“Social media is something of a double-edged sword,” Roxane Gay wrote in Salon in 2013. “At its best, [it] offers unprecedented opportunities for marginalized people to speak… At its worst, social media also offers ‘everyone’ an unprecedented opportunity to share in collective outrage without reflection.”
She came at the issue from a liberal perspective, but she could just as well have been talking about today’s cultural conservatives. Conservatives are not without their own excesses when it comes to political correctness and outrage politics. In fact, according to a 2014 paper by Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, conservative politics is disproportionately represented among those radio and television programs most likely to elicit outrage.
This past month some conservatives got riled up over the removal of Confederate monuments. There were cries that the people of Charlottesville, Virginia, were “erasing history,” that they hated Southern culture, and that it was ultimately a war on George Washington, or something.
On the contrary, it is really the side defending Robert E. Lee and other Confederate statues that is guilty of political correctness. There can be nothing more PC than denying the facts of history in favor of a whitewashed narrative that serves one’s preexisting world view. Feel good pseudo-facts are repeated mindlessly among this cohort: the Civil War “wasn’t about slavery” (grievances about the North’s campaign against slavery were mentioned often in the declarations of secession ), it was about “state’s rights” (uh, that meant the “right” to own slaves), and the Union waited too long to end slavery (that’s because the Southern states opposed ending it).
Quickly, however, the conversation changes from being about factual claims to offended appeals about morality and heritage: Are you saying the South was wrong? What about my long-deceased ancestors who fought for the South? Whether or not every single Southerner was wrong was never the question, but even if it was, the fact that one person might be uncomfortable with a conclusion has no bearing on its truth value. Besides, it shuts down opportunities to have a productive discussion about how to handle such statues and monuments.
That America’s history towards race—like that of many countries—is wrought by uncomfortable truths is undeniable. Often the radical left’s activism itself takes the form of explosive outrage with no reflection, just hashtags and sloganeering. But there are useful discussions too, and those explorations shouldn’t be dismissed offhand merely because they emerge from the other side of the political aisle.
On August 17, Wilbert L. Cooper took up the question of Mount Rushmore in Vice. Taking a Daily Caller headline as his inspiration, the article was initially titled, “Let’s Blow Up Mount Rushmore.” Cooper expanded on the ongoing discussion about the flaws of our heroes to question the idea of larger-than-life monuments of anyone and the deification of our Founding Fathers. I don’t know if I agree with him, but his piece definitely made me think.
It didn’t do the same for some on the right, however. Rather than think about it, the populist right responded with righteous fury. “We may have hit peak media crazy,” Zero Hedge wrote, while incoherently tying Vice to “al-Qaeda.” “This kind of violent sentiment cannot be tolerated in a free society,” The Federalist Papers blog added.
Au contraire. Free speech—even “triggering” speech—must be tolerated in a free society. To slander a Vice editor for publishing an article that doesn’t take the government-approved party line on history, and uses hyperbole in the headline, is an affront to free speech.
The smear about him supporting violence is disconnected from reality on two levels: in the first place, the explosion was a hypothetical one (“If Rushmore ever did get ‘blown up,’ what should those dudes be replaced with?”). In the second place, the hypothetical explosion wouldn’t be targeting any hypothetical people. If we did decide to remove Rushmore, of course it would have to be blown up—that’s the only way to remove it from the mountain. Hypersensitive editors at Vice did change the headline to “get rid of” and added an editor’s note apologizing for the “misguided and insensitive headline,” evidently to assuage the anger of the obtuse people who clearly lack a sense of humor. But the whole debacle suggests that snowflake liberal college students aren’t the only ones demanding trigger warnings these days, especially when issues of race, patriotism, and the like come up: many alt right conservatives do too.
So the next time twelve football players take a knee during the anthem, or a protester burns a flag, or a Hollywood actress uses her acceptance speech as a soapbox, rather than rushing the stage, or questioning his or her patriotism—in other words, instead of indulging in their own version of a politically correct freak-out—conservatives should take a deep breath and move on.