Michelle Goldberg has a characteristically interesting column about the difficult question of how to draw the line between mistaken ideas that should be the subject of good-faith formal and informal debate, and pernicious nonsense that should be either ignored or mocked:
It’s a natural response — and, in some cases, the right response — to try to hold the line against political reaction, to shame people who espouse shameful ideas. But shame is a politically volatile emotion, and easily turns into toxic resentment. It should not be overused. I don’t know exactly where to draw the line between ideas that deserve a serious response, and those that should be only mocked and scorned. I do know that people on the right benefit immensely when they can cultivate the mystique of the forbidden.
In February, Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has garnered a cultlike following, asked, in an interview with Vice, “Can men and women work together in the workplace?” To him, the Me Too movement called into question coed offices, a fundamental fact of modern life, because “things are deteriorating very rapidly at the moment in terms of the relationships between men and women.”
Having to contend with this question fills me with despair. I would like to say: It’s 2018 and women’s place in public life is not up for debate! But to be honest, I think it is. Trump is president. Everywhere you look, the ugliest and most illiberal ideas are gaining purchase. Refusing to take them seriously won’t make them go away. (As it happens, I’m participating in a debate with Peterson next week in Toronto.)
More debate, I think, is what’s needed. Not with everyone — I wouldn’t bother talking to a huckster like Milo Yiannopoulos, for example. But a left that’s confident in its ideas and values should be able to debate someone like Ben Shapiro, a young conservative who often speaks on college campuses, or Christina Hoff Sommers, a critic of contemporary feminism.
Ezra Klein recently demonstrated how progressives can engage with ideas they abhor in his two-hour podcast dialogue with Sam Harris, a star of the New Atheist movement who defended the right-wing thinker Charles Murray’s work on race and IQ. Klein appears to have put a lot of patient work into the debate, but given where we are now, such work is necessary.
Some might argue that respectfully debating ideas seen as racist or sexist legitimates them. There’s something to this, but refusing to debate carries a price as well — it conveys a message of weakness, a lack of faith in one’s own ideas. Ultimately, the side that’s frantically trying to shore up taboos is the side that’s losing.
Goldberg’s column is also a sly send-up of Bari Weiss’s recent “dark web” piece, as Goldberg uses an example of conversion to a taboo position that I more than suspect Weiss would find less than congenial:
I think I know what it feels like to be “red-pilled,” the alt-right’s preferred metaphor for losing one’s faith in received assumptions and turning toward ideas that once seemed dangerous.
For me, it happened over several visits to the West Bank. I’d inherited, without really thinking about it, a set of default liberal Zionist beliefs about Israel as the good guy in its confrontation with the Palestinians, whose hostility I understood to be atavistic and irrational. This view collapsed the first time I walked down Shuhada Street in Hebron, in a part of the city where more than 30,000 Palestinians live under Israeli military control for the benefit of 1,000 or so Israeli settlers. Palestinians whose homes are on Shuhada Street aren’t allowed to walk out their own front doors, because the street, constantly patrolled by Israeli troops, is reserved for Jews.
Going there, I felt a transformation not unlike the one my colleague Bari Weiss described in her recent article on what’s been called the “Intellectual Dark Web,” a group of iconoclastic thinkers, many on the right, joined together by their confrontations with, and rejections of, social justice ideology. “The metaphors for this experience vary: going through the phantom tollbooth; deviating from the narrative; falling into the rabbit hole,” wrote Weiss. “But almost everyone can point to a particular episode where they came in as one thing and emerged as something quite different.”
For my own part, I didn’t emerge an anti-Zionist, exactly, but anti-Zionist arguments I’d previously dismissed began to make sense. Such experiences, in which feelings of confusion and betrayal are resolved through immersion in a once-anathema body of knowledge, are extraordinarily powerful. Every passionate Jewish critic of Israel I’ve ever met has had one.
Goldberg’s piece brought to mind the current debate over the lingerie joke at the International Studies Association conference. (I confess that, even after reading several explanations of the origin of the joke, I still don’t “get” it — why was — or is — it considered funny when a man asks the elevator to stop on a floor that features women’s lingerie? Were levels of sexual repression high enough that it was considered transgressively funny for a man to simply say the word “lingerie” in a sufficiently crowded — and mixed gender? — elevator? I’m feeling a bit on the autism spectrum).
This incident is bringing out the usual suspects to whinge about “political correctness,” as illustrated by the lede to a National Review story about it:
Last month, a King’s College professor told a harmless joke on an elevator during an International Studies Association conference — and now, he’s facing disciplinary charges.
Of course the supposed “harmlessness” of this sort of thing is precisely what Simona Sharoni is questioning (Would Richard Ned Lebow have made the joke if either all of the people in the elevator had been men, or if he had been the only man in it?).
It’s unfortunate that Sharoni’s only formal option was to operationalize the ISA’s cumbersome and poorly drafted rules and procedures for dealing with this kind of thing (Conor Friedersdorf, who is usually pretty bad on “PC” controversies, has a surprisingly nuanced take on the matter). And predictably, she’s now being subjected to harassment from hordes of red-pilled MRAs etc. Such is life in Trumpland.