A sign protesting a speech by the conservative radio host Ben Shapiro at the University of California, Berkeley, last year. Credit Josh Edelson/Associated Press
Opinion | OPINION
By BARI WEISSMARCH 7, 2018, New York Times
Christina Hoff Sommers is a self-identified feminist and registered Democrat with a Ph.D. in philosophy and a wicked sense of humor. She is also a woman who says bad things. Things like: Men and women are equal, but there are differences between them. Or: The gender gap in STEM fields isn’t simply the result of sexism. Or: Contrary to received wisdom, the American school system actually favors girls, not boys.
When such a person steps foot on a college campus these days, you know what’s coming. So it was on Monday at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., where Ms. Sommers had been invited by the Federalist Society to give a talk about feminism.
In advance of the lecture, nine student groups, among them the Portland National Lawyers Guild, the Minority Law Student Association, the Women’s Law Caucus, the Jewish Law Society and the school’s Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter sent a letter protesting the appearance by this “known fascist.”
The letter added that her invitation amounted to an “act of aggression and violence” and went on to offer a curious definition of free speech: “Freedom of speech is certainly an important tenet to a free, healthy society, but that freedom stops when it has a negative and violent impact on other individuals.”
Yes, these future lawyers believe that free speech is acceptable only when it doesn’t offend them. Which is to say, they don’t believe in it at all.
For the lecture itself, a student wearing a jacket emblazoned with the command “Stay Woke” led protesters in shouting “Microaggressions are real” and “No platform for fascists.” Ms. Sommers handled matters as gracefully as possible, but had delivered only half her lecture before Janet Steverson, a law professor and the school’s dean of diversity and inclusion, asked her to cut her remarks short and take questions from the hardy souls who somehow survived the violence of her words.
At this point, such incidents have become so routine that it’s tempting to wave them off.
We shouldn’t. What happened to Ms. Sommers on Monday is a telling example of a wider phenomenon that reaches well beyond the confines of campus. Call it the moral flattening of the earth.
We live in a world in which politically fascistic behavior, if not the actual philosophy, is unquestionably on the rise. Italy just gave the plurality of its vote to a party that is highly sympathetic to Vladimir Putin. The Philippines is in the grip of a homicidal maniac who is allying himself with Xi Jinping. Mr. Xi just anointed himself president for life and has banned the words “Animal Farm” and “disagree” from Chinese internet searches. Bashar al-Assad is winning in Syria, where half a million people have so far been slaughtered. Dictatorship and starvation have descended on Venezuela. At its annual conference in Washington last month, the Conservative Political Action Committee gave its stage, and its enthusiastic applause, to a member of France’s National Front. That’s just a short list.
Yet these are generally not the extremists that leftists focus on. Instead, they seem to believe that the real cause for concern are the secret authoritarians passing as liberals and conservatives in our midst.
Laura Kipnis, a feminist film-studies professor at Northwestern who wrote an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education about how there are too many Title IX sexual misconduct investigations on campuses — and then had two graduate students file a Title IX complaint against her, on the grounds that her article created a “hostile environment.”
Or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born former Muslim and feminist who the Southern Poverty Law Center insists is in fact a “propagandist far outside the political mainstream.”
Or Mary Beard, the celebrated Cambridge classicist and self-described “bloody lefty” who recently published a book-length manifesto denouncing the world’s long history of misogyny. Last month, Ms. Beard commented on a scandal gripping Britain: Oxfam workers in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake are accused of hiring prostitutes, including, reportedly, underage girls. “Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behavior of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere,” she wrote. “But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain ‘civilized’ values in a disaster zone.”
For expressing the thought that people in lawless places often behave in terrible ways, Ms. Beard was torn apart on social media as an “absolute monster” who was somehow excusing the exploitation of vulnerable women and girls. Her Cambridge colleague, Priyamvada Gopal joined in, accusing her of “patrician white ‘feminist’ racism.”
Why are so many demonstrably non-fascist people being accused of fascism?
Partly, this phenomenon is driven by our current political moment, in which millions of Americans — and not just those who identify as liberals or progressives — are horrified by the policies and the rhetoric oozing out of the White House. When the shadow of genuine chaos and extremism looms, people tend to get jumpy.
Partly, as the writer David French and others have pointed out, this ritual we keep witnessing of an in-group wielding its power against a perceived heretic seems to come from a deep human desire for a sense of belonging and purpose. Organized religion may be anathema on the political left, but the need for the things religion provides — moral fervor, meaning, a sense of community — are not.
Partly, too, it is the result of a lack of political proportion and priority. It’s instructive that students at the University of Chicago spent their energy a few years back protesting Dan Savage, the progressive sex columnist who used the word “tranny” in a talk that included a discussion about reclaiming words, while ignoring a lecture the very same week by former Senator Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican who has compared gay relationships to bestiality. Freud called this the narcissism of small differences.
But it is also a concerted attempt to significantly redraw the bounds of acceptable thought and speech. By tossing people like Mary Beard and Christina Hoff Sommers into the slop bucket with the likes of Richard Spencer, they are attempting to place their reasonable ideas firmly outside the mainstream. They are trying to make criticism of identity politics, radical Islam and third-wave feminism, among various other subjects, verboten. For even the most minor transgressions, as in the case of Professor Beard, people are turned radioactive.
There are consequences to all this “fascism” — and not just the reputational damage to those who are smeared, though there is surely that.
The main effect is that these endless accusations of “fascism” or “misogyny” or “alt-right” dull the effects of the words themselves. As they are stripped of meaning, they strip us of our sharpness — of our ability to react forcefully to real fascists and misogynists or members of the alt-right.
For a case study in how this numbing of the political senses works, look no further than Mitt Romney and John McCain. They were roundly denounced as right-wing extremists. Then Donald Trump came along and the words meant to warn us against him had already been rendered hollow.
Orwell warned that the English language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” He added, however, that “the process is reversible.”
Will true liberals do what it takes to reverse it? We can only hope so, because the battle against genuine authoritarian threats needs to be waged consistently, credibly and persuasively. For that to happen, words need to mean something. Calling women like Christina Hoff Sommers and Mary Beard fascists and racists only helps the other side.
Editors’ Note: March 7, 2018
An earlier version of this essay cited criticism of the commentator Dave Rubin as an example of left-leaning attacks on liberals in the public sphere, and linked to tweets that described him as a fascist. Those tweets came from an account that has been reported to be fake. Therefore the example and the links have been removed.
Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) is a staff editor and writer for the Opinion section.