The Culture of Shut Up

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

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.

I don’t want those voices to drown out the diverse and compelling voices that now have a better chance of making it in front of us than ever before—even as we still have a ways to go. And what I think we have to do, then, to protect this new wonderful thing of ‘a good idea can come from anyone anywhere’—is we need to stop telling each other to shut up. We need to get comfortable with the reality that no one is going to shut up. You aren’t going to shut up. I’m not going to shut up. The idiots aren’t going to shut up.

We need to learn to live with the noise and tolerate the noise even when the noise is stupid, even when the noise is offensive, even when the noise is at times dangerous. Because no matter how noble the intent, it’s a demand for conformity that encourages people on all sides of a debate to police each other instead of argue and convince each other. And, ultimately, the cycle of attack and apology, of disagreement and boycott, will leave us with fewer and fewer people talking more and more about less and less.

In the past week, the CEO of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, one of the company’s co-founders, was forced to resign over his support for Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage law that passed in a 2008 California referendum before it was later struck down by the courts. But this is only the most recent example.

Here’s a list of some other people who were told to shut up, off the top of my head:

The Chick-fil-A guy was told to shut up about gay people.

Martin Bashir was told to shut up about Sarah Palin.

Paula Deen was told to shut up by everyone because her stuff was racist and crazy.

A columnist in the Guardian told a woman to shut up about her cancer.

Dylan Farrow was told to shut up about Woody Allen.

Stephen Colbert was told to shut up about satire, I think?

The Duck Dynasty guy was told to shut up about gay people.

Alex Wagner was told to shut up about needlepoint.

Natasha Legerro was told to shut up about veterans.

Alec Baldwin was also told to shut up about gay people. This one comes up a lot.

Mike Huckabee was told to shut up about women.

The Whole Foods CEO was told to shut up about Obamacare.

Richard Sherman was told to shut up about winning while being black, I guess.

I am not comparing what these people were told to shut up about, or saying some of these examples aren’t offensive or stupid or vicious or wrong, often combinations of any or all of those things. And the truth is, these cycles of pearl-clutching followed by either abject sorrow or banishment are of course driven by news outlets looking to score a few hits or viewers by drumming up controversy.

But they’re also driven by us, as viewers and readers, all of us part of the culture of shut up. It plays out in the defining down of “hate speech” on liberal college campuses and in the defining down of “anti-American” at conservative conferences. And for every public example there are countless private ones, playing out on Facebook pages and Twitter feeds and I guess Pinterest? I don’t get Pinterest.

Yes, it’s in some ways a natural response to being more connected to one another; we’re just in each other’s faces. But it’s also dangerous. It narrows the visible spectrum of ideas. It encourages people to be safe and cautious and circumspect when we don’t want people to be safe. We don’t want people to be afraid of saying something interesting on the off chance it’s taken the wrong way.

When the Duck person said his crazy thing about the sins of the gays and how nice things were during Jim Crow—which was just wild—Sarah Palin (who maybe didn’t know better) and Governor Bobby Jindal (who definitely knew better) said it was a violation of the his First Amendment rights. And it wasn’t, obviously. The government wasn’t removing anyone from the air. A&E under pressure from GLAAD and others considered removing a reality-show persona from the air. So it wasn’t a First Amendment issue and the fact that that has to be said out loud should make all of us sad. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t speech issues at stake here, which is what at the heart of conservatives' complaint.

The right to free speech may begin and end with the First Amendment, but there is a vast middle where our freedom of speech is protected by us—by our capacity to listen and accept that people disagree, often strongly, that there are fools, some of them columnists and elected officials and, yes, even reality-show patriarchs, that there are people who believe stupid, irrational, hateful things about other people and it’s okay to let those words in our ears sometimes without rolling out the guillotines.

Look, obviously there’s an important counter-argument here. It is natural and healthy that as a society we have deemed certain ideas off-limits. While in this country the government can’t stop you from saying these things, or punish you for having said those things, it’s often good that the personal, financial, and social costs of saying the unsayable are prohibitively high. We all can name examples: hardcore racism and anti-Semitism and misogyny, Breaking Bad spoilers, that kind of thing. And it’s also true that hurtful words about, say, gay people have a disproportionate impact on the vulnerable; it’s easy for me to say bring on the homophobia, but what about the kid in the closet in a conservative neighborhood worried his mom will stumble onto his browser history?

The trouble, I think, is when ostracizing a viewpoint as “beyond the pale” becomes not an end but a means to an end; that by declaring something unsayable, we make it so. It makes me uncomfortable, even as I see the value of it. I for one would love homophobia to fully make it on that list, to get to the point where being against gay marriage is as vulgar and shameful as being against interracial marriage. But it isn’t. Maybe it will be. But it isn’t. And kicking a reality-show star off his reality show doesn’t make that less true. Win the argument; don’t declare the argument too offensive to be won. And that’s true whether it’s GLAAD making demands of A&E or the head of the Republican National Committee making demands of MSNBC.

The bottom line is, you don’t beat an idea by beating a person. You beat an idea by beating an idea. Not only is it counter-productive—nobody likes the kid who complains to the teacher even when the kid is right—it replaces a competition of arguments with a competition to delegitimize arguments. And what’s left is the pressure to sand down the corners of your speech while looking for the rough edges in the speech of your adversaries. Everyone is offended. Everyone is offensive. Nothing is close to the line because close to the line is over the line because over the line is better for clicks and retweets and fundraising and ad revenue.

It’s like a financial bubble. It’s a bubble of subprime outrage and subprime apologies. I just hope we can rationalize the market before this chilling effect leaves us with a discourse more boring and monotone than it already is—a discourse that suits the cable networks and the politicians but not the many disparate voices who occasionally need to say outrageous things because there are outrageous things to say.

And there are real consequences to the outrage bubble. When Congress was debating the debt ceiling, one of the sticking points was a set of changes to the military-pension system. You don’t even have to take a position on these changes to say that it’s a reasonable debate: whether we should save money in the defense budget by reducing the rate of increase in pension benefits received by veterans who are younger than retirement age.

Agree, disagree, you’re not crossing the line, right? Wrong: Supporting this proposal is described, over and over again, as “sick” and “obscene” and “offensive.” Do we really want to make policy this way? Do we want our already timid and craven elected officials to have even more to fear?

I’ll be honest: In my own small way I feel the chilling effect. I’m in a fortunate position that nobody really cares what I say, but even so, occasionally I’ll make a dumb joke on Twitter and the next thing I know it’s on a whole bunch of conservative websites that exist to catch liberals crossing the line. As much as I can pretend otherwise, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me hold back just a little, doubt myself a little, on occasion. And while it’s hard to measure the absence of speech, measure the things unsaid, I have little doubt that others on all sides are feeling the same chilling effect, only more so because people do care what they have to say.

The First Amendment’s protections have always put a great deal of responsibility in our hands: not only to respect the power of our own speech, but also to respect that same power in the hands of people we despise. We all have more of that power now. And I for one think that’s great. Yes, there are those who would say otherwise. David Brooks says we have a “followership problem,” that our lack of trust in institutions is less caused by their poor performance than by the fact we are “cynical and like to pretend that [we’re] better than everything else around [us.]” “Vanity,” he says, “has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.” Maureen Dowd talks about the “nightmare” of an America that “runs on clicks.”

I should go beyond the New York Times op-ed page but those were just the most annoying examples I remembered. But there are many others—big platforms all—who would tell us to fear the future, to fear the havoc the Internet is wreaking on journalism, to fear a world in which every event, every public utterance must face the gauntlet of Twitter and Facebook. They’d suggest the cacophony of links and hits and likes and retweets, the triumph of the buzzworthy and the Upworthy, are no replacement for a few trusted outlets—the nightly news, major newspapers, weekly magazines, etc.—that everyone experienced together.

I reject this argument. And I reject it for the simple reason that all the chaos and competition is worth it—for all its many downsides, for all the garbage and gossip—if a few loud voices no longer control the story. But that only works if we don’t try to replace one tyranny with another, one narrow band of views with another narrow band of views, if we can live with the noise, even embrace the noise, without trying to drown each other out.

This essay is adapted from a speech given at Loyola Marymount University on February 11, 2014, during its annual First Amendment Week.