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Endarkenment: Postmodernism, Identity Politics, and the Attack on Free Speech

Many today find the idea of free speech appalling—an awful fact to those who believe in freedom, quaint as it sounds. Left-liberals agitate to prevent disagreeable expression. Their masked street allies physically attack those who engage in it. Left-liberal defenses of such hostility and assault follow. NYU Vice Provost Ulrich Baer’s recent New York Times’ opinion piece, “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech” serves in the latter role. But Baer aims even lower, attacking what he considers the foundations of free speech arguments. In so doing, a perhaps unforeseen notion arises: both postmodernism and identity politics, on their long march to social power, sought to overthrow their respective enemies with ideological forms that mirror or caricature those of their enemies, or what they imagine in their enemies. That is, in a sense, they fight fire with fire. In the instance of postmodernism, per Baer’s example (addressed below), it fights fire with fire in that it fights a reasonable-posing irrationality with a different reasonable-posing irrationality. (Certainly I am not the first, nor the best, to notice that postmodernism, or its elements (such as identity politics), end up fighting fire with fire. Helen Pluckrose, in her recent masterful “How French ‘Intellectuals’ Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained“, summarizes a long section thus, managing to bring in the bugbears of postmodernism’s leading saints: “Postmodernism has become a Lyotardian metanarrative, a Foucauldian system of discursive power, and a Derridean oppressive hierarchy.” That is, it is what its proponents rail against.) In the other case, identity politics fights fire with fire more directly by adopting a key feature of racism and bigotry (essentialism) to attack racism and bigotry. This essay focuses on these two instances in turn, and concludes with a more general defense of free speech.

Postmodern thinking booted reason in the 80s and 90s, says Baer. Before that, to the dismay of some, good sense held sway in the academy. The shift entailed favoring “personal experience and testimony” over “reason and argument”. About this, Baer is not so much disappointed. Nor is he worried about the related recent censorial turn of campus protest. To Baer, this “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship” because “speech that invalidates the humanity of some people” itself restricts free speech. He doesn’t explain how disagreeable speech keeps some people from talking. We are meant to take his word for it. Further, he says, we should not be worried about privileging personal experience over reason and argument. This despite the obvious potential for manipulation inherent in the former’s “powerful emotional impact.” Rather, we should be strong (or weak) and “resist the temptation to rehash these debates.” In other words, shut up and don’t worry your pretty little heads.

Regarding reason’s overthrow, Baer cites as an exemplary cause of this a case offered by Jean-François Lyotard of an unnamed Holocaust denier (unnamed by Baer; I will name him later) who demanded impossible evidence. The crank expected no less than eyewitness testimony from those killed in the Holocaust. If this was impossible—as of course it was—then the Holocaust did not happen, argued the denier, disrespectful of the dead as well as reason. Paraphrasing Lyotard, Baer suggests that this absurdity helped to encourage the shift from privileging reason and argument to favoring personal experience and testimony. But even a cursory look at the Holocaust denier’s argument tells us it was not a rational argument that happened to offend. Rather, it was offensive absurdity couched in rationalism. Taking this emblematic example into account, as well as the shift Baer mentions, we find that an irrational argument couched in rational language encouraged the ousting of rationalism by the new focus on personal experience and testimony, itself plainly irrationalist. This is fighting fire with fire and not worrying who gets burned. But this reaction in kind is not unique to postmodernism generally. Left-liberal identity politics does a similar thing. It uses what it claims to oppose, essentialism, as a method of attack.

Left-liberal identity politics is undeniably the main arena (perhaps theater) today in which the aforementioned “personal experience and testimony” are, aptly enough, acted out. The origins of this politics prove as startling, perhaps, as that of postmodern thinking. Identity politics engaged its fight with bigotry, in part, not by rejecting essentialism, but by embracing it. (Essentialism means to regard an apparent human trait as inherent rather than socially constructed. It is the central feature of bigotry as well as nationalism.) But by inverting bigoted notions, left-liberal identity politics reify, as Nancy Fraser put it, “identities that themselves are products of oppressive structures.”[1] What was despised becomes respected. What was respected is scorned. While class politics aim not to perpetuate the oppressed group, but “to put the group out of business as a group”[2], identity politics fundamentally opposes that. Like rightwing identitarianism, left-liberal identity politics elevate “the group’s ‘groupness’”,[3] but little else, and “can hold out no future.”[4] Michael Rectenwald would agree. Seeking to counter what he considers a “paucity of analysis” on this matter, he addressed it adroitly and deserves to be quoted at length:

The problem with identity politics, then, is that it is one-sided and undialectical. It treats identities as static entities, and its methods only serve to further reify those categories. It aims to liberate identity groups (or members thereof) qua identity groups (or individuals), rather than aiming to liberate them from identity itself. Identity politics fails not because it begins with various subaltern groups and aims at their liberation, but because it ends with them and thus cannot deliver their liberation. It makes identities and their equality with other “privileged” groups the basis of political activity, rather than making the overcoming of the alienated identity, for themselves and all identity groups, the goal. The abolition of the one-sidedness of identity – as worker, woman, man, or what have you – represents real human emancipation. Always failing this, identity politics settles for mere linguistic emancipation, which is offered (and policed so assiduously, as [Mark] Fisher notes) by the defenders of the sanctuary of identity.

The result is a politics that is parochial and indifferent, if not hostile, to universalist and liberatory ideas. It is a politics in part necessarily hostile to liberal notions of free enquiry and expression since essential, static identities and the claims about society based on them cannot be challenged without attacking “personal experience and testimony”. Where reasoned but mistaken arguments can be countered, “personal experience and testimony” devoid of reasoned argument can only be respected or disrespected. Hence, no free speech. Just an up or down vote, and it better be up.

The issue of free speech brings us full circle to the original matter. Two examples of government punishment for speech and their contexts illustrate some of the points here. The first regards the Holocaust denier cited by Lyotard and unnamed by Baer, namely, Robert Faurisson, a former French academic who, in the 1970s, began publishing his attempts to refute the mountains of evidence for the Holocaust. For his denials—just speech, recall—Faurisson was suspended from the University of Lyon where he taught, and subject to various trials (yes, in court) charging him with falsifying history and damaging victims of Nazism. Around 1980, Noam Chomsky and others were asked by the French libertarian socialist Serge Thion to sign a petition in defense not of Faurisson’s views, but merely his right to express them. Something Chomsky and the others reasonably considered obvious. Well, France in 1980 did not (and does not now) have much patience for free speech—an attitude U.S. society increasingly mirrors. Given his fame, Noam Chomsky was singled out from the signers for special abuse. His support for Faurisson’s right to speak was taken as an endorsement of Faurisson’s Holocaust denial, an obvious absurdity given Chomsky’s known and oft-expressed views to the contrary. The very ugly environment that arose kept him away from France for some thirty years. In the United States, there was little reaction. But among those who replied, Alan Dershowitz and Werner Cohn, for instance, they did not so much attack the notion of free speech. Instead, like some in France, they peddled the aforementioned idea that Chomsky was a Holocaust denier himself. They based this libel in part on the notion that anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel is the same thing, a contemptible trick still in use today.[5]

The second example regards a story from the UK. In 1992, the news outlet ITN obviously faked a story about a supposed Serb-run death camp at Trnopolje in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Filming near a refugee center which also held some prisoners of war under rather lax circumstances, the British news crew entered a small storage enclosure surrounded by barbed and chicken wire and filmed some of the bedraggled refugees and detainees through it, focusing on one skinny man. The scene gave the impression the place was a Nazi-like death camp. A German journalist, Thomas Deichmann, wrote a story about this deception which was published in the small UK journal, Living Marxism. Since this was Britain, ITN sued LM for libel. The outcome was mixed in an important sense. LM lost the case, and were driven out of business, not because the story of the death camp was true, it was not. Rather because LM had not proved ITN faked the story intentionally or knowingly (see this, this and this)[6] To this day, arguably, attacks on free speech (by smearing critics as “genocide deniers[7]) help make this famous nonsense story seem true, particularly for its “powerful emotional impact,” if for no good reason. The ITN/Serb “death camp” story is an illuminating example of postmodern news production and hostility to free speech and the service they both provide power.

The balance of Baer’s argument is not much better. He leans on a 1974 Yale University report on the problem of free expression. (The very moment neoliberal capitalism and identity politics were really gearing up to create the society we now more or less live in. Which might tell us something.) In the document, perhaps, we see an early expression of the notion that speech is a physical act rather than a verbal one. In a suggestion regarding this passage, Michael Rectenwald points out that this view “is apparent in poststructuralism and deconstruction well before this point.” In any event, the report’s signator, Kenneth J. Barnes, declares that while free expression should be valued, other concerns often overshadow it. What concerns? “Under certain circumstances,” he writes, “free expression is outweighed by more pressing issues, including liberation of all oppressed people and equal opportunities for minority groups.” Laudable goals, but clearly we are meant to assume disagreeable speech can, despite all efforts, prevent their achievement. In postmodern America, facts are less real than words. Summarizing the report, Baer asserts free speech is fine in a homogenous society, but dangerous and destructive in a diverse one.

Finally, while the two abovementioned examples regard punishment by governments for disagreeable speech, is that the only sort of punishment that matters? According to John Stuart Mill it is not even the most important one. Today, we frequently hear it said that curtailment of or punishment for disagreeable speech in corporations or in public places is not censorship because the government, mostly, is not doing it. Mill strongly disagreed with such a view. In fact, the core of his argument focuses on social not political tyranny. Already in the introductory lines of his essay, ‘On Liberty,’ he offers “social liberty” as the key matter, insisting on “limits [on] the power which can be legitimately exercised by society [and not just by government] over the individual.”[8] A key passage is worth quoting in full:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.[9]

In any event, our governments have not quite reached the French or British levels of insane illiberality regarding speech, countries which still prosecute people far more than does the United States for saying things the government says you cannot. Yet, given the socially tyrannical climate on many campuses and elsewhere and the rationalizations of the Baer’s of the world, not to mention measures against so-called fake news on social media and ominous proposals for laws against it as are now under consideration in California, fuller government suffocation of the very notion of free speech in the United States (where liberty is literally mocked on social media) can hardly be ruled out.

At the outset, I claimed that both postmodern thinking and identity politics, towards overthrowing their respective enemies, used ideological forms that mirror or caricature those of their enemies. Postmodernism fought fire with fire (at least in Baer’s example, but it appears, more generally), when it found fault with the reasonable-posing irrationality of Faurisson’s Holocaust denial not for its irrationality, but for its apparent rationalism (which was a pose). In response, postmodernism offered “personal experience and testimony” in place of reason and argument. Fighting fire with fire more directly, identity politics adopted a basic characteristic of racism and bigotry (essentialism) in order to attack racism and bigotry. These examples lend themselves to the argument that rather than countering irrationalism with rationalism (in keeping with an Enlightenment approach), postmodernism and identity politics compound the irrationalism and contribute further to an endarkenment already festering at the heart of Western intellectual culture. This turn of events and their impacts on free expression, if they are not disturbing enough, ought to be considered in light of the following quote from Noam Chomsky’s defense of Robert Faurisson’s right to free speech: “It is a poor service to the memory of the victims of the holocaust to adopt a central doctrine of their murderers.”

Notes.

[1] Nancy Fraser, Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Post-Socialist” Condition, (New York. Routledge, 1997), 19. Fraser 1997, 19

[2] Fraser, 19.

[3] Ibid..

[4] Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 74.

[5] Robert F. Barsky, Noam Chomsky, A Life of Dissent, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 182.

[6] See also Diana Johnstone, Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002), 72 – 3, and Peter Brock, Media Cleansing, Dirty Reporting: Journalism and Tragedy in Yugoslavia (Los Angeles: GM Books, 2005), 246–56.

[7] Ann Garrison, “Denying’ the Srebrenica Genocide Because It’s Not True: an Interview with Diana Johnstone,” www.counterpunch.org, July 16, 2015, accessed May 07, 2017, .

[8] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1860), (London: ElecBook, 2001), 1.

[9] Ibid., 12-3.

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Ron Leighton is studying history at California State University, Fullerton.

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