Saturday, October 06, 2007

Should We Be “Offended” At the Folsom Street Fair?

Unlike most conservative bloggers, Rick Esenberg is not inclined to get upset at the 2007 Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco. He states:
I have not blogged on the controversy over Miller’s sponsorship of the Folsom Street Fair and the appearance of its logo in conjunction with a parody of DaVinci’s Last Supper.

One of my rules in life is that you ought to try very hard not to be offended. For that reason I am not a fan of Bill Donohue and the way in which he has run the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. His appetite for offense appears to border on gluttony.
It’s nice that Rick is mellow, but we think his position ignores a larger reality. As we noted in his comments section:

I understand you logic in thinking badly of people who are perpetually offended. And maybe in some perfect world, everybody should be laid back.

The problem is that the politically correct left has changed the rules. Claiming to be “offended” demands concessions from others.

Think of it as a prisoners’ dilemma. So long as the left can play the “offended” card to silence expression they don’t like, they need to face a right that will play by the same rules.

This logic is why I rather applaud attacks on academic freedom from the right. I don’t want them to succeed, but I do want leftist academics to be afraid that their academic freedom might be taken.

Once the campus left decides that the right doesn’t have the power to take its freedom, it will proceed to fire conservative professors.

As for the academic freedom of students: the process is already far along.
Forty years ago, we would never have made a comment like this. Professors were liberals, to be sure, but had internalized the norm of free speech and academic freedom.

Now . . . we don’t think they did that because they somehow had superior reasoning powers. Rather, they thought that way because it served their interests in an era when most threats to free speech on campus came from the right.

But they had genuinely internalized that norm. They really believed it, and they really would (at least a large number would) tolerate free speech from the political right.

But academia has changed, and for the worse.

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Blogger Dad29 said...

Rick is surprisingly laid back about the attacks on western civilization.

One doesn't have to throw bombs at the Miller HQ. But they spent their money on the wrong cause.

8:29 AM  
Blogger Jim C. said...

Can you name an example of an attack on academic speech that you applaud? If I understand you right, you applaud the effects of such an attack, but not the content. Is that right?

How do you measure the (for you) beneficial effects of that attack?

And how do you compare the beneficial effects of scaring liberals against the potentially damaging effects on the project of speech rights more generally?

What is more important, the principle or the strategy?

How do you intend to employ "offense" as a political strategy without falling into the traps of ressentiment that Nietzsche lays out in Genealogy of Morals?

As a side note: Judith Butler's Excitable Speech provides, I think, a potent critique of speech prohibitions, specifically so-called "hate speech" prohibitions, from a left perspective.

4:43 PM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

The beneficial effects of attacks on free speech from the right are the fact that they convince the left to support academic freedom.

As for "the potentially damaging effects . . . on speech rights generally:" remember, I'm talking prisoners dilemma. In such a game, it's absolutely necessary that each side think the other will defect if cooperation breaks down.

If the other side defects, you end up with a long prison sentence. That threat maintains cooperation.

As for whether the principle or the strategy is more important, you have to have a strategy to protect the principle. It does no good to preach about the principle and then allow it to be run over roughshod.

As for "ressentiment:" perhaps it is a bad thing for conservatives to be genuinely "offended." But a tit-for-tat strategy of claiming offense in response to every claim of offense from the left is likely to dampen such claims from the left.

Which is a good strategy all around.

8:45 PM  
Blogger Jim C. said...

Disingenuous "offense"--and perhaps even authentic "offense"--will never make for a good political strategy for the left or the right. (Wendy Brown's fantastic States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity also makes a similar claim.)

Here's why: Any time we represent ourselves as injured in order to achieve a political effect, we tend to fall efficiently and quickly into an us-versus-them, injured-versus-injuring dynamic.

Such a state of injury can, of course, be a powerful political tool. Conservative radio thrives on painting white men as incessantly injured in order to secure its political potency, moral authority, and emotional appeal. Your blog masthead attempts the same device by claiming that your speech is particularly vulnerable to censorship; you speak, literally, under the banner of the always-already victim. Similarly, left-leaning campus identity politics can devolve into meaningless competitions over exactly which group has the greatest claim to injury.

To be injured, in this framework, is not only to acquire a voice, but also to acquire a potent moral force behind that voice (the victim is always right, and power is morally suspect). However, claiming power from a position of injury is always dangerous: it means that, in order to preserve our power, we become committed to the furtherance of our own injury. We derive power precisely through our oppression. Our acts of ostensible challenge to the status quo instead become invested in maintaining that same status quo.

Moreover, under such a strategy, our injuries eventually become unbelievable. The strategy you propose is a strategy of crying wolf, is it not? ("I don't want them [attacks on speech] to succeed, but I do want leftist academics to be afraid that their academic freedom might be taken.") How will such a strategy ever succeed unless you're sometimes successful?

This eventual unbelievability is no doubt why you're so invested in claiming that racism and homophobia are minimal social realities, right? Because racism and homophobia, as claims, give power to those you consider your enemies -- non-conservative African Americans, "liberals," and all gay men and lesbians.

Perhaps it's time for all of us to return to Carl Schmitt, grappling for and asserting power actively against our political enemies rather than acquiring power passively, by vigilantly nurturing our own victimization.

11:36 AM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

Jim C.,

Why don't you tell all this to leftists? You seem to concede, at the end of your post, that they gain an advantage by playing the victim.

Tell them they should not do that.

If you actually believe they are the victims, and really don't mind the victim game (but just want it reserved for your side), they we have nothing to talk about.

And, by the way, I really am offended by the Folsom Street Fair, and will never buy Miller products again.

Tell the leftists to stop.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Jim C. said...

You don't address the substance of my argument, but that's neither here nor there.

Here's what you want to talk about instead:

Why don't you tell all this to leftists? You seem to concede, at the end of your post, that they gain an advantage by playing the victim.

I'll do more than seem to concede the point; I absolutely do concede it, though I'd be more careful and say "some leftists" (more on this below) and, as my previous post argues, I think the advantage gained is Pyhrric indeed. If I think states of injury make for bad political strategy, and I identify more with leftist goals than rightist ones, isn't it obvious that I'd make the same argument to leftists?

As you know, I cited influential texts by leftist political theorists like Judith Butler and Wendy Brown that argue against things like "hate speech" codes and the use of injury as political strategy. I did so to show that leftists are being told repeatedly that injury -- either mock or real -- makes for bad politics. As you no doubt know, Butler at least hardly counts as a marginal figure within the academic left. The same, I'd argue, also goes for Brown.

Now to this thing you call "the leftists" ---

At the end of your post you write, "Tell the leftists to stop," which is the way a pundit talks, not an academic. Perhaps like attacks on free speech this is also strategic on your part, rather than an expression of how you truly perceive the world.

"The leftists"! As if they amounted to a single, monolithic unit. If only the left were so organized! And if only I could write something that would have all leftists as an audience. Wouldn't that be a swell opportunity!

8:50 AM  

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