Last week gave us more reason to believe that our president is an illiberal authoritarian, much like Vladimir Putin and the other overseas autocrats he admires. Faced with massive protests following the murder of George Floyd, Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr called on police to “dominate” the demonstrators and threatened to send active-duty military troops to subdue them.
Yet the protest movement revealed its own illiberal streak, which should also trouble anyone who is concerned about racial justice. Like every decent American, I want to live in a country where black people aren’t harassed and killed with impunity by the police. But I don’t think we can get there by social media shame campaigns, which create yet more fear and intolerance. Harsh policing of our words won’t end police violence and racism; it might even make things worse, by empowering Trump and his henchmen.
Witness the cycle of digital outrage after The New York Times ran an op-ed last week by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., which echoed Trump’s demand for a military response to the protests. The attack on the Times was led by members of its own newsroom, who circulated a tweet claiming that the column “puts Black @nytimes staff in danger.”
So if you think it was a good idea for the Times to publish Cotton’s piece, the argument went, you must be hostile — or, at best, insensitive — to black people. And so is the Times’ editorial board, of course. “In an era when EVERY aspect of society should be examined Re: either contributing or not to racism/domination beliefs, it would give me great pleasure for @nytimes to LOSE THOSE LEADERS maintaining the system that destroys so many lives!” one poster tweeted.
The terms of this critique made reasonable discussion impossible, which is a hallmark of illiberal thought everywhere: You’re either on the bus or off the bus, part of the problem or part of the solution. The Times eventually apologized for the Cotton op-ed, citing several inaccuracies in it. But it’s hard to imagine how better fact-checking would have staved off the social media stampede, which was premised on the notion that the column itself harmed minorities. So almost everyone on the left dutifully got in line — or at least bit their tongues — while Sen. Cotton crowed about how he had exposed the bias and cowardice of The New York Times.
By the time Editorial Page Editor James Bennet stepped down Sunday, it was hard to find anyone other than Republicans who said running the piece was a good idea. Privately, several of my liberal friends told me that they supported the decision to publish Cotton’s column because it underscored the essential depravity of the Trump-era GOP. But they would never say so in public, my friends added, because then the Twitter mob would come after them.
How can that be a good thing for the fight against injustice? For the past two weeks, we have heard frequent calls for an “honest conversation” about policing and racism in the United States. But you can’t have a real conversation when people are afraid of saying the wrong thing. That doesn’t create more fair-minded citizens; it makes cynics, who mouth the right words.
It also encourages digital sadism, disguised as social justice. Mocking miscreants on the internet becomes a way to establish your own woke status. And the highest props go to the nastiest posts.
That’s what happened after the now-infamous episode last month in New York’s Central Park, where a white dog owner called the police to report — falsely — that she was under threat from African American bird-watcher Christian Cooper. Cooper didn’t flinch from identifying the racist dimensions of this event, but he also urged the Twitterverse to stop pillorying his accuser.
“It’s a little bit of a frenzy, and I am uncomfortable with that,” he told reporters. “If our goal is to change the underlying factors, I am not sure that this young woman having her life completely torn apart serves that goal.”
Nothing doing. The mob continued to revile his accuser, who was rendered an international pariah. Posing as Christian Cooper’s defenders, social media warriors ignored what he actually wanted. They wanted blood. And they got it.
Like Cooper, I fail to see how any of these rituals of public humiliation and retribution get us any closer to justice for George Floyd. It is pure fantasy to imagine they will make anybody more aware of racism or more inclined to challenge it. All they will do is make people afraid to talk and think.
And they echo the illiberal spirit of President Trump, who wants nothing more than to scare and divide us. He traffics in fear and shame, which are tools of domination rather than justice. They can force you to grovel, but they can’t change your heart. They might even harden it.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. His next book, “The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America,” will be published in the fall by Johns Hopkins University Press. This piece was written for the Chicago Tribune.