[This review was published in the Summer 2016 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 105-115.]

 

Book Review

 

End of Discussion

Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson

Crown Forum, 2015

 

          The authors’ subtitle gives a good summation of this book’s central thesis: “How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).”  End of Discussion cites chapter and verse about a phenomenon that has become a major part of American life – the incubus of ideological conformity that is insisted upon under the rubric of “political correctness.”  We see that the suppression of non-conforming thought is by no means static, but is rather a dynamic, ever-changing ideological campaign that has many nuances and permutations.  This is a subject of major importance that deserves a full-length book. 

          This is not the perfect book, however, for someone who wants an in-depth discussion of the problem.  It gathers abundant information about recent cases of suppression, and will be an eye-opener for those who are not aware of the latest subtleties in the ideology of victimization and outrage such as the idea of “microaggression.”  The authors, both of whom work for Townhall Media,[1] leave it at that, though, providing no historical background or insight into the ideological roots and cultural context. 

          Oddly, the authors, who are very much “conservatives,”[2] accept without question several of the core attitudes of the Left.  In doing so, they are likely unaware that their own and American society’s general acceptance of those attitudes has come about precisely because the mental incubus they decry has so long been present, demanding and receiving conformity.  Favorable uses of terms like “sexism,” “red scare,” “McCarthyism” and “homophobia” denote an acculturation to the left.  They don’t represent ideas that come naturally to American conservatives.

          We are puzzled, in particular, by one aspect of the book.  We don’t know whether there is a personal motive behind that aspect, or not.  One of the co-authors, Guy Benson, makes the book an occasion for his “coming out” as a homosexual.  He does this in a footnote, which he accompanies by a long and intelligent “libertarian” justification for “gay marriage.”  The reason we say we are puzzled is that readers have no way of knowing whether the gay marriage discussion is just what it appears to be: an incidental part of the book as digressions are made into several subjects only tangentially related to the main “political correctness” theme. The self-revelation seems altogether too personal to be taken passingly.  This suggests that the coming-out and apologia for homosexuality may be a primary purpose, with the other material, though sincerely presented, providing a thick coating of conservative camouflage.  We think, though, that this ambiguity about motive should not detract from the fact that End of Discussion examines several “issue-based” topics, among them homosexual marriage, gun laws and campaign finance. The discussion of each is worth considering on its merits, and can be seen as a plus by those who don’t insist that a book focus entirely on a single theme. 

 

Main theme: the “outrage culture” 

Before his retirement as a professor, this reviewer spoke as part of a panel on “racism in America.”  This provided his most striking confrontation with “outrage culture,” one he is sorry to say he didn’t handle at all effectively.  An impishly cute, vivacious woman who introduced herself as a “black activist” came on volcanically with an angry flow of vituperation.  She was a master of frenzy, rising in an instant from a congenial calmness to draw upon a deep reservoir of pain and resentment.  It seemed impossible to say anything by way of disagreement that would be considered inoffensive in the face of such anguish.  The audience was a summer workshop of high school “merit scholars” from around Kansas.  From their reaction, it was obvious they felt great moral satisfaction, even personal virtue, in embracing her rhetoric.

          She was the perfect example of what Ham and Benson refer to as “outrage culture.”  The authors speak of “fabricated agony” and emotion-ridden exaggerations.  “We are consistently amazed at how little it takes to create an ‘outrage.’”  Indeed, as we just saw from this reviewer’s experience with the activist, it takes nothing at all; it can be a matter of pure acting, as with method actors whose directors tell them to summon, as if spontaneously, the emotions needed for their scenes.

            The purpose of such “outrage,” the authors say, is not just to make an alienated point, but to cow those with other views into silence.  It is an “aggressive thought policy” designed to impose “self-censorship.”  Opposing views are demonized and rendered beyond the pale as bigoted and illegitimate.  We are told that a favorite word, useful in almost any connection, is to shunt disagreement into a far corner as “extreme.”

Nor is it simply a matter of intimidation.  The authors write of “the serial disruption of ‘offensive’ speakers’ remarks” – and they could fill a book with examples of actual physical disruption going back over the decades.  It isn’t necessary, however, to go back into the past to see it.  This review is written in the middle of the primary/caucus season of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, and the disruption of otherwise peaceful rallies is an almost daily event. (We will comment later on the role of the mainstream media, and in the present connection it is worth noting that the commentaries manage to reverse reality, placing the blame not on the disrupters but on those whose rallies are blocked or invaded.)

Although this intolerant mindset has, in the form of “political correctness,” been embraced broadly by the opinion elite, it is worth noting that much of it originates from more limited well-springs.  The authors tell of “a network of well-trained operatives.”  To a casual observer, the ideological fads and newly-minted code words seem to arise spontaneously.  What is not seen (and our authors would do well to comment on) is that most stem from national conferences (and academic departments) which establish a theme that is then made the “story de jour” in countless newspaper feature stories, television reports, and even in such learned discourse as commencement addresses, by the countless voices that reflexively serve as its conduits.  It is an occasion for writers and talking heads to celebrate their virtue while at the same time advancing their careers.  End of Discussion comments on one of the more recent developments when it tells of the American left’s use of “social media [as] an efficient multiplier” not just of “outrage,” but of all the latest fashions.[3]   

Discovering new grounds for resentment.  The book provides valuable information about the subtleties recently introduced by the outrage culture as it broadens the scope of its attack. One of these has to do with “dog whistles.”  Ham and Benson explain that actual dog whistles are those that are “so highly pitched that only dogs can hear them.”  The outrage culture thinks of these when it asserts that “conservatives are currently and constantly slipping secret codes into their rhetoric as a means of conveying ugly, race-based messages.”  When the left has a special ear for hearing what is otherwise un-hearable, it makes it possible to find ground for offense at every turn.  It does the same thing with the concept of “microaggression.”  A writer on the American Psychological Association website, we are told, has defined a racial microaggression as “racism… so subtle that neither victim nor perpetrator may entirely understand what is going on.”  This reviewer is reminded of an interview he saw on the net recently where a young African-American told of attending a Trump rally to get a feel for the atmosphere there.  He said everyone treated him in a welcoming, friendly way, but that he could nevertheless sense “microaggressions.”  This almost certainly tells us more about him than it does about the people he met.  As an indication of how the “microaggression” idea is now institutionalized, it is worth noticing End of Discussion’s mention of the Brown University “Micro/Aggressions Community Facebook page” which “serves as a clearinghouse for students to anonymously submit… examples of microaggressions suffered” by them.

The sensitivity is sharpened by reference to “triggers.”  These are “words, phrases, or topics” that set off “an upsetting and/or hurtful response.”  Such speech is ruled out-of-bounds as “offensive” to those who are ideologically conditioned to be hypersensitive.  Although triggers, microaggressions and dog whistles are not to be tolerated anywhere, the super-sensitive are now being given special protection on American college campuses in the form of “safe spaces” in which students can be guaranteed respite from the ubiquitous offenses that rain down upon them.

Although the left’s current vogue using the concept of “privilege” is of a somewhat different nature, its similarity to what we have just seen, each aspect of which stretches the occasions for resentment, lies in the way it expands the class of perceived enemies.  Ham and Benson explain that to today’s left “your ‘privilege’ is any form of status… that confers a historic social advantage on your group.”  They point out that it is “uniquely important for white heterosexual males.”  Such people should feel “a level of guilt by virtue of their existence.”  This evokes a psychology that seeks to elevate some people by deflating a vast number of others.  It also relates to the suppression of speech: “Before one weighs in on any issue, or engages in a conversation.... one owes it to society to reflect on the panoply of privileged statuses bestowed upon one by the circumstances of one’s birth.”

Many current examples.  End of Discussion’s many examples remind readers of episodes they likely will have forgotten from their reading of the daily paper.  Here are a few:

·        Brendan Eich resigned under pressure after serving only briefly as CEO of Mozilla, a computer company, in 2014.  Six years previously, he “had donated $1,000 in support of Proposition 8, California’s statewide constitutional referendum defining marriage as one man and one woman.”  He was hounded out of his position when a combination of gay rights activists and company employees presented a petition with 75,000 signatures that “demanded that Eich publicly renounce his opinion….”[4]

·       Juan Williams, whom our authors describe as “a black Democrat – generally liberal, but occasionally unpredictable – ,”   was for several years a “host and correspondent” for National Public Radio.  During a Fox News panel on “the clash of civilizations” in 2010, he offered a “frank admission that he sometimes feels anxiety when he sees fellow airline passengers dressed in ‘Muslim garb.’”  This led to his “abrupt  termination” by NPR.  Williams tells of his ouster in his 2011 book Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate. 

·       We all know of Lech Walesa as the hero of the Polish Solidarity movement, a role for which he won the Noble Peace Prize in 1983.  Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago “named a building in his honor in 2009,” reflecting the university’s various connections with the Polish community.  We are told “things went sideways in 2013, when Walesa [made a] demeaning comment about gay members of Poland’s parliament.”  This gave rise to strident protests on campus, including a petition demanding that the building be renamed.  Although the university uncharacteristically didn’t accede to the demand about the building, it took a number of steps to show its compassion for homosexuals, including “the establishment of a LGBTQA resource center.”  (Our authors explain the acronym as standing for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Asexual/Allies.”)[5]  

·       In 2014, four engineering students at North Carolina State University invented a nail polish that would reveal a date-rape drug if a woman dipped one of her fingers into a drink.  “The invention would give women… a way to test their drinks easily.”  A good thing for the protection of coeds, right?  Not in the view of feminists online and at the Centre for Gender Advocacy at Concordia University in Montreal, who objected that an unspoken premise behind the polish was that “women have responsibility to protect” themselves from rape.  “Thus,” Ham and Benson say, “literal empowerment of women is declared antiwoman.” 

·       Also in 2014, “loud and relentless protests prevented America’s first female African American secretary of state,” Condoleezza Rice, “from delivering Rutgers’s commencement address.”  A faculty council voted for a rescission of the invitation to speak.  Rice withdrew, saying she didn’t want to distract from “a time of joyous celebration.  End of Discussion follows this example with others where speech has been prevented.  One of them is that of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was subjected to genital mutilation as a child in Somalia.  Emigrating to The Netherlands, she was elected to parliament there and became “harshly critical of Islam’s subjugation of women.”  Brandeis University in the United States invited her to speak at its 2014 commencement and was going to award her an honorary degree.  “But the speech never happened, and the degree was never awarded.”  Reacting to “a major online petition” and “a full-court press from the Council on American-Islamic Relations,” the university cancelled her speech and the degree.  It did invite her to come for a “dialogue” later.  

 

PeeWOC dominance

          In his article on the “Queer Theory” academic discipline in our Fall 2015 issue (see footnote 4 here), this reviewer introduced a fanciful Dr. Seuss-like word, “PeeWOCs.”  It stands for “People Whose Opinions Count.”  The purpose of the word is to bring attention to a little-commented-upon fact that is of prime importance in both the United States and Europe (and that relates closely to the theme of End of Discussion).  During the 2016 electoral season, there has been much distress over various “establishments,” especially those of the main political parties and of the government-political party-lobbyist-Big Money nexus.  What is less recognized is that, even though those insular groupings have considerable power, there is yet another “establishment” that lies over the landscape and that for all intents and purposes governs the society intellectually, culturally and politically.  This is the broad social class that determines what is “politically correct” (which is to say, ideologically respectable).  It has prevailed on almost all subjects, except where local resistance offsets it at least temporarily.  An example this reviewer has found apt is how polls have shown that a large majority of Kansans support the death penalty in heinous cases – a majority whose views have been blocked for over half a century.  After the “Carr Brothers” executed five people in Wichita, the Court allowed years of delays in the appeal of their conviction and finally set aside their death sentences.  This case and many others like it show that the phrase “the will of the people” is drained of meaning, with the attitudes of an opinion elite actually governing.

          The people whose opinions actually count number in the millions, but there are many more millions whose opinions almost never prevail.  The first group is led by academia, the dominant media, the entertainment industry, the legal profession and the major corporations (among others).  To these elements are to be added millions of “college educated” Americans who adhere to whatever the opinion makers at the moment consider ideologically respectable. 

Such leadership by what might be called an “aristocracy of opinion” is not itself surprising; intellectual, cultural (and hence political) leadership is essential in any society, probably most particularly in free societies.  But America’s opinion elite is far out of sorts with the population as a whole (at least as the American people have heretofore been constituted, though that population is rapidly being supplanted by other peoples).  A detailed analysis of American history is required to understand why America’s “opinion elite” is so mentally oriented to the left.[6]  A somewhat different analysis would be needed for Europe, but would share many of the same elements.

          Everything mentioned in End of Discussion bears on this when it tells of the left’s suppression of opinion and how that suppression is implemented, such as in the corporate world.  When we recall how sensitive corporate executives are to the needs of political correctness, we know what Ham and Benson are talking about when they refer to “the skittish corporate overlords who require one to kowtow to the outraged community du jour.”  The power gathered behind the suppression is well illustrated by a March 2016 report in the Washington Post: “The Georgia state legislature passed a measure earlier this month aimed at shoring up religious liberties, which gay rights groups condemned as discriminatory.  In a sign of the sort of opposition these types of bills are provoking, Disney threatened to stop making films in the state, cloud computer firm SalesForce.com warned it will move its business and the National Football League suggested it may pass over Atlanta for future Super Bowls if the governor signs it.” 

As it has been for well over a century, the academic world is arguably the leading contributor to the PeeWOC mass.  Ham and Benson tell us that “the academy is where the outrage arts are taught, where the craziest outrage rules and trends take shape, and where, perversely, the values of free speech and free thought are valued least.”  The effect on generations of students has been profound: “Even if students aren’t active participants in the insanity, they marinate in this milieu for approximately four formative years of their lives… If you ever… quietly wonder how things got so bad, look no further than the ivy-covered buildings….”  This reviewer has a personal awareness of what the authors mean when they write about “the freezing out of ideologically unenlightened faculty.”  Such faculty run a years-long gauntlet if they stay in academia at all. 

          The dominance of the opinion elite is apparent, too, in the more centrally placed media outlets, which include the principal television networks and newspapers at the top and extend on down to the daily papers in the cities and even the rural weeklies.  It is as though the journalism schools have long-since mastered the art of cloning their students.  To again use Kansas as an example, an electorate that is so consistently Republican that presidential campaigns aren’t even conducted there in the fall by either party hears and reads “liberal” opinion from almost all outlets, electronic and in print, except “talk radio.”  It is that opinion that determines what can permissibly be said, and what, to the contrary, deserves to be pointed at with alarm.  Examples of media bias run throughout the narrative in End of Discussion.  

 

Some additional features

          In a series of “issue-based chapters” and additional passages, the book discusses several topics that, as we have said, may be considered digressions, but that have substance worth considering (regardless of whether a reader agrees with the authors on any given one).  Several informative pages are devoted to campaign finance and the role of money in politics.  Other pages discuss the sophistries of the media’s campaign against laws that require voters to show identification or, upon registration, to prove their citizenship.  Quoting “the tired refrain that voter ID laws are ‘a solution in search of a problem,’” they cite state-by-state evidence of voter fraud, such as where people continue to vote after their deaths.  More pages discuss how misinformed the public is about gun violence.  We are surprised to read that “one of the most overlooked crime stories of the past decades is that violent crime has plunged so precipitously.”  At the same time, a respected poll shows a majority of Americans believe gun crime has gone up, not down. 

The longest of the issue-based discussions has to do with “gay marriage” (and it is here that Benson “outs himself” as homosexual).  We indicated earlier that he makes an intelligent presentation of a libertarian position on the subject.[7]  Benson felt that he should himself write this section.  Worth noting: it is consistent with his and his co-author’s advocacy of free expression that he flies in the face of much “outrage” thinking when he defends the right of the critics of homosexual marriage to be heard.

“Women’s issues” come up at several points.  The authors talk at length about the left’s complaint that women suffer from a “pay gap.”  However politically incorrect it may be to say so, they offer the realistic observation that “most of the much-ballyhooed pay gap comes from the fact that women make different employment choices.  They take less dangerous jobs with more flexible hours, they leave the workforce or cut back when having and raising children.”

There are others.  And there are subjects we wish Ham and Benson had brought into play.  There is a long history to the left’s alienation against the ideas and mores of a “bourgeois society,”[8] and to its anxiousness to suppress opinion that conflicts with its own.  We can’t expect End of Discussion to explore its centuries-long and multidisciplinary facets.  But even the most cursory recital of its history would do well to mention the vast influence of the Frankfurt School, which several decades ago set its sights on a cultural, intellectual revolution.   Most to the point would be to tell readers about Herbert Marcuse’s essay on “Repressive Tolerance,” where he argued that it would be liberating for there to be toleration of all views from the left and suppression of all from the right.  It is that essay, perhaps more than any other, that makes explicit the totalitarian nature of the demand for ideological conformity.  

  

End of Discussion deals with a subject that receives much attention, but attention that doesn’t make much dent in Americans’ readiness to surrender to the demand for ideological subservience.  That demand’s inconsistency with the values of a free society is something that needs to be repeated over and over again. 

 

Dwight D. Murphey

 

Endnotes

[1]   Townhouse Media is said to be “the top source for conservative news, political cartoons, breaking news, election news and commentary on politics and the media culture.”  Its publications appear both on the Web and in print.

2   We use the word “conservative” advisedly, since it is by no means clear what is meant by the word, except “not Left.”  Before the collapse of the USSR in 1991, anti-Communism united a diverse assortment of views under the “conservative” label.  Since that uniting factor has been removed, the American Right has consisted of a chaotic tangle of passionately held, often antithetical, views. Readers are probably aware that historically the word “conservative” as used in the United States has had little resemblance to its usage in Europe.

3   The authors are quick to point out that American conservatives have their own “chains of outrage,” many instances of which are circulated on the various social media.  This is a massive undercurrent of opinion expressing the frustrations of the “silent majority” (but having little to do with shutting down opposing points of view).  Further, Ham and Benson acknowledge that “indignation” is “unavoidable and sometimes necessary.”  This recognition, however, does little to mitigate the phenomenon they call “outrage culture.”

4   We should take note: Co-author Guy Benson, though coming out as homosexual, doesn’t let that stop him from citing this egregious example of the outrage culture’s pro-homosexual demand for conformity.  His intellectual consistency speaks well of his intellectual integrity.

5   For more about this, see this reviewer’s article “March of the PeeWOCs: ‘Queer Theory,’ Its Origins and Implications,” published in the Fall 2015 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies.  The article can be accessed free of charge on the website www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info, where it appears as Article 116 (i.e., A116).

6   This reviewer explores the roots of the alienation in his book Liberalism in Contemporary America (McLean, VA: Council for Social & Economic Studies, 1992.).    It may be accessed free of charge as Book 6 (i.e., B6) on the website mentioned in footnote 5 here.  Print copies may be purchased through the Journal.

7   This is not to say that we consider his discussion fully adequate.  Some candid facts about the realities of male homosexual behavior and, contrary to the politically correct demand for silence on the subject, about where the responsibility really lies for the years-long AIDS epidemic would give much-needed context.  It would be worth discussing whether “gay marriage,” especially for male homosexuals, is meaningful for those who have counted their sex partners in the hundreds.  For what percentage is it genuinely important?  If the percentage isn’t high, such marriage is valuable for those who really seek a recognized monogamous union, but in general the “gay marriage” project would be an ideological ruse to provide cover for the broad range of homosexual behavior.

          By now, virtually everybody in the United States uses the word “gay” to mean either male homosexuality or, sometimes, the homosexuality of both sexes.  In the context of End of Discussion’s examination of ideologically enforced opinion, the authors would do well to consider how the majority of Americans have come to accept the appropriation of the word “gay,” which used to mean “happy,” and a legal recognition of “gay marriage.”  There is probably no better example of how ideas that were once considered radical have been pressed upon the public by activists in academia, the media and entertainment, and in the course of things embraced by the politically correct PeeWOC elite.

8   The “alienation of the intellectual” is one of the main themes in this reviewer’s book Understanding the Modern Predicament, which can be accessed free of change on his website (see footnote 5) as Book 3 (i.e., B3).

 

 



[1]   Townhouse Media is said to be “the top source for conservative news, political cartoons, breaking news, election news and commentary on politics and the media culture.”  Its publications appear both on the Web and in print.

[2]   We use the word “conservative” advisedly, since it is by no means clear what is meant by the word, except “not Left.”  Before the collapse of the USSR in 1991, anti-Communism united a diverse assortment of views under the “conservative” label.  Since that uniting factor has been removed, the American Right has consisted of a chaotic tangle of passionately held, often antithetical, views. Readers are probably aware that historically the word “conservative” as used in the United States has had little resemblance to its usage in Europe.

 

[3]   The authors are quick to point out that American conservatives have their own “chains of outrage,” many instances of which are circulated on the various social media.  This is a massive undercurrent of opinion expressing the frustrations of the “silent majority” (but having little to do with shutting down opposing points of view).  Further, Ham and Benson acknowledge that “indignation” is “unavoidable and sometimes necessary.”  This recognition, however, does little to mitigate the phenomenon they call “outrage culture.”

[4]   We should take note: Co-author Guy Benson, though coming out as homosexual, doesn’t let that stop him from citing this egregious example of the outrage culture’s pro-homosexual demand for conformity.  His intellectual consistency speaks well of his intellectual integrity. 

Note to Rupert: The following footnote has extra space between its lines, and I haven’t found a way to remove that spacing.  Hopefully, you can.

[5]   For more about this, see this reviewer’s article “March of the PeeWOCs: ‘Queer Theory,’ Its Origins and Implications,” published in our Fall 2015 issue.  The article can be accessed free of charge on the website www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info, where it appears as Article 116 (i.e., A116).

 

[6]   This reviewer explores the roots of the alienation in his book Liberalism in Contemporary America (McLean, VA: Council for Social & Economic Studies, 1992.).    It may be accessed free of charge as Book 6 (i.e., B6) on the website mentioned in footnote 4 here.  Print copies may be purchased through this journal.

[7]   This is not to say that we consider his discussion fully adequate.  Some candid facts about the realities of male homosexual behavior and, contrary to the politically correct demand for silence on the subject, about where the responsibility really lies for the years-long AIDS epidemic would give much-needed context.  It would be worth discussing whether “gay marriage,” especially for male homosexuals, is meaningful for those who have counted their sex partners in the hundreds.  For what percentage is it genuinely important?  If the percentage isn’t high, such marriage is valuable for those who really seek a recognized monogamous union, but in general the “gay marriage” project would be an ideological ruse to provide cover for the broad range of homosexual behavior.

          By now, virtually everybody in the United States uses the word “gay” to mean either male homosexuality or, sometimes, the homosexuality of both sexes.  In the context of End of Discussion’s examination of ideologically enforced opinion, the authors would do well to consider how the majority of Americans have come to accept the appropriation of the word “gay,” which use to mean “happy,” and a legal recognition of “gay marriage.”  There is probably no better example of how ideas that were once considered radical have been pressed upon the public by activists in academia, the media and entertainment, and in the course of things embraced by the politically correct PeeWOC elite.

[8]   The “alienation of the intellectual” is one of the main themes in this reviewer’s book Understanding the Modern Predicament, which can be accessed free of change on his website (see footnote 4) as Book 3 (i.e., B3).