Many years ago, I volunteered a few hours after work to help the wood shop teacher at my son’s school. The children had carved various hardwood animals that all needed edges honed with a belt sander the kids were too young to use. I was just supposed to smooth out the marks left by the gouges and create clean lines, but in a few instances, particularly with the smaller figures, I became a bit zealous and over-sanded some of the forms into rather vague, wooden blobs. One moment the object in my hand was very clearly a cat, and the next moment, it was more like a Brancusi abstract. At that time in my life, I was writing a new series of magazine articles and had shared a few drafts with my best friend, who referred to my ardent cat sanding as an apt metaphor for what I had done to one particular revision. I had over-thought and over-edited the edges clean off the original, resulting in a less interesting experience for the reader. Fortunately, one can un-edit written work in a way that one cannot un-sand a wooden cat.
One of the essential, if not most essential, social habits required to preserve the right of free speech, at least as it is presently applied in the U.S., is a universal tolerance of all the uncomfortable, imperfect, even offensive edges that speech can produce. Not only does the right of speech depend on a culture that upholds this principle, but so does diversity of speech from a creative or intellectual perspective. And if we agree that this condition is ideal, then any form of collective intolerance of those edges will presumably have the opposite effect. For instance, we see some evidence of intellectual cat sanding in contemporary academia with efforts to improve upon tradition by, say, de-racializing the works of Mark Twain or demanding that college faculty provide some form of warning label prior to covering material that might “trigger” unpleasant emotions or thoughts among students.
In Part I of this topic, I used the term orthodoxy of tolerance, and it is these phenomena I had in mind. Because when this kind of intellectual cat sanding becomes collective, ideological, and militant enough, it produces a new orthodoxy that oddly enough claims tolerance as its foundation. In turn, this orthodoxy then demands policy that trims the barbs and smoothes the jagged edges from various forms of expression, and apparently this has happened in some institutions. Meanwhile, it is fascinating that these mewling sensitivities in academia have manifest coincident with evidence of “free speech fanaticism,” to quote Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau from his article The Abuse of Satire for The Atlantic. In this Op-Ed largely focusing on Charlie Hebdo, Trudeau offers his own perspective on the difference between satire and rank provocativeness; and he criticizes the speech absolutist who is blind to such distinctions. “Indeed, one of the nicer things about youthful cluelessness is that it’s so frequently confused with courage,” writes Trudeau.
That’s an interesting way to put it. And for the sake of conversation, we could say we’re seeing the rise of the speech Wimps concurrent with the rise of the speech Bullies, neither of which has anything to do with speech courage. The Wimps don’t want any unpleasantness, regardless of context, while the Bullies are such zealots about speech, that they act as though unpleasantness is the only thing keeping speech alive. “At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism,” Trudeau writes, summing up, for me anyway, both the Wimp and the Bully in one sentence.
But does any of this answer even part of the thesis question, which is whether or not speech itself is best preserved by more speech alone? When I began these essays, the hypothesis was that the mechanisms that either preserve or threaten free speech function entirely independent of the Internet as a mechanism for more speech. For instance, if a young person is never taught to think about the emotional paradox of embracing uncomfortable speech, it won’t necessarily matter if he and 100 million of his friends all have networked devices or, for that matter, never have them. But it is admittedly difficult to stick to that inquiry alone without considering the effect of the network itself. For instance, if the aforementioned Wimp perspective and Bully perspective become dominant points of view, and social media then provides the platform for each to attain mass and advance an orthodoxy, what happens to tolerance of all the great forms of expression that exist between a sanitized Huckleberry Finn and the mean-spiritedness of bad satire that “punches down?”
Do we fail to produce the next Doonesbury because it’s too edgy for the Wimps and too tame for the Bullies? Not necessarily. But I find these cultural shifts interesting because I suspect the increase in the raw tonnage of speech via social media has had something to do with fostering these views, which do not inherently promote a greater diversity of speech. As suggested in Part I, it is probably more valuable to pay attention to how speech might be changing in the digital age than it is to simply buy the premise that speech is “freer than ever” thanks to networked devices.