The Perils of False Equivalence for Human Freedom
In the wake of the murderous attack that gravely wounded the internationally acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie, National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep, co-host of that network’s Morning Edition newscast, interviewed Iranian-American writer Azar Nafisi concerning the rising tide of attempts to silence and censor writers and teachers in the United States and other nations. As Inskeep discussed the present scenario with Nafisi, she noted that in,
any totalitarian mindset, even totalitarian mindsets in democracies, the first thing that they rely on in order to control the people and to preserve their power is lying. They feed and grow on lies. And the whole idea behind fiction, the whole idea behind journalism, actually, is seeking for truth no matter where it leads you. And truth is always dangerous because once you hear it, if you remain silent, you become complicit. Look at banning books and censoring books and even burning books, taking them off the shelves in libraries. Fiction humanizes what the tyrants dehumanize. And that is why writers like Rushdie are so dangerous.1
After asking Nafisi what she would advise parents today concerning the issue of exposure to truth and censorship, Inskeep went on to offer the following observation and query, which Nafisi briefly interrupted:
I don't want to say the political right and the political left in the United States are the same because they each have their own programs, their own approaches. Right now the political right has been using state power to limit what is taught or read in schools. People on the political left tend more often to use cultural power to push against expressions that they (Nafisi interrupted here) don't like. But is there something in common there, some common lack of interest in other points of view that says something larger about the country?2
Nafisi responded by arguing that extremists of the left and right exhibit ideological tendencies that permit both groups too often only to hear themselves. While I think that this argument is largely accurate for members of these radical minorities, I was far more troubled by an assumption in Inskeep’s question that Nafisi did not address: that using government power to press for or to abridge civil rights should be regarded as equivalent to using cultural power for the same purposes. Inskeep appeared to have in mind the contention among many in the GOP that those on the left unjustly demand that right-wing ideologues accept the civil rights claims of minorities, including LGBTQ individuals, because the great share of Americans do so because our Constitution guarantees those people the right to make life choices for themselves. For Inskeep, apparently, such assertions of majority preference and Constitutional understanding are equivalent to the minority Right’s efforts to use governments whose control it captures to limit and censor freedom of speech or the press for targeted groups according to its partisans’ preferences. I cannot imagine a more wrongheaded and anti-democratic stance. I offer several reasons for that conclusion next.
First, while majorities can and have tyrannized across history, it is not enough for individuals in the minority—far right groups in the GOP are a tiny minority within the nation—desiring to discriminate against specific individuals or groups to cry foul and argue that they are being censored by prevailing views concerning human rights that do not formally permit them that possibility. I offer two commonplace practical examples of this sort of contention among many Republican Party radicals. Many of these individuals argue they are aggrieved because immigrants are accorded equal rights and standing to “native” citizens and should not be in their view. Similarly, many purport outrage that Blacks, Hispanics, and those who espouse religious faiths different from their own, among other groups, are not regarded as “less than” because those within those groups are not white and/or Protestant or, are allegedly receiving undeserved assistance from government. Nevertheless, adopting a stance that undermines another’s civil rights in principle or in practice does not entitle the person assuming that view to claim that they are being unfairly discriminated against when told their unjust contention is not acceptable in law and social fact. Indeed, such discriminatory assertions are prima facie unjust.
Second, in the United States today, one is certainly entitled to believe personally that being gay is immoral, for example, but the right to have that view does not translate into a companion capacity to enlist government power to undermine the civil rights of individuals to decide for themselves what their sexuality may be. Nor, does arguing that one does not like a book on whatever grounds entitle the claimant to contend that they can employ government power to censor, jail or pillory those whose work offends their sensibilities. In fact, in such cases, the minority offering the claim, far from experiencing injustice, is practicing it. This is exactly what seems to be occurring today as the GOP leads attacks on school curricula and books using arguments and lies designed principally to anger its base concerning how outraged they should be that others have adopted beliefs different from those they profess.
More specifically, there is no moral equivalence between falsely declaring that all gay individuals or transsexuals are “groomers” and demanding that government power be enlisted to censor and restrict the activities and personal rights of those individuals, and a cultural decision that suggests that individual control over one’s personal beliefs represents a basic human and civil right that cannot and should not be abridged by one minority group’s misinformed assertions. Likewise, there is no moral or ethical equivalence between a minority of citizens contending that they are offended by a book or argument and should therefore be entitled to remove it from circulation and from consideration by others in society, and the fundamental right to freedom of speech and press that allowed that book’s author to produce it, and others to read it, in the first instance. Far from representing an equivalence, these are instead examples of a minority demanding that its preferences not only be permitted, but also socially established as legal fiat, despite the fact their perspectives are predicated on perverse lies and abridge the rights and freedom of targeted groups and individuals.
Third, Inskeep’s assumption of the equivalence of these stances lent credence to a GOP politics designed to sow fear and discontent and build anger and fear for purposes of political mobilization, as Nafisi warned, predicated on lies, amongst its followers. A free society surely need not and should not adopt every falsely concocted conspiracy-laden discriminatory claim made by groups in its midst who assert that they must be permitted that right or themselves suffer discrimination. But that is precisely what is occurring now in the name of mobilization. The GOP has launched multiple efforts across the nation to ban and censor books, restrict teaching on the nation’s history and on sexuality and otherwise to restrict free speech only to those views that its often wildly misinformed and unreasoned followers are willing to tolerate.
Finally, this strategy, pressed by those in the Republican Party who are using it in their quest for power, fits neatly into a racist and xenophobic meme that one may trace throughout American history in which minorities have periodically been attacked as “less than,” “avaricious,” “lazy” or “pernicious,” based on fear and their apparent difference.3 In each case, those pressing those claims have lost their argument, although never easily or completely, in the larger cultural battle and public square. That is, the contentions themselves and the insecurity and fear they curry have never abated completely in our pluralist society. It seems unlikely they ever will, as a willingness to fear and scapegoat inheres in humankind. Instead, the battle against authoritarianism and its companion siren calls of social status and pride, real or imagined, will always challenge freedom and democracy. Today’s GOP is only the latest political group to employ such tactics.
In this circumstance two conclusions appear warranted. First, journalists, obliged as they are to present the truth in so far as they can discern it, should never support those offering arguments that undermine freedom, even by appearing to accord their lies and imagined grievances anything like the moral standing of our nation’s fundamental principles. And second, observers should recall that individuals and groups today seeking to force this nation’s women (a majority of the total U.S. population), Black and Brown citizens, and a range of minorities into a less-than-standing have already, in fact, lost the war they perceive themselves to be waging.
Instead, they are engaged in a set of conflicts, however ugly, that they will ultimately lose in a society whose majority no longer countenances their assertions or fears and whose composition belies them, too. Here is how James Baldwin put this elemental point as he discussed the status of this nation’s African Americans in Notes of a Native Son more than a half century ago:
Yet, if the American Negro has arrived at his identity by virtue of the absoluteness of his estrangement from his past, American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist. This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. … The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. … One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact faced, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.4
The Republican Party today has hitched its proverbial wagon to a would-be autocrat preaching hate and calling actively for abridging the human and civil rights of millions of Americans, as scapegoats for fear of social change and shared responsibility for self-governance. As Baldwin observed, these shrill claims today ring hollow for the majority and cannot prevail in the long run in a society that no longer accepts their anti-democratic and subjugating premises. The question is rather whether that Party can so corrupt government institutions that it can garner and maintain power illegitimately. And that issue surely remains a live concern to which the country’s majority can, and must, respond.
1 National Public Radio, August 23, 2022. “An Iranian American Writer Makes a Case Against Censorship and for Rushdie, https://www.npr.org/2022/08/23/1118959407/an-iranian-american-writer-makes-a-case-against-censorship-and-for-rushdie, Accessed August 23, 2022.
2 National Public Radio, “An Iranian American Writer.”
3 Lee, Erika. America For Americans A History of Xenophobia in the United States, New York: Basic Books, 2019.
4 Baldwin, James. “The World is White No Longer,” from Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012; reprinted in Literary Hub, August 2, 2016, https://lithub.com/james-baldwin-the-world-is-white-no-longer/, Accessed August 28, 2022.
September 5, 2022