“Those who are determined to be offended will discover a provocation somewhere. We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics and it is degrading to make the attempt.” — Christopher Hitchens
It seems every year ends with lamentations on what went wrong and how the next one “can only get better”. In 2016, the election of Donald Trump sent much of the country on a tailspin between recounts, abolishing the Electoral College (a constitutionally enshrined institution, not like that changed anything), and the great tradition of quad-annual threats to move to Canada if they didn’t get their way. Once again, they all still live here. Whether that is because they never were going to move to Canada or because Canada’s immigration and citizenship policy made it more complicated than just calling Mayflower to bring them to freedom and hope again is left up to the reader, but if past experience on this is anything to go by, they were quite happy to sit and complain in a nation that has the American South for them to escape to without a passport.
It was in the stretch between then and now that we saw the further long-term destruction of words for short-term gratification (note, I did not say “gain”, I’ll get to that in a second.) There were the usual allusions to Hitler, the only point of reference Americans seem to have for a dictator, but we saw a great many words being used constantly, incorrectly, and to no effect. Tyrant, authoritarian, democracy, justice, social justice, equality, sexual harassment, assault and rape are all terms that come out of 2017 meaning virtually nothing just as “racist”, “bigot” and “homophobe” trudged out of 2016 in the same shape. For all the talk of tyranny and authoritarianism, we have the end of the individual mandate, gay marriage still exists and there were innumerable protests and ceaseless whining over everything from the Paris Accord to that damned “covfefe” tweet, ketchup on a steak, Kellyanne Conway’s legs, the Jerusalem embassy gambit, North Korea and ISIS. All of which, in their own way apparently, an affront to America, the world and/or the office of President of the United States. Each met with the same primal screech.
There needs to be a new category of word. Maybe we’ll call it the “Crucible term”. It’s an accusation leveled so often against so many without evidence that we may as well just admit that it is rarely if ever used now to point out what the word itself means. During the Obama years, it was hard to find a criticism of Obama that was not called racist. In 2016, the leading accusations were homophobe and Nazi. In 2017, the MeToo movement has weaponized the accusation of sexual harassment, and made an accusation carry the weight of an actual conviction, perhaps doing more damage to the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” than the previous two instances.
And to what end has this destruction of language really brought the country? What is the likelihood that one will be able to recognize and accept an honest, evidence-based case of racism or sexual assault or harassment? How many real cases have been swept under this wave of accusations? It is more reasonable than ever to question the motives of an accuser who comes out at just the right time with pretty much no evidence to back up their claims. And it is ridiculous that there was ever a time when asking someone for evidence was considered “cynical”. Evidence over emotion is how one should come to their conclusions. It seems all that would destroy the MeToo movement are two simple words: “Prove it”.
And yet, here is the problem with proving it. Some of these claims are 15, 20, 30 years old. So where do we go from there? The accused must either admit to something he didn’t do and be assumed a liar by a large portion of those watching the case, or deny it and bring upon them the hell of the Third-Wave feminist who sees admitting to something, regardless of whether or not it actually happened, as the first step towards solving the larger problem. Yet, logically, what we have is an accusation of an incident from years, maybe decades ago, with no evidence. Reasonable doubt is the only worthwhile standard, and sometimes that does mean some cases can’t be proven and the bad guys get away. It does not make sense to retroactively convict someone when there is even less evidence then there may have been 10 years ago.
Moving on from the use of accusatory language to achieve short-term gratification but long-term damage to the real cases, we have a battle over pronouns going on. Largely in Canada, the resistance to which (actual resistance, not #resistance) being spearheaded by Dr. Jordan Peterson, but starting to make its way to America in the growing trend of the “microagression”. A microagression is, ostensibly, a term that seems innocuous but is actually deeply racist or otherwise hurtful. Which terms are microagressions and which aren’t seems to change by the day and political situation. Some would say this is taking language seriously, I would counter by noting this is the exact same group that, as we’ve discussed, has destroyed the meaning of several once-important words and defines microagressions in ways that give them an edge over their moral inferiors. They do not take language seriously, they mean to use language as their new bulwark against opposing ideas, uncomfortable information and, as evidenced by the flippancy of how accusations are made, complex discussions they may end up on the wrong side of.
One last point on this, writer Christopher Hitchens has many excellent thoughts on freedom of speech and those who are offended by it. In his legendary defense of free speech in Toronto, he asked the audience who they would give the job of being the censor to. Even those in favor of censorship couldn’t offer suggestions. He noted thus “no one has the knowledge to make the call” of which words are “apt or inapt” and that one should question the motives of those who make the call. In particular the motives of those who seem determined to be offended, of those who will go “through a treasure trove of English” to find something to get upset over to satisfy themselves. I pose this same question to you. Can you think of anyone who would determine for you what you can and cannot say, read or hear that you would happily live under? If you answered yes, would you like to live under someone who sees the words you find inoffensive to be crass? The political monster one creates will one day be used against you when the opposite persuasion takes power, anyone who has lived through a shift from Republican to Democrat or vice versa knows that. Never apply to others a logic (or in this case, never force upon others a different way of speaking) that you wouldn’t allow to be applied (or forced) on you.
There is cause for optimism, despite the beating the English language has taken over the years. This ridiculous, militant hyper-sensitivity, like all forms of chaos, is unsustainable. We will inevitably come to a point where everything is offensive and we are approaching that by the more petulant among us paying laser-sharp focus on pronouns other people use (and it is always other people, never themselves). There will come a point where there are so many accusations of every slight, crime and insult that even the words “Slight”, “crime” and “insult” lose their power. In other words, when everything is offensive, the only option left is to talk about everything. What does it matter if you’re going to be offended by something that I say? Someone else will be offended by something else that I say. I am in the absurd position of only being able to win and lose simultaneously, so why give a damn about the outcome?
My only hope for free speech is that it will be embraced because this militancy is exhausting and short-lived. But it may come at great cost. When we reach this zenith, will there be a re-embracing of the idea that the accusation will need evidence? Will conversations become more rational and deeper? Will people begin to seek out opposing viewpoints specifically to challenge their own? We can only hope the majority of people awakened by this explosion embrace the more rational, scientific approach to issues that seems to be too simple. For the world to return to rationality after this orgasmic display of self-righteousness couched in anger seems like wishing for a hurricane to become a basic rainstorm in minutes. At the same time, I have the hope that we at least can return to a fuller embrace of free speech, and those who actively oppose it (under the guise of “protecting the marginalized” who surely deserve better self-appointed spokespeople) will lead us to it in their own dumb, screechy, obnoxious way.