This summer has seen yet another group of thought criminals being mobbed on social media. Some of them are the people you’d expect, such as the American journalist Jesse Singal, who wrote a cover story for the July/August issue of the Atlantic about parents of transgendered teens agonising over whether to accept their children’s new identity or to try to talk them out of it. That dilemma is particularly acute when the teens in question are only 13 and pushing their parents to allow them to have surgery. Singal’s crime, in the eyes of trans activists, is that he interviewed several older teens who have changed their minds about transitioning and are now grateful to their parents for not letting them take that irreversible step.
But other people targeted by the Twitchfork mob in the past few months are unusual in that they’re liberals who, until recently, were enthusiastic participants in these public shaming rituals. The most prominent is James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn is a hashtag activist who wrote a Facebook post last year accusing another director of being a sex pest. Gunn also regularly criticises Donald Trump, which is how he attracted the ire of the alt-right activist Mike Cernovich last month. Cernovich drew attention to some terrible jokes Gunn had made on Twitter in 2008 and 2009 about rape and paedophilia and, even though Gunn had already deleted and apologised for those tweets, he was fired by Disney as the director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3.
Many people on my side of the political divide have chalked this up as a great victory. Not only is it poetic justice, but if conservatives turn the tables on social justice warriors and start publicly shaming them for inappropriate things they’ve said on social media they’ll be less likely to come after us. Even if it doesn’t have that effect, it would be wrong to ignore this weakness. As one prominent conservative told me, refusing to use this political weapon against our opponents would be an act of ‘unilateral disarmament’. Given that we’re locked in mortal combat in an ongoing culture war, that would be irresponsible. ‘You can’t take a knife to a gunfight,’ he said.
As someone who’s been through this mill, I disagree. I was publicly shamed at the beginning of the year for various asinine things I’d said on Twitter and, as a result, had to stand down from three charitable boards and give up my full-time job. As you’d expect, I don’t think people should be denuded of their livelihoods on the basis of a few ill-judged tweets, as if those are the moments when the mask of decency has slipped and the monster within is revealed. Rather, you should assess a person by looking at all their behaviour over the course of their lifetime — their actions as well as their words.
And that’s a rule that should apply to everyone, regardless of their political leanings or whether they’ve followed that rule themselves. Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect people to be scrupulously fair-minded when judging others, particularly their political enemies. But it seems reasonable to expect Disney to observe due process before firing somebody, rather than immediately caving in to the mob.
More importantly, if conservatives start shaming social justice warriors for breaching politically correct speech codes we are tacitly legitimising those codes. In effect, we’re accepting that anyone who is guilty of making an inappropriate joke on social media, or who says something ‘offensive’ about a member of a victim group, is beyond the pale and deserves to be publicly humiliated, up to and including losing their job. I’m not talking about drawing attention to the hypocrisy of our opponents, which is fine, obviously. The problem starts when that accusation morphs into something more closely resembling the confected moral outrage of the digital thought police. As defenders of free speech, we should be upholding the principle that no viewpoint, whether satirical or serious, is out of bounds. If you disagree with somebody, the correct response is to engage them in open debate, not whip up a mob to shame them into silence.
There’s one other consideration which is that we don’t need to teach the left this lesson in civility when it comes to public discourse. They have already started to use their own tactics against each other. Standing to one side is not ‘unilateral disarmament’ when your enemies have formed a circular firing squad.