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Valuing Civility

Moral pollution, preference falsification, and the demise of civil society.

Property of the Aspen Institute. Photo Credit Riccardo Savi
David French, Aspen Ideas Festival 2019
Source: Property of the Aspen Institute. Photo Credit Riccardo Savi

At the second annual Heterodox Academy Conference in June, linguist Steven Pinker revealed that he routinely hears from other professors who privately disagree with campus orthodoxy but are too fearful to publicly say so. It is a regular feature of the most visible campus witch hunts, some even involving professors signing public letters of condemnation while privately expressing sympathy to the letters’ targets.

This is not simply a left-wing or campus phenomenon. Writer David French recently remarked that he frequently hears from other Republicans who privately disagree with Trump’s “take-no-prisoners” style of politics, but are afraid to let that be known.

French himself recently became an “ism,” an emblem of what some on the far- and alt-right see as an inability to properly grasp three things: the validity of the concept of politics-as-war, the futility of valuing civility and decency, and the failure of classical liberalism itself.

What has failed, however, is not liberalism, but the ability to curb the illiberal tendencies of each party’s most ardent members. At its core, illiberalism is a tribal and apocalyptic impulse. On the right, it is expressed as an ethno-nationalist reign of terror. On the left, it manifests in what political columnist Melanie Sturm calls the Kindergarchy: an intersectional reign of tantrums.

The aim of this apocalyptic impulse is to denigrate, defame, and destroy. But civil society relies on the impulse to redeem, improve, and perfect. It rests on a philosophy of freedom of expression that, irrespective of First Amendment Law, expects us to draw a bright line between words and violence. It necessitates a set of social norms that allow the articulation of unpopular opinions without fear of retribution. And it requires us to use the principle of charity when encountering views we don’t hold and people we don’t like. Embodying these principles today is too rare and requires too much courage.

New York Times conservative opinion journalist Bret Stephens recently wrote a column advising Democrats to stop alienating the persuadable Trump voters they need in order to win. For the crime of imagining and articulating the views of those voters, a vocal band of left-wing ideologues publicly cast Stephens as a “white nationalist” and “full-on bigot.” Unsurprising, perhaps, when more than half of Democrats say that defending freedom of speech for people with racist ideas is as bad as being a racist.

Politics, higher education, and social media all operate as types of markets in which status is the coin of the realm. In such prestige economies, harshly punitive and even deviant social behaviors develop when there is a climate of heightened sensitivity to moral pollution, a kind of metaphorical contamination that results from proximity to something morally abhorrent. Guilt by association is an example: stigmatizing someone because of their association with (or “adjacency” to) “bad” people.

Cruel retribution is more likely and more inhumane when a community is also plagued by pluralistic ignorance; when a large proportion of the community incorrectly assumes that the majority subscribe to an orthodox view. And when, as a result, many people engage in preference falsification, pretending to prefer the orthodox view themselves.

Sociologist Kai Erikson observed that deviant, retributive moral phenomena (such as witch hunts) arise as a method of restoring moral order. This plays out today when the act of holding in one’s mind a “problematic” idea, such as something a Trump voter might think about immigration, renders the thinker morally impure even if he does not subscribe to the view himself. To the ideological purist, anyone willing to faithfully recreate a morally impure view, even in order to defeat it, is indistinguishable from a moral transgressor whose perspective he describes.

As with bullying and other kinds of moral deviance, in a prestige economy, it is the behavior of bystanders that is determinative. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Coddling of the American Mind, whether online or in-person, “mobs can rob good people of their conscience.”

When the social consequences of revealing one’s heterodox views are harsh enough, people protect themselves by self-censoring. As a result, most people are ignorant of how many others are opposed to the enforced view, and many will engage in a kind of “performative solidarity”—an attempt to signal to members of their “tribe” that they, too, subscribe to the majority view, even if in reality they do not. Some of those opposed to the orthodoxy will even become enforcers in order to maintain the security of their membership in their tribe.

The recent Antifa attack on Portland journalist Andy Ngo and the reaction of his detractors is emblematic of the profoundly uncivil state of our society.

Ngo, who has written for the Wall Street Journal and is an editor for Quillette, has regularly reported on Portland’s Antifa and is deeply unpopular among the left. While covering an Antifa protest, he was chased, beaten, and doused with “milkshakes” (which, at the time, police tweeted might have contained injurious chemicals*), leaving him bloodied and reportedly both temporarily blinded in one eye and hospitalized with subarachnoid hemorrhage (a “brain bleed”).

 Dan Bayer
Bret Stephens, Aspen Ideas Festival 2019
Source: Property of the Aspen Institute. Photo Credit: Dan Bayer

On social media, various people with progressive political views, some of them journalists, made light of or even defended the violence. These Antifa apologists mocked the “violence” of throwing milkshakes. This is, of course, a perverse feat of irony. Antifa and its supporters are famous for decrying the “violence” of words, ideas, and people's (literally nonviolent) presence.

It is no coincidence that this year the Aspen Institute has launched a new Civil Society Initiative. Bret Stephens participated in that initiative's panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Thankfully, there is at least one thoughtful journalist who continues to have the courage to consider views he opposes—and help the rest of us grapple with them. ♦

Pamela Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky.


* Portland police initially tweeted “Police have received information that some of the milkshakes thrown today during the demonstration contained quick-drying cement.” They later walked back that suggestion, and there has been no evidence of chemicals lacing the milkshakes. Protesters claim that the milkshakes were benign, and that although some were thrown at people, the majority were consumed.

Baker, M. (2019). In Portland, Milkshakes, a Punch and #HimToo Refresh Police Criticism.

Cato Institute (2017). The State of Free Speech and Tolerance in America.

Erikson, K. (1966). Wayward Puritans: A study in the sociology of deviance. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

I met Bret Stephens several years ago and interviewed him when he moved from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times. Now I consider him a friend.