Book review: “The Tyranny of Opinion” by Russell Blackford

Scope: Not your average defense of free speech

Russell Blackford’s new book The Tyranny of Opinion is a defense of free speech. Perhaps that sounds absolutely dull to you, something reserved for a political theory course? But Blackford carves out a very specific conception of free speech that is particularly relevant to political discourse today, and I would argue that this is a must-read.

Blackford takes the traditional argument for free speech, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and provides some extensions and modifications. First, he argues that free speech must not only be guaranteed from government censorship, but must also be free from mob action and retaliation– doxxing, de-platforming, disinvitations, threats of losing your job, etc. Second, he argues that some extreme forms of speech– both violent and non-violent– should be limited because they infringe on others’ freedom of speech. Both aspects highlight the idea built into the title, the tyranny of opinion.

In this world where one stray comment on social media can cost you your job, Blackford acknowledges that it can feel like you’re constantly walking on eggshells. He uses a metaphor that I have also used previously: the new political climate has its new forms of heresy, and it will take action against those who don’t toe the line. One defender of the online mob puts it this way:

Some sorts of crimes can only be handled by public consensus and shaming. It’s a different kind of court. A different kind of jury.

Everyone can view themselves as their own Spiderman, bravely enforcing vigilante justice. “Holding people accountable” means posting threatening remarks to the Facebook page, publicly posting their personal information, and calling for them to lose their job.

While a liberal, Blackford rightly is nervous about this because his book is mostly a criticism of his own “team”, so to say. He does make a good balance of issues of public attacks from both the right and left. But he makes clear that this is definitely a stronger phenomenon on the left. The right has its own issues. But Blackford thinks the left should really do something to address its internal problems:

It’s disappointing when self-styled liberals narrow options, distort important debates, threaten individual freedoms, require that we walk on eggshells in our private and public speech, and generally operate in a censorious and illiberal mode. There’s been too much of this, and it’s not even helpful in struggles against our real political enemies…

My criticisms of the Left in what follows do not mean that I’m less critical of the Right in its various forms… On this occasion, I’m more concerned that my own tribe get its house in order.

Similar threads: Dave Rubin and even John Oliver

I already had more than an inkling of that I would like Blackford’s book because it’s central thesis is one that I find most important in our current political climate. Actually good ideas (which in my opinion tend towards moderation) are being silenced by louder ideologies, and individuals brave enough to stand up to the tidal waves of extremism on both sides are few and in between.

And Blackford’s ideas aren’t new to me. The first person that came to mind was Dave Rubin, who similarly praises the traditional liberal tradition. Nearly every episode of The Rubin Report involves some trash talking of the illiberal left and a reinforcement of traditional liberalism. Rubin is clear that he is still a liberal: he is an advocate for gay marriage (being married to a man himself), I assume he is pro-choice, etc. But anyone who stands against the moralistic heresy-hunting of the left is often labelled alt-right today.

Another example of a similar thread comes from American psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his books The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind. As one of Haidt’s Three Great Untruths outlined in The Coddling is The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. The idea being that some ideas are damaging to certain vulnerable groups that they shouldn’t be tolerated in the public sphere. Haidt cites many of the same examples as Blackford, including the fiasco over Halloween costumes sparked by Erika Christakis at Yale.

And I was pleasantly surprised this week when John Oliver took a break from current political controversies and shined on a light on the issue of public shaming. In the beginning, John Oliver defends a limited sphere of usefulness for public shaming to hold public figures accountable. He cited as an example Tucker Carlson, but it would have been nice if he– like Blackford– balanced his critique with examples from left-wing politics. But Oliver’s main story centered around the negative side of public shaming, and used as an example Monica Lewinsky who went from being a private figure to a pariah after the affair with President Bill Clinton came to light.

Favorite ideas

I think this book is important because it makes clear the need for nuance. Solutions to problems are going to be complex, not simple, and not easily packaged into ideological commitments. I have written about nuance previously here. Take, for example, abortion. What if individuals from both sides of the debate could acknowledge both values: yes, the rights and freedoms of both the woman and child are important and should be accounted for in any solution. Why does the left have to ignore the child, even treating it as an object rather than a person? And why does the right minimize the complicated situations of the woman, instead portraying them as baby-killers?

I like his idea of the importance of “Galilean personalities” that he adapts from Alice Dreger: men and women who are smart, egotistical, innovative, and know they’re right and who tend to get in trouble especially when there’s a narcissistic nemesis around. These people insist on the truth, at least as they see it, even if they pay a price in their own suffering. Call-out culture doesn’t work well with these types, or any type of non-conformist really. In politics in general, but especially on the left, political purism doesn’t leave room for questioning the “right” answer.

And I think Berit Brogaard’s six factors that encourage political extremism and polarization online:

  1. Online sites and forums attract people who already have similar social and political agendas
  2. The swift flow of information encourages the formation of rival outgroups in response to provocative viewpoints
  3. Exit from an online group is easy, which encourages less like-minded members to leave with relatively minimal consequences.
  4. The internet quickly disseminates information about emotionally charged events, which tends to spur groups to react very strongly one way or another.
  5. Anonymity tends to erase within-group individual differences, encouraging loyalty to the views of leaders or the majority, and provoking one-upmanship in offering extreme perspectives
  6. Search engines facilitate selective searches motivated by the impulse to confirm group viewpoints, with a resulting pressure on group membership to become more dogmatic and extreme

I notice all of these trends whenever I get on Twitter, which often feels more like a battleground.

Criticisms: “Why Liberalism Failed” as a counterpoint

Blackford’s solution to issues surround free speech is a return to traditional liberal ideas:

Secular government, individual liberty, free inquiry and discussion, due process for people accused of wrongdoing and more generally the rule of law. It means that we value reason, individuality, originality, creativity, spontaneity, and the search for truth… We value equality rather than hierarchies and subordination. We defend people who live, think, and speak in uniquely individual ways, rather than as representatives of communities, cultures, religions, political tribes, or demographic groups. We tolerate all ways of living and speaking that are freely chosen by those involved and not straightforwardly harmful to others.

And while I am definitely on board with this, it reminded me of some critiques of liberalism that I find to be quite true in authors like Patrick Deneen and Charles Taylor. When he complains that call-out culture is making us more bland, I would be afraid that his advocacy of liberalism itself has its own way of making us bland: if everyone eventually is not tied to a community, a culture, a religion, a tribe, we all start to look startlingly the same, what the author Patrick Deneen calls liberalism as anticulture in his book Why Liberalism Failed. When I got to the end of Blackford’s book, I saw how Deneen’s book was a counterpoint to Blackford’s, even if their topics aren’t entirely aligned. Deneen points out some of the underlying flaws of liberalism that go unnoticed– because the assumption is that liberalism is purely disinterested, a neutral background on which ideas rise and fall by their merits. But Deneen points out that liberalism is an ideology of its own:

But unlike the visibly authoritarian regimes that arose in dedication to advancing the ideologies of fascism and communism, liberalism is less visibly ideological and only surreptitiously remakes the world in its image. In contrast to its crueler competitor ideologies, liberalism is more insidious: as an ideology, it pretends to neutrality, claiming no preference and denying any intention of shaping the souls under its rule. It ingratiates by invitation to the easy liberties, diversions, and attractions of freedom, pleasure, and wealth. It makes itself invisible, much as a computer’s operating system goes largely unseen—until it crashes.

But Deneen and Blackford ultimately come to similar conclusions. Where Blackford calls for a return to liberal values because The Millian viewpoint on liberty and free discussion… offers the best future for liberal democracies and liberalism itself, Deneen also calls for retaining liberalism, while rooting out the initial causes that drove it into the ground:

We must outgrow the age of ideology. Of the three great ideologies, only the oldest and most resilient remains, but liberals mistook the fall of its competitors for the end of history rather than the pyrrhic victory it really was. The gap between liberalism’s claims about itself and the lived reality of the citizenry widens to the point that the lie can no longer be accepted. Instead of trying to conceive a replacement ideology (or returning to some updated version of an alternative, such as Marxism), we should focus on developing practices that foster new forms of culture.

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