To David French: From a Coward
It wasn’t long ago that I thought I was a David French conservative. I’ve always identified with his practical and generous approach to “fighting the good fight” of values in politics. I have deep respect for French for his work on protecting 1st Amendment rights and I’ve certainly taken his side in The Great Against David Frenchism Schism of 2019
All the more reason, I think, to voice my concern in his recent piece Courage Is the Cure for Political Correctness. In it, French writes that if the legal battles for free speech have largely been won, why do we not feel free to speak? French notes that if we still self-censor and refuse to speak up for our beliefs, there is little more that can be done. Given the legal victories, the “prevalence of conservative timidity is both worrisome and self-reinforcing”.
A conservative sees the abuse that a colleague experiences and rather than thinking, “I need to stand by her,” thinks, “That would happen to me if I spoke up.” As a consequence, a few very public shame campaigns and terminations have an outsized deterrent effect.David French, “Courage is the Cure for Political Correctness”
Let me relate a story that will no doubt take Mr French down memory lane, since I suspect he may have worked on this case in his time at the Alliance Defending Freedom. (Update: He was in fact lead counsel.) It’s 2006 and I am in my last semester of graduate school at Georgia Tech. There is a controversy on campus over the decision of Ruth Malhotra and Orit Sklar to sue the university over the speech codes and a “Safe Space” program that basically used student funding to take a giant crap on organized religion.
From the reports on campus, this was all about gay marriage and acceptance of homosexuality. Since it was 2006, everything was always about those two things. You could not be a decent person and express any antipathy to the gay marriage, which was not yet legal. As such, Malhotra and Sklar were pariahs on campus.
Within my degree’s private discussion group, they were mocked and ridiculed. With deference and timidity, I disagreed. I didn’t say anything about my views on gay marriage (which I supported), I only suggested that possibly they had a point and that maybe the school was wrong to use their official programs to sneer at Christians.
I would never have done this had we not been literally weeks from graduation. I was largely just working on my thesis and worked with none of my colleagues on any actual projects. And the whole of the discussion group turned on me.
If you’ve never been in that situation, it is exhausting… just as an intellectual exercise. It is your mind against the minds of 30 of the people you respect and admire. They came at the topic from 15 different angles with a variety of metaphors in a variety of passions. And you have to respond to every one. You try to turn down the heat, but it’s impossible. You try to meet the metaphors where they are or come up with competing metaphors, but it’s a struggle. Smart people are good at arguments. It’s possible to hold your own against one person at a time, but when the whole group comes for you it’s overwhelming. It’s not a competition, but even so they gain moral points if they let their passions overflow a bit and you lose points if you can’t maintain your cool.
It was not fun. It was a week of my life lost not to arguing a positive point but to trying to defend my position of *not* condemning these two women who ended up winning their case in court. Even a decade later, I got roped into a discussion on Facebook when someone I don’t even know asked how any person could hold XYZ conservative position without being an insane psychopath and one of my college friends thought to herself “Hey, wasn’t Matt a conservative? Maybe he can chime in on this.”
I spoke up. It didn’t change anything. It didn’t make anything better. It exhausted my energy, alienated my friends, even when I was 100% right in suggesting that these women had a good point. It didn’t cost me everything, but it cost a lot. And it gained nothing.
And the funny thing is that I was lucky.
This was before the era of public shame. This was a time before we feared that the words we say in a private space may leak out to the world and cost us our jobs. This was before there was an entire apparatus to target, investigate, and destroy anyone who holds a “wrong” opinion.
I like David French. But I think he deeply underestimates the nature of the threat to conservatives.
It Gets Worse
I work for a great company. I do a thing that is not political in the least. No one at my work talks about politics except in our larger general company Slack and that is 1) largely moderate liberal in nature 2) easily ignored.
But my company is pretty liberal. It worries me a bit. I’m a little anxious that there will come a time when I’m required to make a statement that violates my religious conscience. I have made a commitment to myself that there is a line in the sand across which I will not step.
But you’re ridiculous if you think I’m telling you what that line is. The moment an activist discovers my line, they will use that information to go to my employer and demand that they find a way to force me to cross that line. And I won’t cross it. And I’ll lose my job.
Now maybe that loss of job can be challenged in court. Maybe I’ll be awarded $1.2 million like the Atlanta police chief who was fired for a book he wrote for a mens Bible study. But the problem is that my job is worth more than $1.2 million. Just in terms of raw money, my career is worth four times that, maybe more. And, more importantly, I love what I do. It’s important to me, my work is important, my colleagues are important.
And here I’m only talking about religious conviction, the universal truths that I can’t betray. French is talking about conservative politics. Who in their right mind would imagine that I would put my life’s work, my family, my career at risk for politics?
Here is where things get sticky: There are potential solutions to this, but they are things I don’t think Mr. French will like.
It is not courage alone that will reverse the destructive impact of political correctness. Courage from an individual does not have the impact that we would like to imagine it does. Courage will get someone fired and thrown into a legal purgatory from which, even if they emerge victorious, they will have lost a substantial part of their lives.
We could, however, use the force of government to protect people from the fear of retribution.
By example: We could update libel laws, giving people targeted by social media outrage a wider range of options in defending themselves. Let’s make it a civil offence punishable by fines for the professional press to disseminate the name or likeness of any individual who is not a public figure without contacting that individual and granting them unedited response to an event. That would stop something like the Covington disaster from happening, protecting people from the vicious and instant disaster of the online mob.
Let’s pass a law that allows people to submit a request to Google to remove their name from search results when they have been targeted by an online mob and their life destroyed. I’m sure Elizabeth Laoten (name intentionally misspelled) would be glad for something like that.
Let’s pass tech regulation that holds Twitter or Facebook accountable when they allow their trends to destroy the lives of non-public individuals.
I said that one million dollars won’t replace my career.
You know what would?
One billion dollars. That would shut everybody up.
Google and Twitter and Facebook can afford that. And, if it turns out they can’t, they would learn really fast how to stop these stories from exploding and destroying the lives of normal people.
A billion dollars would compensate any termination and allow the terminated employee to establish a fund to help the next person who gets screwed by the internal network of witch hunters. I think this is a great solution. I think it’s time to stop the tech industry from allowing people to use it to destroy lives.
But I don’t think David French would agree with me.
Courage is not enough. The point of an “I Am Spartacus” moment is that everyone does it at the same time. Otherwise, each individual gets picked off like a gopher the moment they raise their head in courageous defiance. At a certain point, courage is indistinguishable from stupidity.
When I was at Georgia Tech, the online lynch mob was not yet a thing. So let me relate a more recent story.
In 2016, I was very much against the Trump candidacy. Even so, I got into some argument with a liberal journalist over something, I hardly remember. He blocked me and then (inexplicably) sicced his following on me. My replies became vicious, threatening, and overwhelming. More than one tweet came in threatening to contact my employer.
At the time, I was working as a contract employee at a very large tech company and my position was tenuous. I was 3-4 months away from either a contract extension or a contract termination. So when my boss came to me the following day, I was more than a little nervous. He took me into the hall and explained to me that someone had contacted him and demanded that I be fired.
My boss, an atheist and a liberal, told them to fuck off. But he also told me to watch what I say online. I locked my account until after the election. I kept my head low. My contract was not renewed and I spent 4 months unemployed looking for another job. (Which was ultimately a blessing since I’d much rather have my current job than that old one, so yay)
I was courageous 13 years ago when I defended two women I’d never met. It didn’t cost me much, but it changed how my friends and colleagues saw me.
I’ve never thought that having a semi-anonymous twitter account is a particularly courageous thing. But even that minor cowardice exposes me to the possibility of job loss. I don’t put my real name on anything I write because I have no idea if something I write today will become something that is anathema and worthy of firing five years from now.
The key problem in free speech and fear from prosecution is not courage, as David French suggests. It is to cultivate a culture of defiance to those who would try to sabotage conservatives.
I’m deeply grateful to my boss for telling the assholes who wanted me fired to take a hike. But by telling me to watch what I say online, he also implicitly acknowledged that, if a controversy got big enough, he couldn’t protect me. That is where we need to focus, on convincing the power structure to protect people when the mob comes for them. But we need to do it across the board. We need to stand up to those who want socialists or communists fired. We need to refuse to join the lynch mobs when the lynch mobs are on “our” side. We need to praise people and organizations who tell the mobs to go jump in a lake.
There is not a lack of courage in the conservative world. There is a lack of support in both corporate and social America. Everyone is disposable, and everyone knows that. Everyone has something they wish they didn’t say and everyone knows that, if they stick their neck out far enough, that thing will come to light.
There is no forgiveness, there is no generosity, there is no grace. We get angry about our own being attacked and so we justify our own gracelessness in responding in kind. The reason online mobs are a thing is because they work. They won’t stop until they stop working.
I wish I had less to say about this and I wish I had more solutions. But the solution to this (as to many things) is that we need to change our culture. That’s a long and painful road to take. Changing culture takes decades. It takes a generation of kids sick of this bullshit to tell us old people that screwing up on the internet shouldn’t mean the end of a life or career. But that is maybe another 10 years away.
I personally think that there are insufficient guardrails for those who do speak out. James Damore spoke out at Google and was fired for it. If you think courage is the solution in the face of a group of people who can pressure the most powerful executives in the richest company in the the whole world to attack a tiny minority of conservatives and then be praised for it in the press, I’m sorry to say that you are delusional.
It will be years before James Damore’s lawsuit is resolved and I do not think the result is likely to come in his favor. Even if it is, Google has so much money, they will consider it a minor annoyance that Damore’s career is over. And let’s be silly and assume Darmore settles for $10 million. Google will laugh at such a judgement, costing them 0.007% of their yearly revenue. They rake in $10 million in less time than it took you to read this.
Let’s stop deluding ourselves. Courage does not solve this problem. That does not mean we should not have it. I think our culture puts far too little value on people who stand by their convictions. But having courage is not a solution. It is a personal choice and one I applaud, but it doesn’t fix anything. We need more. And we need people like David French to soften their hearts to the idea that maybe we need additional protections to preserve the right to speak freely.
It’s nice to think of ourselves as Thomas Becket, speaking our conscience in the face of a threat and danger. But conservatives will never be thought of as martyrs. We will not be praised or loved or admired. If we fall in the crosshairs of a vicious mob determined to destroy us, we will be lucky if our children even admit we are related.
For the people who attack us have no limits. They have no guardrails. They gleefully destroyed Kyle Kashuv’s academic career, for no reason other than that he was on the wrong side of the political debate. What does Mr. French have to say to that? What is his recommendation to the next conservative student who doesn’t want to see their life destroyed?
Is it “never do anything you will regret, even when you’re 15”?
Sound advice, I suppose, but let me give young people more practical advice: Don’t be a conservative. If Kashuv had never spoken out, no one would give a shit about his teenage behavior and he’d be attending Harvard freshman orientation right now. If you’re a conservative and you speak out, they will come for you. Be quiet, don’t say anything. If you want to be anything other than a political pundit, it’s best not to show courage. The risk is too high, the stakes are too big. Do good work, make good things, and keep your fucking mouth shut.
Things worked out, I suppose, for Ruth Malhotra and Orit Sklar. While they got into one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the world, neither of them went into engineering. They both ended up working in the world of politics and religious advocacy. There’s nothing wrong with that, that is a noble profession. But if your deep passion was non-political, if you want to be an engineer or a scientists or a social worker or a teacher, it would have been better to simply shut up. There’s a place for courage, but it’s a niche market.
Some people are in a position to support their family with courage. The rest of us are not so lucky.