Powerful protests for racial justice and political change have taken our nation by storm. After many years of hard work and slow change, our world has shifted decades’ worth in days. Though the direction of this change is positive, with it comes a dangerous rise in illiberal attitudes, which has become apparent in the practice of smear-mongering.
These developments are not productive to the aim of social justice and will result in a society built on the very same injustices ours is now confronting.
Last month, Civics Analytics dismissed former Obama campaign analyst David Shor, who had tweeted a paper written by Princeton politics professor Omar Wasow. In his research, Wasow found that violent protest had not electorally benefited the Democratic Party. By retweeting Wasow’s work, Shor was criticized for “using your anxiety and ‘intellect’ as a vehicle for anti-blackness.”
Considering that the University sits at the heart of academia, the prospect of being denounced for sharing an academic paper should concern all of us.
There have been recent cases where those condemned are less innocent. James Bennet, the New York Times’ opinion editor, resigned over his decision to allow the publication of a (factually incorrect) article by Senator Tom Cotton, who advocated for the use of the military to prevent violent protest from spreading.
Cotton may not garner much sympathy, but we should not gloss over Bennet’s downfall. Although the Times pulled the article because of factual issues, it also wrote that the article was “needlessly harsh and falls short of the thoughtful approach that advances useful debate.” This is surprising coming from the Times, whose Opinion section is itself not really free of harshness. As much as I enjoy the Times, I believe it must be much more rigorous in both its selection process and its criteria for pulling articles.
And now we have the ongoing case of Amy Cooper, who called the police on Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper. The case of Amy Cooper raises questions of appropriate punishment, considering the victim himself refuses to work with the prosecution against her. Cooper has lost most of her livelihood already and is now facing the nation’s criminal justice system, which many of us — myself included — denounce. Using a system of injustice to stop another is contradictory.
Out of all of these cases, I have the most sympathy for Shor. His is not an example of hate speech by any stretch of the imagination. Being fired for posting an academic paper to Twitter is a clear case of “smear-mongering,” which Atlantic journalist and Hopkins professor Yascha Mounk defines as the act of “smearing good faith participants in public debate as bigots or trying to cancel someone for ridiculous reasons.”
Smear-mongerers seek to discredit not the idea, but the person who raises it. By doing this, however, they have only intellectually discredited themselves.
Mounk and many other respected writers, artists, and academics recently signed the Harper’s open letter, which discusses the rise of ideological intolerance. The crumbling of liberalism and intellectual debate the letter addresses should not be taken lightly.
Amy Cooper, however, was not smear-mongered. It is beyond wrong to assume that a peaceful birdwatcher is a criminal because of the color of their skin. Her action was racist.
But should Amy Cooper go to jail, should David Shor have lost his job for posting Professor Wasow’s paper, and should the Times be inconsistently taking down articles? No. Instead, we should acknowledge that Amy Cooper’s firing was enough, that David Shor may share a paper, and that the Times should be wary of its own rhetoric.
To make a broader point, the way to change minds is not by using fear tactics, suppression, or harsh words. No progress will be made by telling someone how wrong they are and suppressing their views; this only alienates those who must be convinced. Doing so is political suicide, especially considering Donald Trump’s 4th of July speech, in which he stoked fear of a left-wing culture silencing dissenters. Proving that to be true will irreversibly fracture society.
My point here isn’t to undercut the media, but instead to illuminate the problem of smear-mongering. Indeed the problem is somewhat less about institutions but instead, as journalist Tyler Cowen put it, about “individuals who have arrogated the speech censorship functions to themselves.” We should be wary of those who shut down others because of ideological differences, and who define a person’s character because of a single belief of theirs.
Both the political left and right are liable to intolerance. As Jonathan Chait writes, “it is an error to jump from the fact that right-wing authoritarian racism is far more important to the conclusion that left-wing illiberalism is completely unimportant. One can oppose different evils, even those evils aligned against each other, without assigning them equal weight.” Smear-mongering is an evil we must remember.
So how should we go about dealing with the ardent dissenters of the School of Public and International Affairs’s name change or, more broadly, anyone we disagree with? Massive email chains labeling them as racists are not the way. Neither are articles picking at their rhetorical failures. The only solution to bring change is to respect who you’re talking with. Former University professor Kwame Antony Appiah said it best: “People in conversation … can continue to respect one another while continuing to disagree with one another.”
All too often, we’ve seen “good faith debate” wielded as a shield that protects a prejudiced person from rightful charges of racism. This is an incorrect usage. Good faith debate means engaging with different sources and perspectives, leaving your ideological dogmas at the door, or at least being willing to question them, and understanding that moral or theoretical disputes are distinct from a person’s character. Today’s debate has strayed far from this. It is closer to intellectual holy war.
We must all work hard to respectfully converse with and listen to each other. This can be tedious, tiring, and painfully frustrating.
But if we abandon practical, humanitarian change for ideological revolution, then what comes next will be a society that may be better but still fundamentally unjust. A society founded on injustices will be doomed to repeat them.
Ethan Magistro is a sophomore from Morristown, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.