Don’t Expect Liberalism to Come to the Defense of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

By John W. W. Zeiser

If you haven’t read From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, you should. It has already found its place as essential reading on the intersection of race and class in recent US history. Sadly, Taylor has been in the news this last week for far more unsettling reasons, ones that should cause you (as they do me) grave concern — both for her personally, and regarding the liberal conception of absolute free speech.

Last week, Taylor felt compelled to cancel upcoming public appearances, after receiving personal threats against her and her family. In a statement on her publisher Haymarket Books’ Facebook, Taylor noted that she had been “threatened with lynching” and being shot, and was subjected to all manner of racist and sexist abuse.

The barrage of threats came close on the heels of a Fox News story about her commencement address at Hampshire College. In the statement, Taylor made it clear that Fox News was well aware that selectively editing clips from the speech and releasing them as it did online would provoke the fringe audience it has been cultivating for years to engage in one of the internet’s now common spasms of outrage: the kind that was sure to spill into death threats of the kind that women and people of color constantly endure at the hand of internet trolls.

The internet — now in its supposedly Left identarian formations or the Far Right cesspools of 4chan’s /b/ or /r/The_Donald — has long since become a menagerie of knee-jerk outrage and violent, nasty threats, often protected by anonymity and championed as liberalism’s favored child “free speech.” But I don’t want to talk about how pathetic the internet is, at once a giant shopping mall and the inside of a bathroom stall; far more knowledgeable writers like Angela Nagle are already doing this. Rather, I want to discuss how contemporary liberalism sanctifies free speech and imperils its most disenfranchised citizens.

Sarah Jones asked in the New Republic, “Where is the outrage for Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor?” and framed the question by comparing silence over Taylor’s situation to the outrage that gushed from the fonts of liberalism when Charles Murray was no-platformed at Middlebury College earlier this year. Indeed, if I didn’t follow Taylor on Twitter, I might not have heard about this either. This is disheartening, though hardly surprising. As Talyn Kel noted on Friday, the logic of white America is thus: “free speech should protect those who seek to hurt the marginalized, but not the marginalized themselves.”

The New York Review of Books already did excellent work, years ago, on debating Murray’s research. But there are two lessons from Murray (or the more recent Ann Coulter cancellations at Berkeley) that are relevant. The more immediate one, and the one which affects people like Professor Taylor explicitly, is that of violence. No one at Middlebury was threatening Murray’s life. There were no calls to lynch him or put a bullet in his head. In fact, in his and Coulter’s scenarios, a case can be made that the whole point was to elicit the reactions they received. Indeed, it helps stoke the fears of white victimhood that the Right so loves to play up. It’s the plucky underdog of the American Enterprise Institute and a PhD from MIT being prevented from speaking uncomfortable truths. The same cannot be said of Taylor’s case, where there is the very real threat of violence, along with a deep history of threat moving to reality.

The other lesson cuts to the heart of why the outrage Sarah Jones asks after isn’t forthcoming. Liberalism portrays free speech in terms of an action subject to market forces. It is an absolute, similarly conceived as the free flow of capital. Let every idea stand on its intellectual merit, it says, and those most compelling will rise to the top while consigning more fringe or odious ideas to the dustbin of history. But not without a debate or contestation in the market. What Murray’s defenders bemoaned was the shunning of meritocracy in favor of solidarity, the explicit choosing of sides.

This plays out again and again. One need look no further than the success of media-savvy white supremacists like Richard Spencer or Tomi Lahren to see that liberals love putting this idea into action. When Trevor Noah chooses to provide Lahren with a platform, ostensibly for a “debate,” or Charles Barkley interviews Spencer, they tacitly acknowledge that racist views have intellectual merit, and that they should be contested on the battlefield of ideas rather than ruthlessly stamped out by any means necessary — anathema to liberalism. And the first means is to not provide platforms that reach millions, as mayor Ted Wheeler attempted to do last week after white supremacists vowed to rally for free speech.

Liberalism sees racism as something political, and therefore contestable. It is not. It is a systemic and historical fact with material consequences, whether they be economic or threats of bodily harm — something at the core of Taylor’s book and research. But liberalism operates in a world of ideals, not material reality, and it cannot help but conceive of racism in terms of free speech. It’s something that can be mitigated through reason or debate, that is, through the central tenets of free speech and the marketplace of ideas. But just as neoliberals mystify government complicity in and control over markets, liberal idealism mystifies racism via free speech, and obscures the fundamental fact that there are limits to free speech.

For Taylor, the deafening silence is the natural contradiction at the heart of how liberalism, embodied by academia and media, views free speech. Pundits come out of the woodwork to defend the Murrays of the world’s right to promulgate whatever dreck can be fobbed off as scholarship on the pretext that speech should never be abridged. They are even willing to stick their necks out for the sacred rights of free speech even when they know it will, and has, lead to violence.

But don’t expect one finger lifted to condemn the vitriol spewed at someone like Taylor, whose transgression seems to be speaking truth to power. The president of the US is “a racist, sexist, megalomaniac” and has “fulfilled the campaign promises of a campaign organized and built upon racism, corporatism, and militarism.” If any of these Washington consensus outlets like the Post, the New York Times, or the Atlantic did so, they would be saying that in fact there are limits to free speech and that those limits arise from our society, another bugaboo for liberalism.

Putting aside for a moment the fact that one cannot falsely shout fire in a crowded theater, the limits to free speech are constantly contested and reevaluated based on what is considered socially acceptable. A perfect recent example is the downfall of Milo Yiannopoulos. He was not brought low by anything more than his speech. The question was, simply, where to draw the line. For those rallying (and being shot) outside his speaking engagements, the line was his misogynistic, racist, transphobic proclamations, masquerading as more ugly truths suppressed in a world gone PC-amok. For those who tried to be bosom buddies with his ever shifting 4chan-esque sense of humor, it was pederasty.

If tonight a group of pro-pedophilia activists in a large US city decided to hold a rally in support of their views, would liberalism make a spirited defense of these activists’ freedom of speech? There would be no “action” of any sort, and instead of reading excerpts from Mein Kampf, a group of men and women would read things like Allen Ginsberg’s defense of NAMBLA. This would not go down without paroxysms of outrage, mainly because we’ve all agreed that pedophilia is not political, while racism is.

The problem with liberalism’s defense of free speech is that it overwhelmingly protects those with ideas that stink out loud, and mystifies the very material origins of racism. Liberalism is fine giving a pass to whites urging very real harm against people of color, women, and LGBTQ people. A free pass, because liberalism’s conception of racism is one of not pathology or phenotype but something that can be cured through talk therapy. Let Milo speak and we’ll debate him, let Bill Maher spew his Islamophobia and racism, we will use our rationality. Only rationality isn’t bulletproof, literally. Meanwhile people of color are left to deal with the very real consequences of said free speech. They must live lives of intimidation, of fear, of not enjoying those same rights conferred to their aggressors.

In Taylor’s case, what must also gall the defenders of liberalism is that she did give in to the threats, instead of gamely confronting them. It is the “don’t let the terrorists win” mentality attempting to supersede the new wisdom of “don’t engage the trolls.” But as a black woman Taylor knows better than most what confronting those threats means, and her choices in this matter are beyond reproach. She was explicit in her cancelation statement that she remains “undaunted in my commitment to that [movement against racism, sexism, bigotry] project,” and it is by joining this project that we may render these intimidations and threats powerless.

Liberalism has made a Faustian bargain with regards to free speech. Even when we know that free speech leads overwhelmingly to bullying, threatening, and even life-taking of women, people of color and LGBTQ people, liberalism hides behind the shield of an enshrined and sacred right of the constitution and willingly ignores the reason it claims to love.

No one should be so stupid as to think that when a bunch of armed thugs jet set across the country looking for fights under the guise of protecting free speech that they actually mean it, or that they’re not snickering up their sleeves when liberals are chumps enough to believe it. And make no mistake, those who wish harm on those who speak out — like Professor Taylor — are not simply blowing off steam or exercising their right to free speech. Their words have real, tangible consequences, to which liberalism is blind. Instead of asking where is all the outrage? or expecting liberalism to care, you should cancel your subscriptions and get out in the streets.

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