Tribalism is a greater threat to free speech than Millennial lefties on campus

My Facebook friend Cristina Lopez G asked me my opinion on Will the Left Survive the Millennials?.

Lionel Shriver, having recently been victimized by SJWs on a college campus, writes: “Viewing the world and the self through the prism of advantaged and disadvantaged groups, the identity-politics movement — in which behavior like huffing out of speeches and stirring up online mobs is par for the course — is an assertion of generational power.”

Shriver doesn’t seem to like the prism of advantaged and disadvantaged groups, but doesn’t present an alternative. I guess it’s viewing the world and the self without the prism of advantaged and disadvantaged groups. Which is an option, I suppose. But this “head in the sand” approach reminds me of the saying: Claiming you don’t see race just reveals that you refuse to see racism.

I’m sure what Shriver really wants is a more nuanced look at advantaged and disadvantaged groups, and to not feel forced to not apply this heuristic to every interaction. I want that too. I think most people want that. So to steel man arguments against Shriver’s view, I’ll rewrite “viewing the world and the self through the prism of advantaged and disadvantaged groups” as “acknowledging systemic, identity-based oppression.”

Systemic, identity-based oppression is a real thing, an important thing, a life-or-death thing. Ask Sandra Bland. Oh wait, you can’t. The cops killed her in jail for no reason after pulling her over for no reason while she was driving to a job interview.

Shriver dismisses such trivial concerns over systemic, identity-based oppression as “the identity-politics movement.” I’ve written before about how all politics is identity politics. Calling the people who disagree with you part of “the identity-politics movement” is akin to saying “these people who share an identity want to see policy and cultural change that benefits them.” Sick burn, Shriver. I’m fairly certain the same could be said of you, though.

Shriver then attempts to connect acknowledging systemic, identity-based oppression with “behavior like huffing out of speeches and stirring up online mobs.” Sure, there are small groups on college campuses acting badly. Shriver is keenly aware of this oppression, being a recent victim. Certainly more aware of this oppression than other victimizations to which she herself has not been recently subjected. But then that’s how people are. Now, I could pull a Shriver and dismiss her concerns about threats to free and open discourse as “old, rich, white women getting offended that the kids are calling her out on her clueless, anachronistic racial insensitivity.” But I’m a better person than she is. That, or I consider almost everyone my ideological enemy and therefore apply my cynicism more broadly.

But really, Shriver isn’t my opponent. Neither are righties or lefties more broadly.

Speech suppression is my enemy. Online mobs are a lackey of my enemy. As are students shouting down speakers. As are laws prohibiting speech. Speech suppression isn’t a lefty thing any more than they’re a righty thing.

Just look at the collective conservatives mind-losing over Colin Kaepernick taking a fucking knee. Not to mention efforts to outlaw pornography. Not to mention harassment campaigns targeting journalists who cover Donald Trump with Nazi posters and death threats. A cursory look around reveals that speech suppression impulses don’t victimize the left or right exclusively. They victimize the illiberal, the authoritarian.

At core, you have some people who are good at and passionate about acknowledging systemic, identity-based oppression, and others that are very good at and passionate about denying it. Neither group has a monopoly on shouting each other down or stirring up online mobs.

The first step to free and open discourse is correctly identifying its enemy. And it isn’t Millennials. It isn’t just the left. It isn’t just the right. Ironically, the tendency for people on the right to blame lefties for killing free speech and vice versus is itself a greater threat to free speech than the individuals on either the left or the right. That tendency is part of the larger problem of tribalism. It’s best friends are the unthinking, unchecked embrace of authoritarianism, theocracy, and groupthink. These are our enemies. Not each other.


Tribalism’s greatest foe, and free speech’s greatest ally, is liberalism. And liberalism simultaneously acknowledges systemic, identity-based oppression and demands that all people have the right to free and open discourse. Shriver should give it a whirl.


  1. Chris

    Sounds about right, even though there are movements on the left that explicity reject free speech. :The rationale being that a lot of free speech advocates, especially a lot of conservative leaning libertarians and alt-righters are more concerned with the right to say horrible things to powerless people than the right to protest injustices. I mean taking it that far is kinda shortsighted.But in my opinion people who value free speech because it allows them to be verbally abusive and insensitive but will tell you to stop whining about the u.s. government because free speech make it pretty difficult to empathize with the position.

  2. Earl

    Overall I agree with the article. Though one point, i feel that you used “steelmanning” in a way completely contrary to it’s purpose. Generally to take the best possible interpretation of an argument, to argue against. Instead you took the best interpretation of an argument that the person you are arguing against is arguing against, essentially fashioning it into a golem to help fight on your behalf. If the point in steelmanning is to create the best possible discussion, then it must be extended to all parties.

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