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A long time ago, in the far distant past of the pre-Trump presidency, I once “liked” a video clip on Facebook featuring Milo Yiannopoulos.

For those of you blessedly unfamiliar, Yiannopoulos was a Breitbart technology editor who became one of the most hated men in America for his coddling of — and then becoming a figure in — the alt-right, making a fool of himself as a buffoonish provocateur, before fading into the night, unemployed, rejected by his fans, broke, and gorging himself on live baby crabs.

At the time, however, I had barely heard of the guy. I have no memory of the actual video I “liked,” and probably wouldn’t have remembered the thing at all, if not for a message I received a few days later from a woman I did not know.

“I can’t believe you would ‘like’ something about Milo!” she wrote.

My first thought was: Hold up, who the hell is Milo, and why is some stranger bothering me about a “like”?

Then I remembered something vaguely about the video. Something must have amused me, or who knows, maybe Yiannopoulos said something I agreed with. You know, maybe he, too, likes pizza and cold chicken. Broken clock twice a day, and all that.

It was only when that message from that stranger settled in that I realized I did a Very Bad Thing by “liking” the video of a Very Bad Person. Shulem Deen liked a video. I imagined the words appearing on this woman’s Facebook page and beneath it Milo’s name and an image of him, stirring her righteous anger at the moral decay of, well, me.

I admit to a passing moment of panic. Had I committed a very egregious sin? Was this Milo a psychopathic criminal? Was he a genocidal maniac? Had he harmed little children? Most importantly, did I owe someone some kind of penance? I wasn’t sure how bad this thing was, and on the chance that I’d committed some very great wrong, I felt ashamed, and a little dirty.

It’s a good thing I know my way around Facebook, and promptly checked my “activity history.” I found the offending “like,” promptly “unliked” it, and felt the lifting of a great burden. I had undone my sin. The Very Bad Thing expunged from the record. My blemish undone. My righteousness regained.

I felt clean again.

*

To be sure, I have since formulated a more concrete opinion about Milo Yiannopoulos. It more or less amounts to “whatever” and an eyeroll. Yiannopoulos was a savvy troll, which our era had brought along with the three-ring hate-circus of Alex Jones, Steve Bannon, and Richard Spencer, as well as the sideshows of Anthony Scaramucci and Rudolph Giuliani, not to mention our hater-in-chief himself. Yiannopoulos seems barely worth a moment’s agitation in the scheme of things.

I had, however, been thinking about the above incident in recent months, unsettled by something else about it: the rush to erase some perceived sin not because I believed I had done wrong, but because someone else did.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of a larger issue: the free speech debate. More specifically, the increasing fear we have about evincing so much as a hint of a dark side, and then having to face the pitchfork-wielding mobs.

Let me come out and say it, then: I have a dark side.

I’ve been known to laugh at an Allie Stuckey clip or two. (She’s a conservative TV person; no need to google.) I thoroughly enjoyed Jordan Peterson’s faceoff with Cathy Newman. (I know, that one’s pretty bad.) And sometimes, late at night, when my mind’s drifting off, I’ll wonder if there’s just a little shred of something to the idea that we should gather evidence and examine facts and question our reasoning before asserting any idea too strongly. It’s a passing whim.

Actually — scratch that. It’s not a passing whim at all. In fact, it sits with me, torments me, makes me toss and turn in the night and wonder what is wrong with me.

But so it is, friends, I sometimes have questions. I am sometimes confused. I sometimes feel like I want to learn, but everyone else has passed the grade where these things are taught, and I’m a little embarrassed to say: can I just ask a question, like, really quick? That thing you just said? Sounded like it had a pretty gaping logical flaw, but maybe I misheard. Can you clarify? 

But I stop myself. There are questions and there are questions, and I was informed just last week by another Internet stranger that my impulse for questions is “conservative and reactionary.” (He knows, somehow.)

Chagrined once again, I felt dirty. Seeking penance. “Conservative and reactionary.” Could it really be?

It couldn’t.

And so there was only one thing to do. Stop caring.

*

It’s hard not to care, though. If so much as a bad “like” earns you a stranger’s reprimand, what can you expect for expressing an actual opinion? I suspect I am not alone in this, but the net effect has been for me to mostly withdraw to my lair, fearful shivers coursing my spine when just contemplating so much as tentatively challenging one or another of the prevailing orthodoxies.

Am I being dramatic? Alarmist? No shiver in your spine? Well, lucky you, because the horror stories are legion, with both social media pile-ons and real-life hot water dunkings for fairly mild missteps.

The Justine Sacco story is perhaps the most famous. Another is that of the engineer at a tech conference joking about a “dongle” and “forking someone’s repo” — nerdy in-jokes about technology — who then very quickly lost his job. Over a tech joke! A woman who’d overheard it thought it sounded sexual, and tweeted about it, causing a social media uproar. The sad thing was that the woman lost her job too, a result of the ensuing social media backlash to the first firing.

Oh, the humanity. Right?

There’s more. So much more.

Brett Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen State College in Washington State, who suggested that maybe kicking white people off campus for a day was not the best idea of progress, had to endure weeks of harassment and accusations of being a white supremacist, until he had to eventually move his family off campus for their physical safety. (Weinstein’s actual political identification was as a Bernie Sanders-supporting progressive.)

Matt Taylor, a scientist who landed a spacecraft on a comet, wore what some thought a “sexist shirt” to the announcement. His shirt had swirling colorful images of scantily clad women, which he was pilloried for in a epic tweetstorm, and forced to offer a tearful public apology the next day. Personally, I found the shirt puzzling as a fashion choice — when I put a spaceship on a comet, I wear a button-down shirt and tie and 60s-style glasses, just for the geek credibility — but hey, it’s no great sin to look ridiculous. But since when do we reduce to tears a scientist with weird fashion sense, even if it is as offensive as a Barnes and Noble magazine stand?

A more recent and unusually chilling incident is that of Lindsay Shepherd, a 22-year-old Teaching Assistant at Wilfrid Lauriel University in Ontario, who, in a class about grammar, showed a two-minute Jordan Peterson clip about the use of preferred pronouns. (He’s notoriously not a fan). The class was about syntactical formulations of non-binary pronouns, specifically the “singular they,” long the bane of grammarians everywhere, but today gaining acceptance as valid usage in place of binary pronouns. Shepherd, perhaps naively, felt herself entirely neutral, simply introducing an opinion that could open an instructive grammar debate. Naive, indeed — but let’s not forget she was 22.

In the inquisition-like interrogation that followed (and which Shepherd had the forethought to record), the tearful TA was admonished by a cartoonish threesome of supervisors and threatened with the loss of her job. She was told that “one or more” students complained about “feeling unsafe” and that she’d created a “toxic environment.” (A later investigation by the university found there were no such student complaints.) In the reprimand, Shepherd’s immediate supervisor, Nathan Rambukkana, compared Peterson to Hitler (after prefacing with “I don’t want to be that guy comparing everything to Hitler”), and declared Peterson’s views off limits in the classroom unless they came with a critical framing, a la Mein Kampf.

Luckily for Shepherd, the Canadian public was with her, and the university was forced to issue an apology, but not before Shepherd left feeling “abused” and “bullied,” which she later described in a lawsuit against the university, claiming the university’s actions rendered her unemployable in her academic pursuits.

Some would argue that all these incidents were disposed of correctly, and served important lessons. That’s a debate worth having — if only we’d be more willing to. The issue for me is that we’ve been forced onto an eggshell-laden landscape in which we’re all one mildly bad judgment call away from an overturned life. The anxiety so many feel about this is palpable, and an integral part of this anxiety is to even talk about this anxiety.

And so, on issues we care deeply about, or feel confused about, or curious about, or simply want to engage in spirited conversation about, many of us simply remain silent.

*

A number of years ago, when I first began finding my way into a writing career, I had a few narrative essays published, after which a friend said to me, “Stop with the stories already. Have an opinion!”

I disagreed at the time.

Narrative has a power that can’t be argued with easily. That’s why some of the most persuasive critiques of injustice make their arguments by narrating subjective personal experience. From James Baldwin to Maya Angelou to Betty Friedan to Ta-Nehisi Coates, the tradition of argument-by-narrative is strong in American literature.

Similarly, some of the most powerful correctives to widespread social abuses have come from narrative journalism, in which single events or the actions of single individuals highlight a deeper and broader cultural malaise. Perhaps the most notable of these are the Harvey Weinstein investigations that launched the #MeToo movement. It was two pieces of narrative journalism, one in the New York Times and another in the New Yorker, that led directly to a swift and sweeping sea change in our culture. 

As a means of persuasion, there’s good reason to avoid direct argumentation and employ narrative instead. The careful marshalling of facts is subject to scrutiny in a way that a well-executed narrative is not. The former requires evidence and data and reasoning, all of which is subject to interpretation and argumentation. Narrative, however, operates on an emotional level. A story well told can be devastatingly effective even with those skeptical of its broader message. The power of narrative is not in the soundness of its argument but in its emotional impact.

This is, however, to use the parlance of our time, “problematic.” While #FactsNotFeels gets overhyped by some and ridiculed by others, both facts and feels matter. And narrative is purely about the feels, which means that as an argument it will always be intellectually weak. The emotional impact blinds us. For exhibits A through Z, see every Tweetstorm ever, from the left and the right, each taking off from a single incident, magnified to infer a widespread and deeply embedded social problem.

Should we care about such inadequacies when there is so much more at stake? Should we be concerned about strong arguments, and sound reasoning, when there are ongoing, pressing, unrelenting problems of prejudice and injustice and inequality and even life-threatening oppression?

I think we should. To say otherwise, is to say that truth doesn’t matter.

Except, it seems that on some of our most pressing issues, we’ve eschewed the notion that rigorously examining ideas has much merit. From the prevailing discourse on privilege to explaining the gender pay gap to the obsession with “emotional safety” in education to the problem with cultural appropriation, the broadly liberal left has conceded the debate to its farther edges. A host of social theories have been declared conclusive and closed, as if matters of social science, let alone purely philosophical matters, can be decided with the finality of a mathematical theorem.

None of this is new, of course. Allan Bloom’s bestseller “The Closing of the American Mind” came in the mid-80s, followed by Jonathan Rauch’s “Kindly Inquisitors” in the 90s, both arguing that ideological conformity has weakened critical thinking. Still, something feels more recent, of the last half decade or so. Perhaps it is simply what Bloom and Rauch identified, but spun out of control in our social media age.

Some call hogwash. They’ll point to robust protections of free speech in our laws. “You don’t go to jail for having a shitty opinion,” someone once said me, which, of course, misses the point entirely. Suppression of dissent through social ostracization is both noxious and effective, a de facto repudiation — even if not de jure — of the essence of a liberal society.

Perhaps I am uniquely sensitive to all this. In early adulthood, I undertook a reexamination of the religious beliefs I was raised with, ultimately discarding them. I paid a hefty price for that inquiry, but I believed that what I sought made it worth it: the freedom to speak my sincerely held views.

As part of the ordeal, I was ordered to physically move to a new neighborhood. I was shamed, harassed, and literally spat on in public. My livelihood was threatened. My family and I faced threats of physical violence. None of this was done by order of law. In totalitarian religious communities, dissent is not punished through secret police and gulags. The threat is social, not legal.

What I’ve discovered in recent years are troubling parallels to such religiously motivated suppressions of dissent, but applied to secular ideologies. Here, too, we employ mostly social consequences, except they, too, can be severe and lasting. This is precisely what we learn from those who teach us about prejudice and oppression: even the everyday pinpricks of societal punishment — bullying, harassment, degradation, social marginalization — add up to real harm.

The evidence for all this is pretty staggering. Contesting what some see as settled issues can make you lose friends, lose your community, lose your job, nearly lose your mind. An assumption of good faith has been replaced with an assumption of malice attached to one point or another on some axis of privilege, functionally delegitimizing anyone whose views are ideologically unsettling to others. 

And so, given in our present climate, my friend might have been right. Have an opinion! In this cultural moment, doing so can be a true act of political courage.

*

And yet. And yet.

Isn’t this maybe a not-so-veiled attempt to push back against those who just want to make the world fairer for everyone? Isn’t this just fighting the fighters of oppression — and hence, promoting oppression? Doesn’t this go way into the dark side — like, too far, maybe?

I sigh thinking about this question. Not in exasperation at its falseness, or it’s naiveté, or its earnestness — none of that. I sigh at the thought that there might be truth to it, to which I might remain blinded.

Some time ago, a friend who is part of the LGBT community said to me: “My friends and I don’t really feel like you’re an ally.”

I remember feeling supremely indignant — my response was an absolutely incredulous “What?!” — although in reality I think I knew what she meant. On reflection, I’ve caught myself entertaining what some see as harmful societal attitudes toward the most vulnerable, questioning some of the prevailing suppositions. Not so much disputing them, as much as wondering about the soundness of the claims.

Maybe it was true that I was not an ally, or at least not enough of an ally. Maybe I had an obligation to fix that. Did I not care?

I can only say, I think I care. I think I care deeply. But I care about truth too, and I cannot subscribe to the notion that truth and justice could ever be in contradiction; if it seems that they are, then we’re probably looking at a dubious kind of truth or a dubious kind justice, or both.

But what’s so great about truth? What’s so important about evidence? Why such an earnest commitment to rationality? They’re all just ideas by dead European white men anyway, amirite? What are you, some MAGA-hat wearing, IDW-loving fascist?

For me, the answer is that we would have no justice, no freedom, no hope for a fairer world without the relentless pursuit of truth, which we cannot have without reason, which we cannot have without being deeply skeptical of anything posited as an absolute value. I firmly believe that justice without truth is not justice, but tyranny in masquerade.

*

Recently, I had another small encounter with social media activity-policing.

A Twitter user, whom I had occasionally interacted with and who had previously written me nice things, reprimanded me for following “The Mossad,” a parody account playing on the premise of Israeli intelligence as all-powerful super-villains.

Interestingly, I was first led to The Mossad — albeit indirectly — by Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian American activist.

Sarsour had tweeted to no one in particular: “I just lost all my texts. I have an iPhone. Any idea why?”

The Mossad replied simply: “Yes.”

I don’t feel particularly hostile toward Sarsour, but I found the Mossad’s response funny, and so without much thought, I clicked “Follow.”

“It’s jarring to discover you following them,” this Twitter stranger wrote me some time later. “The company we keep is often instructive.”

Huh?

I went back and checked and discovered that The Mossad was no longer funny, just annoyingly ranty. It had taken a turn to standard issue hasbarah with a definite right-wing tone. It was as if the Onion turned pro-Trump. I felt mildly nauseated.

This time, though, what unsettled me more was experiencing yet another instance of social media activity-policing. The Mossad no longer deserved my follow, but this Internet stranger hadn’t earned the right to demand that I unfollow the Mossad. And so I didn’t.

It was a small thing, but it felt like a meaningful act of resistance to the click-police.

If it seems I have it in mostly for the left, let me be clear that the worst I’ve had has come from the right, particularly when expressing critical views of Israel’s present government. On this, I’ve faced storms of vitriolic comments. Aside from every variation of “self-hating Jew,” “kapo,” “go live with Hamas,” I got creative twists on “ignorant,” “evil,” “repugnant,” “traitor,” and “mentally ill.”

Predictably, a favorite fallback of many was to examine my past, imputing that something in my upbringing left some noxious anti-Israel prejudice.

My appearance would be impugned. “I saw him speak once… He looks like a walking emoticon,” one woman wrote. I was puzzled. Was that a smiley emoticon? A frown? An eyeroll? The person didn’t say, but it didn’t feel like a compliment.

Some were also rather confounding. “Quite frankly he lacks humor… I don’t think he knows how to tell a joke,” wrote one commenter, which, oddly enough, made me laugh.

“Your community was right about you,” wrote another. “You’re just a bad seed.”

What was notable about these comments was that many came from people who had previously declared themselves supporters and fans. Some were even personal friends. “I’ve lost all respect for you,” was a common refrain. As a Jewish writer, with a readership that is disproportionately committed to Israel and Zionism, my open criticism of Bibi Netanyahu’s Israel was and remains a professional hazard.

Another story I once wrote, about my complicated feelings following a roommate’s death, brought me a slew of comments threatening physical violence. “What a douche,” someone wrote about me on Facebook. “I really wish I could kick this guy in the balls.” Many others echoed the sentiment. On Twitter, a phalanx of sex-worker advocates (whose broader mission I sympathize with) eviscerated me for being “heartless” toward this roommate, who had, by some fairly substantial evidence, been having sex with paying customers right in my apartment.

Taken individually, these comments were deeply unpleasant but not overly distressing. In their totality, though, they showed how easily an inflamed crowd can direct their venom toward chilling real-life effects, how predictably we can turn into an unthinking herd, how social and professional consequences can be so quickly and maliciously weaponized.

It also reinforced this belief: expressing a strong opinion contrary to your network of friends and supporters is indeed an act of courage, not because it is necessarily correct, but precisely because it might not be. Precisely because you might be exposing your foolishness, your ignorance, your dark side.

“The pursuit of evidence is probably the most pressing moral imperative of our time,” wrote Alice Dreger in “When Science and Justice Collide.” A prominent author, historian, and journalist, in addition to intersex-rights advocate, Dreger’s work is known for carefully navigating the intersections and conflicts between the worlds of justice and science. “Forms of scholarship that deny evidence, that deny truth, that deny the importance of facts, even when performed in the name of good, are dangerous, not only to science and to ethics but to democracy.”

I thought long and hard before writing this essay, and until the moment of publishing it, have gone back and forth on the wisdom of doing so. My assumption is that it will bring me no friends, and perhaps make me lose some old ones. And friends are important to me. Readers are important to me. Supporters are important to me.

But none are as important as the freedom to speak a sincerely-held belief. None as important as being able to question any idea whatsoever.

My opinion might be wrong, my questioning of yours misplaced, but without the social permission to demand a thorough examination of all ideas, we are no better than religious dogmatists. If that’s what we seek for our society, then inequality and the oppression of marginalized groups have no hope of being repaired. Religious or secular, when ideologies turn radical and dogmatic, we all suffer.



Hey there, Shulem here. Thanks for reading! Content on this site will always be free and open to all. Your support would mean the world to me, though, and it would help me keep writing. Consider becoming a patron today for as little as $1. You will have my sincerest gratitude. –S





6 Comments

  1. Mark Trencher August 29, 2018 at 12:05 pm

    Fantastic, Shulem! Very thought-provoking and very important. Given today’s increasingly fractured society, I hope you can get this out broadly.

  2. Sandra Rosenbaum August 29, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    This is amazing and spot on. And you are so effing courageous to put yourself out there. It’s hard for me to admit, but I’ve spent most of my life trying to feel “safe” and accepted. Growing up in an abusive, unsafe home, it seems normal I’d be that way, right? Actually, my time as a bal teshuvah was scarier. Out of a need to belong, I became frum. Once in, I experienced the homophobia, misogyny and hatred of ‘other’ that’s endemic within. And I was afraid to speak up. I remember nasty jokes and comments where I swallowed my anger. I spent most of my time thinking, “Am I the only one noticing the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes?” I’m out of frumkeit now but I find myself still often afraid to speak my truth in certain circles. And tolerance is in such short supply. I am pretty far left and I loathe our hater in chief(I love this), but I have a close family member who’s a big fan of his. I’ll never understand but I love her and we don’t discuss politics. Respect and tolerance are cornerstones of Ahavas Yisrael and the world.
    Kol Hakavod, Shulem😘

  3. Shulem Deen August 29, 2018 at 3:14 pm

    Thank you, Mark and Sandra!

  4. Steven White August 29, 2018 at 7:19 pm

    How absurd men are! They never use the liberties they have, such as freedom of thought, and so they demand freedom of speech as a compensation. – Soren Kierkegaard

  5. Shulem Deen August 29, 2018 at 8:52 pm

    Not sure I get the point there, Steven.

    Would you, for instance, be able to engage in your activism with only the freedom to think but not to speak?

  6. Anne in St. Louis, MO August 31, 2018 at 1:31 pm

    That is the best thing I’ve read in weeks. Watching the threats to freedom of expression that have arisen in the last few years has increasingly terrified me. I don’t agree with absolutely everything you said but, damn, you said it SO well!!

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