Jackson Doughart
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The war on bigotry

Prince Arthur Herald, 28 May 2014

The Brendan Eich and Donald Sterling controversies would not normally be grouped together, with one being a culture-war defenestration and the other a reaction to race-based thought crime. To refresh your memory: Eich is the former Mozilla CEO who was forced out of his position this spring for having donated $1000 to Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure in California opposing same-sex marriages; Sterling is the owner of basketball’s Los Angeles Clippers, who has been fined 2.5-million dollars and will soon be stripped of his ownership for a surreptitiously-obtained and publicly-disclosed audio recording, in which he counselled his girlfriend not to associate with black people.

But in fact, these incidents are indeed closely linked. For both Eich and Sterling are the subjects in a war on bigotry, which has reached neurotic proportions in America’s hyper-sensitized, media-saturated, and exaggeration-prone political culture. Whatever its purported merits, this “war’s” targeting of private speech and legitimate political participation necessarily impinges on freedom, making the act of eliminating bigotry more dangerous than bigotry itself.

Apart from their official penalties, both men have been convicted in the proverbial court of public opinion, which operates according to the customs of “street justice”. Unlike the legal system, this court doesn’t offer any protections of due process, playing well into the hands of a politically-correct prosecution with little apparent interest in the common good.

Clearly, some attempts to ridicule political correctness are more effective than others, with the less tactful ones giving the impression that bigotry is not real, or that its opposition is a mere ideological posture. To the contrary, bigotry is certainly serious and consequential, particularly when one restricts its meaning to clear examples of animus where actual harm is demonstrable.

The problem is that anti-bigotry activists are irresponsibly nebulous in defining their opponent. It is the act of continuous crusade toward which they aim, feeding on new cases as oxygen for the quest. There is no sense of proportion by which hateful-but-irrelevant actions in 2014 can be judged as minuscule in comparison to their dangerous equivalents of the past. Instead, all cases are mere species of the genus Hate, which must be stamped out with the harshest rigor.

Some populations have undeniably been, and to some degree remain, the subjects of unfair treatment, for which reasonable correction is justified. What is questionable, however, is that the professing of any opinion that offends a qualified victim group is legitimate grounds for action, such as the “mere” tarnishing of a person’s reputation in public, pressuring for someone to lose his or her job, or attempting to circumscribe one’s influence as a speaker or campaigner. Yet it is the very nature of this movement as a crusade—emotional, uncompromising, and bloodthirsty rather than sober, reasoning, and forgiving—which leads to its indiscriminate and ever-expanding pool of targets. There is no such thing as a moderate crusade.

And so the purpose has been not to educate society out of its prejudices or to rehabilitate those with beyond-the-pale opinions, but rather to effectively ruin people with whom one disagrees. Not only have neither Eich nor Sterling actually harmed anyone, but their offenses can’t even be characterized as aiding or provoking harm by others. Their “crimes” are, in other words, entirely made up in the minds of the crusaders.

One doesn’t have to be a rabid right-winger to see the liberal value in resisting this hysteria. In his book Virtually Normal of 1995, Andrew Sullivan argued emphatically that liberalism is for bigots too. The key, he wrote, was to preserve a valuable distinction between private and public, in which the public side would actively protect vulnerable groups with relevant state institutions, while dissenters and even bigots would be substantively free to espouse and even promote their views unencumbered.

It is encouraging that some progressives can display a penchant for civil libertarianism in this way. Discouraging, though, is the result of this compromise. Since the state has taken on the role of primary institutional protector for vulnerable groups, I have seen no sign of an increased tolerance for letting bigots be bigots. If anything, it has empowered the “anti-bigots” to exact their spite not only on real racists, but also to imaginary offenders such as Eich and Sterling.

The solution to this mob mentality, like the problem, lies in the culture and not the government or the law. It would be brutally ironic, but counter-intuitive, for conservatives who don’t believe in protected groups to pragmatically agitate for victim status of their own, given the “privilege” of the Left today. And the law, with its protection of privacy and democratic rights, provides a false sense of security in a minefield-ridden public square. What is ultimately needed is a significant reordering of the “social contract” governing participation in the deliberations of civil society, which would hopefully produce a less-hostile, less-vengeful, and more charitable forum for pursuing improvements to the culture.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com