When I was learning philosophy in the late 1990s, it seemed very important to figure out the limits of tolerance and free speech. Many people hadn’t fully adopted the postmodern liberal bourgeois lifestyle that was appropriate to the end of the Cold War, and there was always the mostly theoretical problem posed by neo-Nazis.
How should an open society accommodate people who wanted to destroy it? Is the right to free expression universal, or does it have limits? That seemed like a complex set of difficult issues, which would be worth figuring out.
On the other hand, some people were working on theories of knowledge and truth, in various ways still reacting to the collapse of logical positivism fifty years earlier. That was interesting and everything, but seemed like it had no practical applications at all. Once, a lecturer mentioned a case which they felt was the most difficult one for epistemology to handle: the theoretical possibility of a “completely self-consistent schizophrenic”, a person whose beliefs were mostly false but who was able to logically explain away any contrary evidence. I distinctly remember thinking “Pfft, what a waste of time.”
In retrospect, I feel like a software engineer who chose to specialise in fax machines.
The “limits to tolerance” question turned out to be easy. According to Jason Wilson, an analyst who follows the far right closely, antifa tactics worked. So much of fascism’s appeal comes from its people seeming powerful and confident, as if their movement had an inevitable momentum. The American alt-right started off that way in 2016, but, faced with relentless and uncompromising protests, they wilted. Now their rallies are sparsely attended, and their true believers can clearly be seen as the weak and pathetic losers they are.
A clarifying moment: the neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer getting sucker punched in January 2017. Afterwards, he told the Times that “I don’t think I could go out to an inauguration event without bodyguards … I am more worried about going out to dinner on an average Tuesday because these kind of people are roaming around.” Oh right, yes, that’s clearly a chilling effect that would discourage the… hang on a second, that’s great!
Assholes like Spencer want to put me and my friends in an oven. If getting punched in the face makes them reluctant to share that opinion, then punch on.
Some people still use the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor to reason about neo-Nazis, most embarrassingly in Australia, where two-bit fascists regularly get prime time slots on current affairs shows. I think those people—mostly journalists—are clinging to a narcissistic fantasy in which Nazism could have been defeated by a well-chosen probing interview question.
Meanwhile, we’re all having to retake Epistemology 1 on a daily basis. The world’s best observer of Trumpland has come to understand it as a bizarre hyperreality, where conspiracy theories are common currency. Back in my university class, when the lecturer was talking about a rational person immune from evidence, he got on to the topic because he’d been reading Jon Ronson’s Them. Today, them is us.
I used to assume that cosmopolitan liberals would be better educated on average, and therefore less prone to unhooking themselves from reality. Wrong again. We’re now in the era of resistance grifters, a concept I would struggle to explain to someone from 20 years ago. And it gets weirder. For instance, last week’s incident in Senator Diane Feinstein’s office—where the Democratic senator was confronted by teenagers from her state about her lack of action on climate change—has been interpreted by some as a plot by the Kremlin.
If we travelled back in time 20 years, what could we tell people, to prepare them for the conceptual landscape they’d soon need to deal with? I think our experience has diverged so much that we might be speaking separate languages. The scenario would be tragic. I’d be wandering around like Cassandra, imploring people to listen, telling them “Please, you have to post increasing amounts of your balls online.”