Bari Weiss on self-censorship

March 5, 2021 • 9:30 am

I’m worried about Bari Weiss, for she seems to be publishing the same stuff over and over again. Or perhaps it’s just because I’m reading the same stuff over and over again, but from other people. Regardless, her new piece is in the Deseret News, an odd choice because it’s owned by the Mormon Church (LDS).  The topic is how many people silence themselves, both on the right (if they live in blue states), or the left (in red states or if you’re a “liberal” but surrounded by hyperliberals who will go after you, like at Smith College).

We already knew that, so click on the screenshot if you want to read it, and I’ll put a few tidbits below that may be new to you.

The “old” liberal consensus:

I was born in 1984, which puts me among the last generation born into America before the phrase “cancel culture” existed. That world I was born into was liberal. I don’t mean that in the partisan sense, but in the classical and therefore the most capacious sense of that word. It was a liberal consensus shared by liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats.

The consensus view relied on a few foundational truths that seemed as obvious as the blue of the sky: the belief that everyone is created in the image of God; the belief that everyone is equal because of it; the presumption of innocence; a revulsion to mob justice; a commitment to pluralism and free speech, and to liberty of thought and of faith.

. . . Most importantly, this worldview insisted that what bound us together was not blood or soil, but a commitment to a shared set of ideas. Even with all of its failings, the thing that makes America exceptional is that it is a departure from the notion, still prevalent in so many other places, that biology, birthplace, class, rank, gender, race are destiny. Our second founding fathers, abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, were living testimonies to that truth.

Well, we can leave the God part out, since most of us don’t believe in gods. We can still hold people deserving of equal treatment for other reasons, which are better ones: it is simple justice to treat people equally in terms of moral responsibility, the law, and so on, because there is no good reason to do otherwise, and society runs best when all are “equal” in this respect.  I have no problem with the rest of it.  And the last paragraph shows how the “new” liberalism—the liberalism of extremists—differs from that worldview.

The new “illiberal orthodoxy”:

This old consensus — every single aspect of it — has been run over by the new illiberal orthodoxy. Because this ideology cloaks itself in the language of progress, many understandably fall for its self-branding. Don’t. It promises revolutionary justice, but it threatens to drag us back into the mean of history, in which we are pitted against one another according to tribe.

The primary mode of this ideological movement is not building or renewing or reforming, but tearing down. Persuasion is replaced with public shaming. Forgiveness is replaced with punishment. Mercy is replaced with vengeance. Pluralism with conformity; debate with de-platforming; facts with feelings; ideas with identity.

According to the new illiberalism, the past cannot be understood on its own terms, but must be judged through the morals and mores of the present. Education, according to this ideology, is not about teaching people how to think, it’s about telling them what to think. All of this is why William Peris, a UCLA lecturer and an Air Force veteran, was investigated because he read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” out loud in class. It is why statues of Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln were torn down last summer. It is why a school district in California has banned Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” It’s why the San Francisco School Board just voted to rename 44 schools, including ones named for George Washington, Paul Revere and Dianne Feinstein — you read that right — for various sins.

Okay, that’s a good list, but we know much of this already, although perhaps Weiss’s readers don’t. But she’s way behind the news curve, as with the school renaming. However, here’s one tidbit I’d missed:

In this ideology, if you do not tweet the right tweet or share the right slogan or post the right motto and visual on Instagram, your whole life can be ruined. If you think I’m exaggerating, you might look up Tiffany Riley, the Vermont public school principal fired this fall because she said she supports Black lives but not the organization Black Lives Matter.

You’re gonna get paywalled if you try to follow those links, so here’s the story from Vermont local NBC news outlet:

Riley’s post said she firmly believes that “Black Lives Matter, but I DO NOT agree with the coercive measures taken to get this point across; some of which are falsified in an attempt to prove a point.”

She went on to write that while she wants to get behind Black Lives Matter, “I do not think people should be made to feel they have to choose black race over human race. While I understand the urgency to feel compelled to advocate for black lives, what about our fellow law enforcement? What about all others who advocate for and demand equity for all?”

Her post generated more than 100 comments and was widely shared, the school board said. She was placed on paid administrative leave June 12 and the board unanimously voted on July 27 to fire Riley, pending a termination hearing. The Sept. 10 hearing was held in a closed executive session, although Riley tried to have the hearing open to the public.

Not a smart Facebook post if you want to retain credibility with your community, but it is still within Riley’s freedom of speech to post this on Facebook. Indeed, she filed a freedom-of-speech and defamation lawsuit in 2020 but I haven’t found much about it since. You shouldn’t get fired for exercising your freedom of speech unless it somehow contravenes your ability to do your job or reflects badly on your employer, nether of which seems to be true in this case.

Finally, Weiss explains what’s new about “cancel culture” as opposed to previous “discussions” about differing views:

But what we call cancel culture is a departure from traditional taboos in two ways.

The first is technology. Sins once confined to the public square or the town hall are now available for the entire world for eternity. In our era of Big Tech there is no possibility of moving to a new town and starting fresh because the cloud of all of your posts and likes hangs over your head forever.

The second is that in the past, societal taboos were generally reached through a cultural consensus. Today’s taboos, on the other hand, are often fringe ideas pushed by a zealous cabal trying to redefine what is acceptable and what should be shunned. It is a group that has control of nearly all of the institutions that produce American cultural and intellectual life: media, to be sure, but also higher education, museums, publishing houses, marketing and advertising outfits, Hollywood, K-12 education, technology companies and, increasingly, corporate human resource departments.

And this leads to self-censorship. Even I have to worry about shutting up when I address certain topics, though I have little to lose.

At any rate, although what’s above may be news to the good citizens of Utah, it seems to be banging the same old drum, with the addition of gods.  Or maybe I’m just splenetic today.

18 thoughts on “Bari Weiss on self-censorship

  1. I’m worried about Bari Weiss, for she seems to be publishing the same stuff over and over again.

    This article of hers was indeed a re-hash, but she’d previously said it on her Substack, whereas this was for the different audience of Deseret News, which seems fair enough.

    1. I think she was trying to reach a new audience.
      That said I find her a little odious and repetitive. She’s like those bands in the 80’s – one hit wonders. Great song, loved it, but buy the single, not the whole album.

      in her case she’s actually a 2 hit wonder (Bananarama? The Bangles?) – those 2 hits being cancel culture and anti-Semitism.
      I’m a writer, of sorts (Forbes, counterpunch, etc) and I do try to write broadly across as many topics as I have any respectable grip on. Bari doesn’t.


  2. The only advice I have for her is to stop living in fear. Same as I would say to anyone caught in the cycle where everyone is in some group on the left or right and must pretend to act in a specific way. To me the whole business is nuts. Either you stand up for your own belief or you remain quiet out of fear of one kind of trouble or another from the masses. I could not live that way and I don’t. There is nothing new about this herd culture, it has been around long before the internet with all it’s problems. If it is from the platforms on the internet, then stay off the damn thing.

    There has been many others in the past that went against the grain and survived for years. Read the story of John Quincy Adams if you do not believe this is so. He spent many years of his life working and fighting against the tide of slavery and southern rule in this country.

  3. Yes indeed, the good old-fashioned “courage of one’s convictions.” To enlarge on this point of yours, “[t]here is nothing new about this herd culture,” I happened to walk by a bookcase in my home library yesterday evening, and took special notice of the following books, written years ago but still pertinent today, viz., Kindly Inquisitors, by Jonathan Rauch (1998); Culture of Complaint, by Robert Hughes (1993); and Dictatorship of Virtue, by Richard Bernstein (1994).

  4. I find I don’t really agree with her generalizations about the recent liberal past, couched as if it was a relatively rosier time. Yes, we have deeper divisions across the major parties, and Twitter mobs have destroyed the lives of good people. But in the time frame described it was commonplace to see unfettered misogyny in the workplace. There was most definitely a kind of patriarchy which moved to protect powerful men or male organizations from sexual harassment and even assault. I’ve seen it. And gay people could be a bit more open, but doing so still created a real danger for them, and you could pretty much forget it if you were transgender. If you think policing is bad now, remember how it was in the ’70s and ’80s.

    1. Yes, agreed. I mean, I wasn’t allowed to watch Sesame Street as a kid because it was ‘secular propaganda’. I was pulled out of various health/science classes because my parents didn’t want me exposed to certain information. Oh, also that time I was pulled out of middle school English because we were reading Siddartha. Cancel Culture is nothing new on the right – they’ve been censoring things forever. Heck, my folks took us down to the Washington mall when Clinton was cancelled impeached so we could witness that important moment in history.

      And as for the workplace, is it not the professional norm to self-censor? My previous place of employment was all republican. I was a closet democrat, and none of them knew any of my political opinions. I’d scurry down the hall to the one other democrat on the building floor to quickly speak in hushed tones of whatever news we wanted to discuss, always looking over my shoulder. Is that an awesome thing? No, but I’m pretty sure keeping a lid on things while at work is not a bad idea.

      1. Well that to me sounds like a couple of degrees short of self imposed living in Stasi controlled East Germany.
        Exaggeration admittedly and I take it nobody was carted off for interrogation but in a democracy you could not express your veiws? My MO is to try and make ‘them’ as uncomfortable as they are trying to make me, stuff that.
        This from google:
        Within East Germany it sought to infiltrate every institution of society and every aspect of daily life, including even intimate personal and familial relationships.
        A Chinese work colleague effectively shut a conversation down when I started to criticise the CPP, our relationship cooled somewhat but has remained cordial… it made me wonder why he immigrated.

  5. Thanks for “splenetic”. A new one for me, at least.
    The pace of cancel culture is troubling. It is no longer a long march through institutions. The Dr. Seuss thing particularly. He went from a beloved and very liberal national treasure to a pariah in record time, and not like Bill Cosby who had terrible secrets revealed.
    At least we can still buy the “Little House” books, even though Wilder has been officially denounced and scrubbed from the “The Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal”.

    But self censorship is certainly a primary goal of cancel culture. The individual shrews who do most of the pointing and screeching are likely motivated by the same sorts of reasons that bullies always have, but making an example of someone like Geisel, besides providing the thrill of destroying someone better than you are, provides a lesson to everyone else.
    Of course, there seem to be some flaws in the system. For one thing, submission and obedience does not grant you pardon most of the time. The other problem is that no reasonable person could predict what might bring the pitchfork wielding mobs to your door. There is not enough consistency in their reasoning to allow one to avoid their wrath.

    I wonder if they target some people just because of their many accomplishments and the fact that they are generally viewed as wholesome and decent? Is Fred Rogers next?

    1. “Is Fred Rogers next”?
      Quite possibly. I don’t have the details (and so I could have something wrong here), but as I understand it he had a recurring character on his show who was depicted as a kindly black policeman. In real life, this person was also a closeted gay (it being the ’70s or so), and when he dared to come out for the first time in his life by going to a gay establishment he was promptly ‘outed’. “Mr. Rogers” was concerned of a scandal so he fired him.

      1. The actor, Francois Clemmons, played “Officer Clemmons” on The Mister Rogers Show for 30 years. Fred Rogers never fired him, but when he learned Clemmons was gay, early in that 30-year run, he did tell him he’d have to keep it on the downlow if he wanted to remain on the show. (Rogers already had the rightwing all over his ass because he was viewed as the embodiment of 1960s’ permissiveness.)

        One of the most famous segments ever on the show (recorded after Rogers had learned Clemmons was gay), involved Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons sharing a wading pool and towel, at a time when many swimming pools across the US remained racially segregated:

          1. You ask me, that little look he gives the camera at the end, while using the same towel just used by Off. Clemmons, was a “fuck you” to the bigots — or at least as close to an f-bomb as Fred Rogers was ever like to drop in his own neighborhood. 🙂

  6. It was a liberal consensus shared by liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats […] The consensus view relied on a few foundational truths that seemed as obvious as the blue of the sky: the belief that everyone is created in the image of God; the belief that everyone is equal because of it; the presumption of innocence; a revulsion to mob justice; a commitment to pluralism and free speech, and to liberty of thought and of faith.

    What about satanic panic, comics code, or throwing Dixie Chicks off air, because they critisized George Bush — to name but a few examples. Even though then-progressives also helped with censorship (Wertham in 1954, or the late-1980s “political correctness” craze), conservatives in particular have been busy cancelling for the longest time; canceled labour movements, banned works deemed “unAmerican” and cultivated blacklists of unpersons.

    At some point the holy alliance of christian-nationalism wasn’t just important enough anymore, and there were large enough “other” consumer groups and international markets in the wings, for profits. That’s when the other half of “US-conservatism” gained ground — libertarianism — and profit and corporate interests led to deregulation in the Reagan era, ironically allowing material on air that was deemed offensive, indecent or thought to spoil children in earlier times. But conservatives never stopped trying and as the Dixie Chicks example shows, occasionally succeeded.

    That’s why it’s better to read her next door substack neighbour Matt Taibbi, who penned last July “The Left is Now the Right” (my view, which I maintain for a long time, is that wokism isn‘t “The Left”).

  7. I don’t think Officer Clemens (Francois Clemmens) was outed or especially fired.. There is an interview in Vanity Fair (June 27, 2018) Clemmens in which he talks about being gay, on this show, his commitment to the role, issues he weighed in staying on the program, his relationship with Rogers, accommodations he made, the then and now, etc. Worth reading.

    Of course, a correction would be appreciated.

    1. That was a very nice article, thank you. Both Rogers and Clemmons were quite aware of the time they were living in. From Clemmons:

      “You know, the articles that have talked about me, I don’t think they’ve taken into full account that societal norms were vastly different than what they are right now.”

      “I weighed this thing, the pros and the cons. And I thought, I not only have a national platform, I’m getting paid. I was also getting a promotion that I simply could not have afforded to pay for. Every time I did the show, and every time Fred took us across the country to do three, four, five personal appearances, my name was being written into somebody’s heart—some little kid who would grow up and say, “Oh, I remember him, I remember that he could sing, I remember that he was on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Leave a Reply