A Progression of Politics
In the Biblical tale of the Tower of Babel, God punished the people who endeavored to build a tower to reach heaven by confusing their language so that they could no longer communicate with one another, then commanded them to spread themselves around the planet, thus explaining the many languages of the world that already existed in biblical times.
Perhaps that explains, allegorically at least, why even to this day when people attempt to debate political issues that divide us, it becomes arduous, if not impossible, to agree on the terminology we wish to use, let alone the genuine issues.
What does the word “liberal” mean? It depends both on who you ask, and just as importantly when you ask. Even in the early part of the 20th century, the term “classical liberal” came about to distinguish the original meaning from a perceived incipient designation. The earlier meaning involved a belief in limited government, as opposed to a government that had a strong central controlling authority such as a king or dictator.
Over time, however, the meaning shifted to something associated with change. After all, the move away from authoritarian government was a consequential shift, particularly in the Western democracies. An obvious question, it seems, should have been whether the new emphasis on change had any specific end goal, or was just any change sufficient, for the sake of change alone.
Changes on one side of the political spectrum demanded changes on the other, and so to differentiate themselves from individuals and groups who wanted so much change, there were those who thought that things were fairly good as they were: conservatives.
With the spectrum being defined more in terms of change than the nature of government, each side strove to poison the well of political discourse by utilizing the word that represented the antithesis of their own view as an epithet, or insult, often with negative modifiers for accentuation: “dirty liberal,” “rabid conservative,” and my favorite: “neoconservative.”
While “neoconservative” was rarely (not never) applied by anyone to themselves, there were many who used the word as if it referred to some sort of extreme and undesirable form of thought.
Such is the nature of the wars of words that we so frequently engage in that we settle for forcing an undesirable label (altercasting) on an opposing group rather than attempting to actually consider the underlying topics. George Orwell did not invent this form of conflict, but he did take note of it as a central theme in his best-known book 1984, and while an oppressive regime that installed a camera in every room did not arise in that year, the regular pole-reversal of our political speech was well underway by then.
In fact, if “neocon” can be congruously applied to anyone, it would be to a subset of the “radicals” of the 1960s who occupied college buildings and brought classes to a standstill demanding freedom of speech, and an end to the war in Vietnam. When that war ceased, many of these people tarred with epithets such as “radical” and “hippy” decided that they had better get on with their lives, finish their educations, and commence pulling down substantial earnings by becoming the same sorts of politicians, university administrators, and lawyers that they had formerly opposed; in other words, “conservatives.”
These “new conservatives” were particularly despised by the remaining left as turncoats.
Our current reality, if properly understood, is such that a seemingly uncountable number of modifiers are needed to position anyone on the political spectrum, and the modifiers themselves are a moving target. How is an “assault weapon” defined? What constitutes a “late-term abortion”? And so on.
As the definitions change, so must history be rewritten. Numerous people who call themselves conservative today, if presented the views of John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, or Daniel Patrick Moynihan, without listing those people’s names, would find themselves much in agreement, while many of today’s liberals might find themselves in agreement with the views of Dwight Eisenhower when he warned that the biggest danger to our freedoms was the growing aspect of society he deemed the “military-industrial complex.” For that matter, what liberal of the 60s could disagree with that assessment?
Left, right, liberal, conservative, neoconservative, new left, progressive, you can’t tell the players without a program, and word space limitations prohibit us from even touching on each of the variations here.
Whither Free Speech
All of the above is a prolog to the question of what, if anything, has happened to the long-standing reverence that liberals (of every kind) have had for free speech. Correctly or not, popular culture has it that liberals want to allow just about everything, and especially freedom of speech (and other forms of expression). It is thought that only conservatives (whether they were conserving the values of a king, a large and powerful institution, or big banks) were the ones that were all about suppression.
This notion, though, does not hold up under close scrutiny. Throughout history, it appears as if the chief motive for seeking to suppress information has more to do with personal or collective shame or failure than with political leanings. Information stolen by Daniel Ellsberg on the futility of the Vietnam War effort would have been at least as damaging to Richard Nixon’s predecessors as to Nixon himself. Yet Nixon would be the first of several modern politicos to learn the lesson that a cover-up can grow to eclipse in prominence that which was covered up. President Barack Obama came into the White House desiring to continue using his beloved Blackberry phone, which had the property of routing private messages through servers in Canada, while Hillary Clinton thought to head off scandal by maintaining her own email server. What could possibly go wrong?
As of late, it seems to be the left side of the spectrum rather than the right that has the most to say about what other people say and how they say it. Because the left has crafted such a “big tent” of previously unaffiliated special interest groups, typically minorities of one kind or another, it has been possible for them to build a virtually impenetrable fortress against all criticisms of their points of view by simply making certain words and thoughts toxic.
Nevertheless, in spite of the nervousness that we might feel when it turns out that the former proponents of openness look to have transformed into the thought police, the more preponderant reality is otherwise. The most common motivations for wanting to shut down other people’s ideas are that you find them personally embarrassing or distressing, and that includes the likelihoods that the ideas hold some merit, and that you are unable to counter what is argued with facts which support your own positions. But these mentalities are not inherent in an exclusive sense to any single politicial affiliation, and they are not as widespread as we have recently, and increasingly, been led to think.
The overstated story of such suppression and its prevalence will have “legs” solely to the extent that the personalities involved are well-known to the public, which in many cases they are not, and so the tales quickly fade into the background and away from the collective consciousness, merely to be resurrected again later across social media sites on what would otherwise be slow news days. On thousands of university and college campuses around the country, where much of the media would have us believe that attempted and successful suppression are rife, debate rages on regarding all manner of topics from a variety of perspectives, and we hear nothing about it because it is so common.
But leave it to certain special snowflakes to gain momentary attention for themselves in order to prove that they are a force to be reckoned with, even when it turns out that they have done little more than embarrass themselves and the causes which they claim to represent by working to shut down discussion altogether. The click-bait nature of mainstream media, now in the death throes of dependence on 20th century advertising concepts, only makes a mountain out of this molehill of an issue.
However, let me not leave you with the impression that I think that suppression of debate should be ignored entirely, even if it may not yet be a rampant problem. There is something that rubs many of us the wrong way, as it should, about a rigged election or a debate wherein the victor can be announced in advance based on the venue or sponsors.
We should learn to expect more from instances of civil discourse than a scripted or choreographed contest amongst or between professional stage performers. Look for evidence that participants are seeking their 15 minutes of fame, and give it to them if you must, but provide no more than that. Because, for serious minds, there are serious matters afoot, and we best be getting to them.