A Twitch

When someone does something inexplicable, something that does not make
sense, you can respond in one of two ways: you can decide they’re an idiot—that
there is something wrong with them—or you can speculate that perhaps
there’s something going on there that you don’t understand. You can assume you
have all the facts that you need to make sense of the situation, or you can
ask: what would need to be true for this person’s action to make sense?

It doesn’t make sense, on the face of it, that New York Times opinion
columnist Bret Stephens would respond to a person who called him a “bed bug” by
trying to get that person fired. It seems inexplicable that so vigilant a
champion of free speech as the author of “Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort” would email the provost of the university where the professor who insulted him works, an action that makes no sense except as an effort to silence or retaliate against a person for their speech.

It makes no sense for that action to have been taken by the person who inflicted the following words on the University of Michigan in February of last year: “What bothers me is that too many people, including those who are supposed to be the gatekeepers of liberal culture, are using these platforms to try to shut down the speech of others, ruin their reputations, and publicly humiliate them.”

Since he is, himself, a gatekeeper of liberal culture, it would be easy (and
fun) to look at his attempt to punish, publicly humiliate, and shut down the
speech of Dr. David Karpf and respond by saying things like: “Bret Stephens is
a hypocrite,” “Bret Stephens is dumb,” or “Bret Stephens is operating in bad
faith.”

If we say these things, however, we would be crossing the one red line that
Bret Stephens defends, the one form of speech that must not, it turns out, be
protected. Bret Stephens believes that making the reader uncomfortable is a
core, identifying tenet of journalism—“if we aren’t making our readers
uncomfortable every day, we aren’t doing our job,” he writes. But he carves out
one exception, the “gratuitous insult.” Making people uncomfortable is a
professional requirement, but as he quickly clarifies, “I don’t mean we should
gratuitously insult them if we can avoid it.” 

I will leave to the philosophers the question of whether an insult can be
both “gratuitous” and unavoidable, but this distinction is the thing you have
to grab onto to understand why the author of so many defenses of free speech
has behaved in the way he has. “To be unsettled and discomforted is the world’s
great motivator,” he writes; speech that “is a prick to conscience, a prod to
thinking, a rebuke to complacency and a spur to action” must be free. But if
gratuitous insults are something else, and belong in different category, then
it makes perfect sense why, on receiving such an insult, he would attempt to
retaliate.

Another problem emerges, of course: Bret Stephens once called antisemitism a “disease of the Arab mind,” a phrase which would seem to exemplify exactly the kind of racist speech he was ostensibly attacking at that very moment. To declare that Arabs have a particular kind of diseased mind—that being Arab means congenital bigotry—is certainly an unsettling, and what kind of action is it meant to spur us to take? More to the point, it’s hard to square this position with what he would go on to say this morning, that an insect metaphor like that is “dehumanizing and totally
unacceptable no matter where it comes from” (noting that “There’s a bad history
of being analogized to insects that goes back to a lot of totalitarian regimes
in the past”). Is calling Bret Stephens a “bed bug” dehumanizing and
totalitarian in ways that describing Arabs as having diseased minds isn’t? That
would also seem to have a “bad history.”

Bret Stephens also once described Palestinians as “trapped in ideological amber,” and then asked, rhetorically, “How long can the world be expected to keep staring at this
four-million-year-old mosquito?”

The way to square all this is to distinguish between attacks on an
individual and attacks on ethnic groups. One might say that there’s a kind of
disease of the right-wing mind which prevents people like Bret
Stephens—especially when they are straight, white, rich, and male—from
perceiving the validity of group identities. If you believe that there’s no
such thing as society—as Margaret Thatcher once famously declared—that there
are only individual men and women and families, then imagining you are part of
a society is the problem. This is especially easy to do for someone like Bret
Stephens; because they have no group identity themselves (or, rather, they reject
being described as what they are, straight white rich and male, and regard it
as an attack), then why wouldn’t they insults of that nature to be dehumanizing?
After all, if being an individual —and having no distinguishing marks
other than that—is what makes you human, then it’s being part of a collective that
dehumanizes. You’ll be lost in the hive and the swarm. And so, the solution to
that dehumanization is to free yourself from it, and be an individual instead.
Break out of the amber. Be like Bret Stephens: be nothing in particular.

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