The Equilibrium Prejudice and Free Expression
There is a deep inclination in a certain segment of the punditry class to want to make overly simple equations on any number of complicated social problems. Sure, the refrain of these simplifiers goes, Those of ideology X are doing something unpleasant, but what about those of the opposed ideology Y, who are doing the exact same thing? Let's be even-handed in our criticism and in our proffered solutions, because there's always plenty (i.e., an equal amount) of blame to be spread around uniformly on all sides. I call this "the equilibrium prejudice." No problem, no matter the empirical details, can ever be seen from this perspective as something uniquely or disproportionately concentrated on one side or another. Everything is always reduced to the rule: "They're doing it, yes, but look, so are they!" It is a kind of mania for balance that undoubtedly provides something productive to some discussions but can in other cases produce an astonishing blindness to reality.
John McWhorter's December 30 CNN opinion piece is an example of the equilibrium prejudice. It focuses on the case of George Ciccariello-Maher (pictured, right), a Drexel University professor who is voluntarily resigning his position due to the "grave ... threats" of a "white-hot [emphasis on the 'white,' presumably] mob." McWhorter bemoans Ciccariello-Maher's situation, presenting him as a purveyor of relatively anodyne satire. The CNN clip linked to McWhorter's article shows Ciccariello-Maher allowing a wide-eyed reporter to hear anonymous callers tell the professor, "You're [f------] dead, kid – watch out!" and other similar things. How could this horrific fate have befallen such an obviously mild-mannered, soft-spoken figure as Ciccariello-Maher? McWhorter has no answer. He is horrified and outraged, and he insinuates that we should be as well.
His inability to understand has at least something to do with the fact that he completely misrepresents the tenor of Ciccariello-Maher's comments. If McWhorter had done a little research, he would have found numerous examples on the professor's Twitter feed of clear exhortation to physical violence by the far left, including a retweet of the video of Alt-Right figure Richard Spencer being gratuitously punched in the head, with the professor expressing the unsavory belief that "[a]cademia is fake[;] you can only trust your fists." (If Ciccariello-Maher sincerely believes this, one can only imagine how relieved he must be to be leaving his effete university post for purer, more pugilistic endeavors outside the academy.) He also expresses political beliefs that can be characterized as hostile to white Americans – e.g., his comment on the Alabama election returns that "[m]aybe only black people should vote." (Imagine a professor writing on his Twitter account this comment with "white" substituted for "black.") And I leave aside his endless cheerleading for the most long-lived and humanly destructive form of totalitarianism in history – e.g., "democracy is meaningless without communism."
McWhorter apparently has not read any of this. He writes: "Their [those leaving messages on Ciccariello-Maher's voicemail] forcing someone into hiding for just writing some stuff is unforgivable." "Unforgivable" is an odd term about reactions to political speech and the legal and constitutional boundaries of that speech. John McWhorter's "unforgivable" is certain to be at least slightly different from my "unforgivable," and this is why it is a good thing that whether someone defines some form of speech as "unforgivable" is irrelevant to legal discussion of the limits of speech. The relevant questions are these: is the government attacking Ciccariello-Maher for his speech? Is his employer taking punitive action against him? The answer to both is "no." What's happening in this case, exactly? A man who can be accurately described as a professorial troll has said a large number of exceedingly incendiary and violence-encouraging things online, and people have responded in kind, which is what predictably happens in such situations. Does McWhorter think there is a political response to this that is not inconsistent with the wide purview for free expression he supports? None is offered in his piece.
How has Ciccariello-Maher been "forc[ed] into hiding"? Anyone who has spent any time reading the comments sections on political videos on YouTube knows that the kind of things Ciccariello-Maher has been hearing is the height of agonistic online banality. Is the insinuation that some of the threats of violence being left on Ciccariello-Maher's voicemail are credible? There is no mention of that in any of the news accounts. If so, Ciccariello-Maher has legal recourse and should get the police involved. Determining that the threats made are legally actionable requires some level of intent to carry them out, as the Supreme Court ruled in Elonis v. United States, and this is a fairly high bar for such prosecutions. The chances are much greater that these are simply unserious loudmouths online saying stupid things wholly unconnected with any likely actions in the real world – kind of like the guy to whom they are responding. As much as some people might find this disconcerting, there is ultimately no way to stop it. Science has yet to adequately address this hard problem.
For McWhorter (pictured, left) to insinuate, in the tradition of the equilibrium prejudice, that Ciccariello-Maher's entirely self-created situation constitutes "the shoe on the other foot" with respect to leftist disruption and attack on speech on campus is ludicrous. How does the left respond to speech it does not like on college campuses? Does it record toothless threats on voicemail? No, it bans that speech, when it can get away with it legally, or otherwise finds ways to codify it, however inaccurately and dishonestly, in such a way as to legitimate treating it differently from how provocative speech with which it agrees is treated. When it cannot legally ban speech, it sometimes forms violent mobs and physically prevents people from speaking, occasionally beating them up in the process. So, in the case of Heather Mac Donald, which McWhorter mentions, a perfectly reasonable speaker who challenges the Black Lives Matter narrative on policing and race is violently prevented from delivering her talk by students, who are defended in their action by some faculty and who are only mildly reprimanded for their violence by the university administration. In the case of Ciccariello-Maher, not a single administrator, faculty member, or student was involved in any way in preventing him from saying the foolish things he says, and he leaves the university not because the institution is forcing him to do so, but of his own choice. A few anonymous individuals, spurred by his own incitements to violence, have responded to him with his own violent rhetoric, and the brave revolutionary Ciccariello-Maher cannot stand the heat of the fire he started.
If Ciccariello-Maher wants the messages to stop, I suggest a more or less certain way to accomplish that goal. He could just stop cheerleading on social media the kind of violence he likes. This would entail no restriction of his academic freedoms (as these tweets are not part of his work as a professor), nor indeed of his First Amendment rights (as no state action against him is implied if he refuses to self-censor). It would just require some mature and self-motivated adherence on his part to behave himself like a civilized person online. Were he to take this up, in time, he would certainly fall off the media map, and the fools who want to waste time leaving unrealistic threats on voicemail would move on.
But Ciccariello-Maher does not want to do this. He says as much in his letter of resignation, posted on Twitter. This adherence to informal codes of courteous social interaction would get in the way of his radical "speaking and organizing," which he clearly sees as more important than teaching or publishing merely scholarly works. If these are his priorities and his plan of action, fine. Get on with it. Deal with the consequences, though. How depressingly predictable it is that the supposedly hard-nosed revolutionary, whose fans approvingly call him a "gangster" online because he is so scandalous as to use bad words when talking with reporters, wants to be able to push at the core values of the system he opposes, but then he's shocked that some others will push back.
The reality is that no one is forcing him to do anything, and McWhorter wholly misrepresents his situation and its similarity to left-wing policing of speech on campuses. Ciccariello-Maher has decided that he is not up to facing the stress created by his own actions, and neither is he willing to stop engaging in the stress-producing action, likely because the self-professed communist enjoys the notoriety and the increased book sales and speaker fees that provides him.
Whatever one thinks of his sordid situation, it has nothing in common with cases like that of Heather Mac Donald.
McWhorter tells us he is "eternally stunned that it is within the norms of sane human behavior to regularly send vicious messages of this kind on a whim to people who have rubbed you the wrong way." But it's not clear what he means by "within the norms of sane human behavior." It is likely that none of the people sending nasty messages to Ciccariello-Maher is clinically insane, but it is certain that most people would not see this kind of trollish activity as normatively acceptable, either. The point again is that there is simply not anything that can be done about it without draconian measures regarding free expression, which we should oppose, or without some effort by people such as Ciccariello-Maher to learn to behave themselves as adults online. On the latter, the evidence suggests that we should not be overly optimistic.