Jen Gerson: In Defence of Naivete
On CBC snitch lines, media flame wars, and rejecting the Path of the Troll.
Well, holy shit that was a first good day!
It's the middle of Summer, scandals are a-brewing up north, the jackboots are on the march down south, and we're all going a little more squirrelly by the day as we await the second wave of Covid-19 and the final judgement on the nature of America in the via the re-election of Donald J. Trump. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting so much positive response to the launch of The Line in the middle of silly season, but I am delighted and thrilled to have you on board.
So forgive me my indulgence if I spend a little more time on a few follow up thoughts on our launch amid the Great Media Flame War of this godforsaken year of 2020. We've had the Harper's letter, numerous high profile American media resignations, the mainstreaming of a debate about "cancel culture" and much high minded paranoia about the state of illiberalism, both in the U.S., and in Canada.
A few weeks into this, and I find myself still mulling this essay by Slate writer Lili Loofbourow, and the Twitter thread that preceded it — though, to be frank, the Twitter thread was a better, punchier read.
Loofbourow has correctly diagnosed the problem with the state of the culture. After years of fighting on social media platforms that have gamified our outrage, we've lost the ability to engage in good faith disagreement. Every position, every phrase, every word is now tainted with subtext and baggage. For example, "Free speech" is now interpreted as coded support for neo-Nazism, "all lives matter" and "Black on Black crime" tropes are simply veiled racism.
Loofbourow's most telling tweet was her last:
She believes that trolls won the public sphere. Nothing anyone says can be taken at face value. At its heart, this diagnosis is an argument for nihilism.
Loofbourow herself admits that the path of the troll makes discourse impossible. If you can read the most uncharitable positions into your opponent's views, the actual text as presented becomes irrelevant. Facts cease to matter. Persuasion is impossible. What remains is a barren intellectual culture in which everybody speaks in dunks and code to signal their allegiance to a tribe, and, critically, everyone assumes everyone else is speaking in code to theirs.
The only way to "win" in this landscape is to reduce the scope of acceptable speech. Talking, writing, fighting — all of it is reduced to an exercise of raw power. Since the trolls have won, it follows from this argument, that participating at all is essentially a troll itself. The winning side is not the one that can make the better arguments, but rather the one that wins the ability to determine which arguments can be heard at all.
I'm sure that liberalism's critics would argue that it has ever been thus. That the powerful have always dictated which positions could be published. They have always determined the edges of the Overton window — and those edges always happened to protect the free speech of certain demographics above the free speech of the more marginalized. The thing we're really angry about when we rail against cancel culture, they argue, is the loss of our own power to set the terms of the debate.
Those of us who would define ourselves as the defenders of liberal values would fail to do ourselves much credit if we did not concede that there is some merit to this critique. But if the gatekeepers failed to uphold the liberal ideals, if they were biased, self-serving or hypocritical, those failures don't sully the ideals themselves. If we have made any progress as a society, that progress has most often come about when reformers used their talents to highlight the gap between our ideals and their execution.
All humans fail. In the long run, it's our values that hold. Or don’t.
So while I'm sympathetic to the arguments against liberalism, I’m unable to agree with them. I believe in the power of words, in their ability not only to constrain minds, but to change them. I believe that we have to hash out our differences and poke at each others' arguments to work toward a more just society. I believe in consent over coercion.
It would be fashionable, here, to note that the real threats to liberalism are overwhelmingly originating not from the "left" or "cancel culture" but rather from the conservative side of the political spectrum. That might be true, but to be blunt, I'm not interested in fighting about which side of an invisible line is the lesser or the greater evil. Illiberalism ought to be opposed wherever we find it, and all the more so when we find ourselves captive to it.
If you support a movement — whatever that movement is — because you believe in it, because the arguments it makes are persuasive to you, then your dissent and opposition should be honoured. But if you support it because you fear the consequences of opposition, or because you've been coerced into silence by an increasingly illiberal intellectual culture, then you are a captive. You've accepted the path of the troll. And you will continue to cede the range of acceptable debate until it is so narrow that there will be nothing to parrot but a brittle code.
So if the choice is between trollery or naïveté, I choose naïveté.
On a lighter note, I would like to end by drawing your attention to a few stories that have recently been published about one of Canada's publicly funded journalistic outlets — the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.* Firstly, this absolutely astonishing story that explains, in excruciatingly redundant detail, another case of editors using the N-Word in the hallowed halls of the MotherCorp.
In short, in April of last year, several staff screened a documentary that used the N-Word. The N-Word was subsequently used in a follow up meeting to discuss the documentary. Staff members complained, and the whole affair was investigated by an external third party. Confidentiality clauses appear to limit what can be released about that investigation.
Not so long ago, we discouraged journalists from covering their own institutions. Two reasons for this; firstly, because the motivations for this kind of self dealing can never be ignored. How can the CBC's choice to run a story like this be seen as anything other than either an act of external public relations, or an attempt to use scant public resources to manage an internal revolt?
Secondly, because sequestering three (three?!) separate journalists to write a ~2,400-word (?!) piece about a racial transgression that took place in an internal story meeting is the absolute height of self-indulgent scab picking. I've seen the CBC take down entire governments with fewer reporters and shorter stories than this.
But that's not even the wildest piece of news to come out of the Corp last week. The CBC's president also announced that in addition to a bevy of other measures to further the entirely laudable goal of increasing diversity, the corporation would launch a platform that sounds an awful lot like an anonymous snitch line to report racism — for when the existing Human Relations department simply isn't adequate to the task, I suppose? Of course, the CBC refers to the line as a "platform" called Be Heard.
Lord, just dump gasoline on my head and end it.
Look, I'm already on the record with my general opposition to anonymous snitch lines. They have a dark history. They're bad for society. They create a climate of fear, division, and suspicion in a moment when we should be striving to foster a culture of mutual respect.
But if snitch lines are merely bad for society, there is one place where I think they will be a true disaster. That place? Newsrooms.
Want to know why?
Because journalism is a brutal field rife with rejection, false starts, cliques, petty rivalries, and hurt feelings. Further, this industry tends to attract a lot of thin-skinned egotistical narcissists, and even a handful of truly malevolent status-seeking sociopaths.
Do you want to know the odds that an anonymous snitch line won't be abused by self-interested staffers seeking to take out a rival, or score points on a despised colleague with a coveted role? Zero. There is zero chance that this will not happen.
"So have fun with that," she said, as she got into her rickety wooden boat and cast off from the impassable shores she had once known. "Good luck, y'all."
*Note: I am a frequent contributor to the CBC. Though probably for not much longer. We'll see!
Given the financial success of The Line so far, I also wanted to note that all of our revenue will being devoted to paying for writing. Your contributions mean that I can commission real work, which I am so excited about sharing with you. If you would like to write for The Line, please reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org