Recent interruptions of Christina Hoff Sommers at Lewis & Clark College (and reactions to Bari Weiss’s New York Times editorial about them), and the Atlantic’s quick hiring and firing of Kevin Williamson, have prompted yet another round of reconsideration and recrimination concerning censorship on campus and in the media and the status of conservative thought. Some prominent young leftists have taken the following view: Conservatives are (almost) all odious trolls. The problem is not, as UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman argued, that provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos are popular among young right-wingers. Rather, conservatism is kind of inherently provocative, concerned always and everywhere with “triggering” liberals. Vox’s David Roberts suggests that conservatism is consistently “morally repugnant”; the Washington Post’s Liz Bruenig tweets that it is concerned with “personally upset[ting] left-wingers” and “stok[ing] fury”; The Week’s Ryan Cooper writes, citing tweets from David Klion, that conservative campus appearances are “fraudulent” and “intended . . . to insult and infuriate . . . students.”
This view is not well-considered. First, it’s incoherent. Klion, who thinks conservatives are trying to “launder discredited hateful ideas into the mainstream,” also believes the problem with Joe Biden is that “he doesn’t hate Republicans enough,” for context. Hate, like so many things, is okay when “we” do it. But if conservatives are really just trolls, then why would they be trying to “launder discredited ideas” (whatever the hell that means)? Either they hold those ideas sincerely or they don’t. If they don’t hold them sincerely, then their motives — even if they’re speaking in bad faith — must be very different. The leftist caricature of the conservative commentator is not just ridiculous; it contains actually contradictory elements. And how would a “launder[ing]” of ideas work, anyway? The critics seem to think that the people expressing such ideas don’t hold them and the people hearing such ideas are offended by them. How in the world is something that (ex hypothesi) nobody believes supposed to end up mainstream?
Second, the use of “mainstream” itself begs the question and more or less crystallizes the problem. What’s considered mainstream on elite college campuses and in prestige publications is very different than what’s entertained or even believed by most Americans. Leftists and liberals believe they have a right to “mainstream” dominance — that top colleges and magazines are, justly or even by definition, left-wing spaces. At the same time, however, they balk at accusations, which often come from precisely the figures they call “trolls,” that such spaces are politicized. The seeming contradiction between the spurious claim to journalistic or academic objectivity and the omnipresent mantra that “everything is political” is actually a synergy: Both of these strategies aim to protect left-wing spaces from the simple observation that they are left-wing spaces, with all the corollaries that an ordinary observer could draw from that. Whether this focus on shoring up elite spaces is strategically sound is another question.
Third, these leftist writers make it seem as though “trolling” and “triggering” are the exclusive purview of conservative commentators. In fact, the vast majority of the most “trolling” content one can find, on elite campuses and in elite media, is intended precisely to “trigger” conservatives, and groups that leftists and liberals see as conservative: Christians, white people, men. Bruenig’s Washington Post presented former Drexel professor (now employed at NYU) George Ciccariello-Maher, attacked for tweeting “All I want for Christmas is white genocide,” as the victim of “a year of enduring unrelenting harassment and death threats for his controversial tweets.” They gave him his own op-ed to defend himself! For a leftist, “I was just trolling” is a defense of their freedom of expression. But against a conservative, “They’re just trolling” is a reason that they ought to be censored. Trolling, like hate, is a weapon only for “us.”
Of course, many more examples of left-wing trolling abound, and few result in the sorts of consequences experienced by Ciccariello-Maher. This is the essence of modern online media. You gin up outrage by saying ridiculous things (perhaps asking “Can My Children Be Friends With White People?” or expressing the necessity of a “concept of white wounding” or trumpeting “the end of white Christian America,” perhaps asking “Is There A Rapist-In-Waiting In Every Guy?” or crowing that “my abortion made me happy” or considering the relationship between grilling and patriarchy, perhaps asking “Is it discriminatory to refuse to date a trans woman?” or “What is the right punishment for blasphemy?” or so forth). Then, once you’ve got a bunch of clicks from outrage, you get a bunch more from saying you’re being mobbed. Bruenig, Cooper, Klion, and Roberts are right to criticize this behavior if they see it from conservative commentators, but wrong to associate it more with conservative writers than with their own publications, and especially with the (left-wing) likes of Slate, Salon, HuffPo, and of course the Gawker diaspora. In one of the most famous cases, a Canadian man was arrested and banned from the Internet for disagreeing with a few feminists. These critics are complaining about the mess in their neighbors’ yard while a trash heap grows ever higher in their own.
Now, let me be clear: There’s no doubt that there is a conservative victimhood culture that mirrors the identity-based victimhood culture conservatives themselves decry. I myself was a little underwhelmed when I saw Sommers speak at George Washington University last year — not by Sommers herself, who I find to be always calm, reasonable, and eloquent, but by the student group that had organized the event, whose members seemed to make little effort to engage the dissenting elements in the crowd, despite the underlying premise that diversity of thought should promote more productive discussions. Williamson himself I can do without. I agree that the more centrist- or conservative-friendly parts of the media probably go overboard with the dozens of articles they write defending Bari Weiss every time she’s criticized (Weiss, after all, still has her very plum post). And if he really makes at least twenty thousand dollars an appearance, it’s hard for me to think Charles Murray has been silenced. The people championed by the ideological diversity caucus are usually not people whose voices we would not otherwise have heard. So if these leftists are simply struggling to express that there may be some deep questions of culture, consistency, focus, and motivation that could rightly be said to challenge the movement for ideological diversity, more power to them. Free speech warriors should take these critiques on board.
What’s more likely, however, is that these Twitter conversations recapitulate organically what Vox’s cofounder Ezra Klein accomplished a decade ago with JournoList: The enormous left-liberal majority in the media, tenuous though some of its internal alliances may be, happily bands together to brainstorm and push through certain “narratives” and crowd out others. Individual instances of firing and “deplatforming,” censorious though they may be, are most troubling as symptoms of a broader phenomenon. But in seeking to shore up their power within this “mainstream,” these writers destroy the power of the very institutions they’re occupying by removing their link to the greater American populace. This is what Freddie deBoer calls “the Iron Law of Institutions.” Another Washington Post columnist, Megan McArdle, herself a frequent target of lefty journos, has taken this view as well. These groups don’t persuade anyone; their machinations merely push away people who don’t already agree. (And make no mistake: persuasion is the modern journalist’s goal; they see the aim of objectivity as an ideological smokescreen no less objectionable in its own way than conservatism.)
Recent history, and particularly the 2016 election, tells us how big a problem this distancing can be. Liberal after liberal at the sorts of publications in question here made it clear they had absolutely no idea what was going through the heads of most of their countrymen. Remember when, despite all polls and all appearances, Jeb Bush was called the frontrunner for the Republican nomination? Remember the asinine sponsorship, by people like Ezra Klein, of Carly Fiorina? Leftists and conservatives both rightly mocked Hillary Clinton for speculating that half of Trump supporters belonged in a “basket of deplorables.” Doesn’t “deplorable” sound a lot like “hateful” or “morally repugnant” to you? The lessons about echo chambers and epistemic bubbles should be abundantly clear.
The inconsistent leftist image of simultaneous “trolling” and “laundering” can be made whole by positing a disastrously untrustworthy and frequently evil electorate underneath it. I think leftists have two main theories of why the electorate could be so awful. One, a kind of neoliberal technocratic picture, has them lashing out against their own inability to compete in a global marketplace. Another, a more classically socialist view, has them more or less brainwashed into “bad faith” and “false consciousness” by powerful interests (the Koch brothers, etc.), who misrepresent the world and their own situation to them, and they’re just too soft-brained to see past it. Neither of these theories suggest much faith in democratic mechanisms.
It’s telling that post-Trump, concerns about the future of “democracy” are almost always more or less explicitly anti-democratic. “Democracy” comes to mean all the things that a popular vote would take away; the will of the people is called “populism,” which is given an authoritarian gloss. Semantic tricks and legal wranglings fill the gaps. These young leftist stars should think hard about just how they’re establishing the “mainstream” they enjoy, and just what that means about the relationship their prestigious schools and publications have to democratic norms and to the many, many citizens who will never find their way onto these sunny campuses or into these heady pages. They should think, too, about what the narrowing of the “mainstream” means for the relevance of their chosen institutions, and about what the rise of alternatives, outside the near-empty “mainstream,” will mean for their precious and hard-fought consensuses.