal:

So when Trump takes over the Republican tribe, the supposed ideology of that tribe immediately goes about transforming itself to incorporate Trump's ideology. People who two years ago were passionately pro free trade and "candidate rectitude" are now protectionist and feel candidate morality is irrelevant... people perceive news through the lens of their particular tribe and its biases. These strong tribal ties also mean that if someone joins a tribe because of one or two common characteristics or beliefs, they are likely to be quickly socialised into that tribe. Many of their other characteristics and beliefs will become harmonised. That doesn't mean Stepford-style conformity. But cognitive dissonances are likely ironed out, so potential unnecessary conflicts are erased.

He goes on to argue that some affinities are more powerful than others. “If I happen to like country music,” he writes, “that is unlikely to turn me into a Republican, all other things equal. But if I happen to be really into gun rights and the pro-life agenda, I am very likely to end up culturally a Republican in every respect.”

The most powerful affinity of all, he posits, is shared resentment:

When two people hate the same groups, they can build an extremely strong relationship without even noticing that they disagree on almost everything else.

How does all this apply to the matter at hand?

We are in a period of great political upheaval, so traditional tribal alignments are being shaken up. There are a lot of free agents floating around, ready to be realigned. In this context, a Liberal encounters a moderate conservative. The Liberal alienates the conservative. The first thing that does is ensure the conservative will NOT join the liberal’s tribe. It removes any chance of socialisation with the left occurring over time.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll join the Trump tribe:

Maybe that conservative resents tribes... But in the vast majority of instances that will not be the case, and that conservative will remain receptive to other tribes.There are many tribes that conservative could find themself bonding with. Maybe they will end up in the academic, security-focussed, NRO-conservative bubble. Maybe they'll end up in the paleocon Daniel Larison-type conservative bubble. Maybe they'll end up in the economic reforming Ponnuru/Lanhee Choi type conservative bubble. Maybe they'll end up in the Reason-oid soft libertarian type bubble.

One thing you know for sure, though, is this moderate conservative will be nursing a fresh resentment of Liberals, and will be likely to bond with people who are also nursing a resentment of Liberals. The stronger those people resent Liberals, the more likely this newly aggrieved individual will be to bond with them. And some of the strongest resentments towards Liberals are found in the alt-right/MAGA wing of conservatism. So what these Liberals have done is to reduce the chances of that conservative being socialised with liberals to zero.

And they have increased the chances of that conservative being socialised with MAGA-heads from close to zero to a substantially higher number. It could be 5%. It could be 30%. Whatever that chance is, it's a lot more than it was. Because the MAGA-heads and the conservative now have a super-powerful social lubricant, thanks to the Liberals.

It has nothing to do with "oh you called me alt-right, so i'm going to hate Jews.” It's more like, "you told me to fuck off, so i went looking for new friends. I found some friends who agreed that you are a dick. And we're getting along well now. I don't care what they think about other stuff, they are my friends and we have fun together." And then, 6 months later, it's "I'm not on board with that Jew-hating stuff, but my new friends are spot on about the budget and bias at CNN." And then 6 months later, it's "My new friends are also right about X, Y, Z. Man Liberals are so stupid. How can they not see X, Y and Z?" And before you know it that person who was once receptive to liberal ideas is now 95% alt-right.

I’d characterize the mechanism that this reader proposes as unproven but quite plausible. And it ought to provoke introspection among those of you who say, “If someone joined the alt-right based on what the left said they were headed there regardless.”

Are you sure?

A related mechanism that another Redditor describes is worth considering:

It's not that calling someone an alt-righter for saying non-PC things will push someone to the alt-right. That might be a problem for a tiny minority, but I honestly don't think that is a real concern that will affect most people.

The real problem, IMHO, is that when you make expressing reasonable viewpoints so taboo that people are afraid to speak about them openly, it forces any discussion about those issues to move out into fringe circles, and those fringe circles are where people espouse viewpoints that are actually dangerous... Consider the fairly self-evident notion that when it comes to sexual misconduct there's a spectrum of misbehavior, from fairly benign to utterly vile. Is it really so outrageous to suggest that idea that one deserves to be pilloried in the media until they apologize for it?

In the same way that putting marijuana and LSD into the same category as meth and heroin forces people to go to seedy areas and deal with unscrupulous people to indulge in something fairly innocuous, making legitimate viewpoints so verboten forces many conversations around those ideas to move towards less reasonable circles. Once there, people run a far greater risk of getting caught up in ideas which are truly reprehensible.

A thorny case of leftist rhetoric and its effects comes from a reader who begins by characterizing himself: “I am a liberal, politically active, middle-aged white male and live in Oakland, the heartland of the political left.” He wrote about the term “white privilege” as it is used in his community. “I appreciate the attempt to create self-reflection and awareness of the relative treatment experienced by many minorities,” he explained, but “without going into personal details of my life, I can assure anyone that I have enjoyed very little of what I would refer to as any type of ‘privilege.’ It is the epitome of a generalization that is over-inclusive… To reduce all white people's understanding of the experience of any other race as nothing more than the experience of privilege invites a dangerous duality that will provide little benefit to the progressives who think they are enlightening the world instead of benighting it.”

In his telling, “the incessant use of the term ‘white privilege’ has led to a large number of arguments and alienated me from many progressive friends and colleagues, with semantics essentially pushing me to the right as you noted in your article.”

Now, without more details, it is hard to know whether this reader is being oversensitive to reasonable characterizations or responding understandably to folks who are misusing the privilege framework as a cudgel and indulging in pernicious stereotypes. I could sketch hypotheticals that would fit either conclusion.

Perhaps his acquaintances should keep talking just as they are anyway. Really. I’ve defended the privilege framework as one of many useful if imperfect lenses for understanding the world, and recommended Peggy McIntosh’s essay setting it forth. Insofar as people trying to accurately describe reality believe they can best do so by invoking white privilege, they ought to keep on doing so, whether they happen to be right or wrong, regardless of whether or not some observers are alienated.

At the same time, everyone invoking the concept should take care to avoid the pitfalls inherent in any broad racial generalization. And those who invoke the term with the motivation of advancing social justice would do well to consider all the ways it could do more to retard than advance their desired ends. One nuanced treatment of these matters is The Perils of Privilege by Phoebe Maltz-Bovy, an advocate for social justice who is sympathetic to the ends of those who invoke the framework but ultimately concludes that there are some better alternatives on offer.

A reader from Tucson writes:

I eagerly await your article that is titled:  

“How Prolific & Constant Lying By the Right Irritates Everybody Else & Is Bad for America: What Will Make Them Stop Making Shit Up? Why Are They Such Babies When Challenged by Reality?” But I am not holding my breath.

I’d hate to leave any Arizonan waiting to exhale.

And fortunately, I‘ve already published articles as responsive to this one’s concerns as “Sean Hannity Failed to Tell His Viewers the Truth,”  “Trump’s Brazen, Effective Lie,” “The False Accuser in Chief,” “Breitbart’s Astonishing Confession,” “The Bad Faith of James O’Keefe,” “Trump Didn’t Tell the Truth on Russia,” “Faking Toughness on Terrorism,” “Scott Adams’ Nihilistic Defense of Donald Trump,” and “Why Donald Trump’s Russia Denials Can No Longer Be Believed.”

Finally, a critic writes:

There's also, notably, absolutely no call to "the right" in this article. The onus for civility and reasonableness and charity and good will is entirely on the left in his telling of it. He argues that assigning blame isn't the point, but the entire article assigns all of the blame to "the left." Every paragraph is a tsk-tsk about how "the left" needs to be more accurate and reasonable about their critiques of the right and the alt-right.

Not once does Friedersdorf mention that, hey, maybe Republican politicians or writers at the National Review should reconsider their blanket condemnations and misrepresentation of SJWs or liberals or progressives––in this telling, "the left" bears this responsibility in isolation.

Longtime readers know I’ve always been among the most outspoken critics of the worst failures in movement conservatism (National Review in the Trump era is not among them!).

As for the alt-right, the critic treats criticism like a bullet at a shooting range: one aims, fires, and destroys a clay pigeon. But I’ve long regarded criticism as more of a crucible. I’ve always hoped my advice to the left and right strengthens each into the best version of itself, believing that a thriving country needs both to be healthy. There is a reason that I have not offered strategic advice to the alt-right about how to better win converts or sustain its future: I believe the alt-right to be a substantively bigoted, irredeemable ideological movement. I want its loyalists to defect even as it is utterly weakened by its adversaries in America’s left and right coalitions.