Liberalism vs. the Left: Bernie Sanders, #BlackLivesMatter, and Free Speech

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Bernie Sanders Interrupted by Black Lives Matter Activists in Seattle
Bernie Sanders is interrupted by Black Lives Matter activists who take the stage and attempt to speak on the microphone at a rally for Social Security and Medicare in Seattle.Photo: Alex Garland / Demotix/Copyright 2015 Demotix, all rights reserved.

A week ago, a handful of protesters associated with Black Lives Matter shut down a Bernie Sanders speech in Seattle to protest what they see to be his insufficient platform on racial justice. This event has provoked a fierce debate within the left, but what is instructive about the debate is the illiberal terms on which it has been conducted. Sanders’ critics have defended the protest on the grounds that Sanders has not done enough for racial justice. His supporters have replied that he has. Hamilton Nolan, representing the pro-Sanders side, called the shutdown “dumb,” “stupid,” “unwise,” and “counterproductive” because, Nolan explained, “Bernie Sanders is the most progressive serious presidential candidate, and the most liberal, and the most vocal and wise on the issue of America’s entrenched and widening economic inequality.

Nolan suggested that protesters instead shut down speeches from the likes of Donald Trump. Other Sanders fans have urged Black Lives Matter protesters to disrupt Hillary Clinton instead of Sanders. (Some protesters reportedly planned to do just that later in the week but were foiled by the Secret Service.) And so the debate revolved entirely around Sanders’ ideological merits, and whether preventing him from speaking advances or hinders the progressive cause. Absent from the calculation on either side is a normative debate over shutting down political speeches. Nolan made very clear his belief that his only problem with the method is that it has been used against a politician he likes. But maybe there is a more important question here than mere tactics. Perhaps shutting down a political speech is, normatively, wrong.

The revival of political correctness has renewed an old fight between liberalism and the left. Liberalism and the left are amorphous terms to describe ideas that sometimes overlap. But if there is a simple conceptual distinction between the two, it lies in the way they treat political rights. Liberals treat political rights as sacrosanct. The left treats social and economic justice as sacrosanct. The liberal vision of political rights requires being neutral about substance. To the left, this neutrality is a mere guise for maintaining existing privilege; debates about “rights” can only be resolved by defining which side represents the privileged class and which side represents the oppressed. When I critiqued political correctness earlier this year, Amanda Taub insisted, without supplying any evidence, that my motive was that, as a white male, I found it “upsetting to be on the receiving end” of criticism. (I do not.) It was simply axiomatic to her that my argument masked personal privilege. Writing again this week, Taub argues, “this isn’t really about ‘discourse’ or ‘free speech’ at all, but about something a lot more pedestrian: the anxiety of people who aren’t used to having their speech and behavior policed by rules that aren’t designed for their benefit, but now suddenly find themselves experiencing just that.” Taub’s regard for appeals to the sanctity of discourse and free speech is indicated by the scare quotes she throws around those terms. They are, to her, mere cover for the comfort of the privileged.

Debates between liberals and the left take this form whether the left-wing analysis defines privilege by economic class, race, or gender. “The liberal view is that abstract categories — like speech or equality — define systems,” wrote the left-wing feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon three decades ago. These abstractions were mere cover for the subordination of one group (women) by another (men). “If one asks whose freedom pornography represents, a tension emerges that is not a dilemma among abstractions so much as it is a conflict between groups.” Abstractions are imaginary; groups are real. What matters is that the oppressed prevail. Mao Zedong put it less elegantly: “the reactionaries must be deprived of the right to voice their opinions; only the people have that right.”

Obviously, all leftists do not agree with MacKinnon and Mao — who, in any case, would not agree with each other. What they do agree on is, first, their critique of liberalism’s elevation of abstract rights over concrete interests; and second, their conviction that political rights ought to be designated to individuals on the basis of their lack of privilege.

In a recent New Yorker review essay, Kelefa Sanneh offers a sympathetic account of the critiques of free-speech liberalism made by Stanley Fish and Jeremy Waldron. Sanneh defends the notion of denying free-speech rights to reactionaries: “If we want a society that recognizes the dignity of marginalized groups, [Waldron] argues, then we should be willing to enact ‘laws that prohibit the mobilization of social forces to exclude them,’" he writes. “This would involve carving out an exception to the First Amendment. But there are plenty of exceptions already, and taken together they form a rough portrait of what we value and what we don’t.”* Doesn’t this line of reasoning justify banning Donald Trump, whose vicious racism and misogyny surely qualify as hate speech, from expression? For that matter, wouldn’t “the mobilization of social forces designed to exclude” marginalized groups constitute a fair description of the entire Republican Party, and — from a left-wing standpoint — much of the Democratic Party, too? What theoretical justification does this analysis leave for respecting political rights for reactionaries?

Clearly, a Mao-esque purge does not lie on America’s horizon. The strong constitutional protections for free speech, and the left’s tiny share of the electorate, limit its ability to operationalize its theories. But leftist theories do hold sway over some parts of the academy and certain social-media communities that have disproportionate impact on the national discourse.

The trouble with p.c. culture is not, as its defenders tend to sneer, that it oppresses white males. Many of its targets are not white males; anyway, oppression isn’t the main issue, per se. Political correctness is an elaborate series of norms and protocols of political discourse that go well beyond the reasonable mandate of treating all people with respect. Its extravagant imagination of mental trauma lurking in every page, its conception of “safety” as the absence of dissent, and its method of associating beliefs with favored or disfavored groups: They all create a political discourse that is fraught at best, and at worst, inimical to reason. False accounts of a stomach-turning rape at the University of Virginia and the police assassination of a surrendering Michael Brown lingered uncorrected for far too long, as social-media activists swatted away well-founded doubts as rape denial or racism. The “victims” of p.c. culture are not white males but the inhabitants trapped within their own ideological hothouses.

Of course, anti-rape activists are right to change the culture of male sexual entitlement, and anti-racism activists are right to challenge entrenched biases in the criminal-justice system and other structures. Black Lives Matter has had enormous success in driving police reform and raising awareness of racism, and has, on the whole, changed the country for the better. Liberals believe that social justice can be advanced without giving up democratic rights and norms. The ends of social justice do not justify any and all means. When we’re debating which candidates are progressive enough to be allowed to deliver public speeches, something has gone terribly wrong.

*The original version of this article omitted an end quote, making the distinction between Sanneh’s words and those of Waldron unclear. The update has also added another line of Sanneh’s review for extra clarity.