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Reasons to Be Fearful

Editor’s note: The following excerpt is abridged from Chapter One of The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism by Russell Blackford (Bloomsbury Academic, October 18 2018, 240 pages). 

I’m afraid. Like many people, I’m afraid to speak up and say exactly what I think. I’m afraid to contribute to public debate with total frankness. I’m more afraid of my allies than I am of opponents, since the latter can do me less harm (though if they’re so minded they can probably do enough!). I’m not afraid of my closest friends, the people who love me, who have my back and will keep my secrets, but it gets more frightening as soon as I step out into wider circles of colleagues and acquaintances.

I come from a working-class family, and I grew up in an industrial city in Australia that was dominated at the time by its steelworks. I’m the first person from my family ever to attend university. I still have those connections, and I’ve inherited some blue-collar, trade-union values. But my social circle is one of mainly left-wing (to varying extents) academics, authors, journalists, lawyers, and artists. This has become my tribe, or the nearest thing to one. We dislike Rupert Murdoch and President Donald Trump. We’re afraid of right-wing populism, and we deeply fear its fringes of outright fascism.

All too often, though, we’re also afraid of each other.

There is much to say about right-wing threats to liberty and sound government, but much has been written about these in the past, including by me. On this occasion, I’m more concerned that my own tribe get its house in order. It’s disappointing when self-styled liberals narrow options, distort important debates, threaten individual freedoms, require that we walk on eggshells in our private and public speech, and generally operate in a censorious and illiberal mode. There’s been too much of this, and it’s not even helpful in struggles against our real political enemies. Today, we need to guard against our own large and small Outrage Machines. Otherwise, we can be shunned, harassed, dog-piled, smeared, publicly shamed, and otherwise hurt and harmed for trivial, dubious, or non-existent transgressions. Our good reputations can be destroyed, our jobs can be threatened or ended, and our careers can be ruined. This is not liberalism in any worthwhile sense.

I am writing from the side of freedom. I’m writing to support nonconformists. I’m writing for the world’s heretics, eccentrics, truth-tellers, artists, and jokers. The Tyranny of Opinion introduces some of them—figures as diverse as Philipp Jenninger, Salman Rushdie, Napoleon Chagnon, J. Michael Bailey, Wendy Doniger, Alice Dreger, Justine Sacco, Tim Hunt, Erika Christakis, and others less sympathetic than those I’ve just named. I am writing against anyone who’d crush them, even with good intentions.

Like John Stuart Mill in his classic text On Liberty (originally published 1859), I am not concerned only about governmental threats to liberty and related values. Those threats are, of course, serious. The organized power of the modern state is vast and conspicuous. It merits vigilance for its grave potential to restrict our liberties. But even more dangerous, perhaps, and certainly more difficult to understand or restrain, is a less overt, more insidious kind of tyranny: what Mill called “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.” As Mill knew and explained, this can be more intrusive, pervasive, and effective than state power, even though the punishments it exacts are usually less devastating than those available to the state.

In the upshot, I’m less absolutist than some about our negative rights, as individuals, against the state. But I’m more alert than most to the tyranny of opinion, whether that of the public as a whole or that of any powerful individual, institution, or group that demands conformity.

In The Tyranny of Opinion, I don’t claim to reveal any simply expressed moral and political laws that must, at all costs, never be broken. Even in elaborating considerations adduced by Mill and others—considerations that appear suitably powerful—I acknowledge that different considerations might prevail in particular cases. This creates a risk for my project, since I could introduce so many layers, complexities, nuances, and exceptions that the arguments would have no clear practical implications. But at the same time, I have a fear that is almost the opposite.

Under current social conditions, even the most layered and qualified opinions can be distorted, misrepresented, over-simplified, exaggerated, and generally treated as those of enemies whose voices must be shut down. As a result, it can be foolhardy to explain whatever complexities we honestly perceive, rather than to express a simplistic view tailored to please an audience. Complexity seldom pleases others, yet it’s indispensable for serious understanding.

There’s little I can do about this. In The Tyranny of Opinion, I write as honestly and as clearly as I can, and as the complexities permit; and I ask, in turn, for honest attention to what is being said. I try to use a minimum of jargon, even when explaining difficult ideas, and to state my actual positions as correctly I can. I can’t promise to write something simple, or to have all the answers to thorny contemporary problems. Nonetheless, I think the book and its arguments have implications. If they’re taken to heart, some behavior will change. Perhaps even mine, dear reader. Perhaps even yours.

 

Russell Blackford is Conjoint Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle, NSW, and is the author or editor of numerous books including The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism, which now available on AmazonYou can follow him on Twitter @Metamagician. 

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41 Comments

  1. X. Citoyen says

    Maybe the author should take Socrates’s advice and follow logos where it leads. You’ve already conceded that your political allies use fear to control your speech. Maybe they’ve also used fear to coerce your loyalty to their cause. Maybe—just maybe–all those “right-wing/fringe fascists” that have you trembling are boogie-men that have been conjured into existence to keep you in line.

    • Sean Leith says

      To the author: Your diagnosis is correct, but you need go a little farther to the truth. Leftism is fundamentally flawed from the root. They all have one thing in common: tribalism. They don’t allow a different opinions. You are either with me or against me, no middle road. They are all extremely radical. One type example is the Democrat party of US.

      • cosmos says

        One hard-wired 2016 Clinton-for-POTUS campaigner rejected, without reviewing, all my alternative weblinks that I offered. Why?… because they were not on the Democrats ‘allowed’ reference list. Talk about ‘judging a book by its cover’. Such embedded self-censorship is ‘a dog chasing its own tail’, ie. circular reasoning!! .

      • Dennis Schneider says

        Not true. There are a multitude of different opinions in the Democratic Party. There are many Dems right now who see the most effective Resistance to Trump as an increase in civility to the other side and openness to bi-partisan activity.

  2. Circuses and Bread says

    The author discusses the tyranny of both sides of the political spectrum, but then doesn’t seem to wish to pull on that string further to see where it leads. I see that a lot. Authors writing about some horror show related to politics, how awful it is, and how we should all want to do better, etc. etc. But you know what they never seem to look at? The door they never want to peer behind? Whether those tyrannies are just an inherent attribute of politics itself.

  3. Nearly Normal Frederick says

    Perhaps it would be more helpful to point out that we not living in a paradise of Western democracy but in a condition of collective hell-deep mortal fear.

    Look at one of the world wide seemingly unstoppable growth industries – the making, selling/purchasing, and use of weapons of all kinds, from handguns to WMD’s (aka Trump’s “beautiful bombs”). As an extension of that there are countless people whether as individuals or groups large and small who are full of murderously “reasonable” intentions who are dramatizing, those intentions all over the planet. And plenty more who, when given the necessary trigger circumstance are waiting to do the same – right-wing American militias and “patriot” groups for instance.
    Are there any such left-wing militias etc?

    Furthermore, what is Western culture (in particular) really all about, particularly in freedom loving America which is the leading edge vector of Western civilization, or what now remains of it.
    Donald Trump being the iconic representation of the all-the-way-down-the-line failure of American culture

    Ordinary religion, ordinary science, and ordinary culture seek to experience, to know, to gain an advantage with respect to, and to gain control over what is mysterious, what is unknown, what is threatening – they want to achieve absolute power for human beings.
    The quest for power (or control) over the unknown is the individual and collective pursuit (or aggressive search) of mankind, in the midst of, and on the basis of, the universal reactions of egoic fear, sorrow, and anger – or the universal denial of un-conditional relational love.

    To affirm, as the now world-dominant anti-culture of scientific materialism does, that all of space-time is merely materiality, – limited, dying, and, effectively, dead – is, itself, a kind of aggressive affirmation of power, a collective manifestation of a dissociative disposition that is self-absorbed, deeply afraid, and deeply depressed by sorrow and anger.

    • I think it’s at least as important to point out that while violent crime has dropped precipitously, reporting on violent crime has risen astronomically. Not to dabble in a defense of Trump or atomic bombs, of course, more to the point about street level quotidian threat. And yes, left-wing murderousness has materialized in the congressional ballfield shooting, police assassinations in NYC and DC, countless assaults and riots associated with Antifa, and this is evidently either forgotten or wriggled away from. It’s also this fringe that’s far more mainstreamed and unanswered on the left, while the fringe right is relatively begrudging and infrequent if you can dismiss most dog whistle claims and flimsy suspicions about just how Nazi-esque the average republican is. Eric Weinstein has said this more eloquently than I can.

    • annaerishkigal says

      “No left-wing militias?” What about Black Lives Matter and AntiFa? Or the fact that left-wing politicians and Hollywood stars are openly calling for violence or to assassinate people on the right? Nearly -all- of the violence, these days, appears to be coming from these far-left groups. To see the truth, one must look at BOTH sides … why are you AFRAID? Is it because of the fear of shaming? Or the fear that one of these left-wing “brownshirts”, after you get “outed” and “doxxed,” will pick up the public call for retribution and show up at your home to teach you (and your family) a lesson? Hmmmm…. ?

      At least be honest about the REAL reason you’re afraid to speak up … it’s a lot more than public shaming. It’s the implied violence they are bringing with it.

      • Public shaming coupled with demands you are fired and not hired elsewhere ever again. We know who the real tyrants are … any that impose their will on another.

  4. When I was a lot younger, a long time ago, it was my friends on the left who loudly supported free and unhindered speech, were receptive to new ideas and viewpoints, loved to tell everyone they listened to bands with patently offensive names and lyrics, and didn’t stop being your friend if you had different views than they did, and it was all those authoritarian, censorious, up-tight, finger-wagging conservatives who condemned “offensive” song lyrics, talked of banning speakers, were closed-minded to the point of idiocy, refused to socialize with people whose views didn’t precisely match their own, and practiced ritualistic and contained dating rituals so as to avoid “confusion.”

    Now, it’s almost completely the opposite. The two have reversed.

    How many young conservatives are fixated on initiating elaborate shaming schemes meant to destroy the reputations and livelihoods of those in their own political camp? I’m sure such people exist, but I don’t see any of them where I live. Of course, I live in a far-left college town and have a ringside seat to as much full-blown internecine warfare on the left as I want, mostly conducted by humorless millennials birthed in upper-middle class white America, who seem to spend most of their free time jockeying for position in the ideological purity sweepstakes conducted 24/7 on Twitter and local message boards. It’s like all those arcane purges under Stalin or during the Cultural Revolution I’ve read about, only no one is ending up face down in the Volga, only shunned by friends and co-workers who can’t stand the stink coming from your obviously transphobic, Islamophobic, or racist wrongthink.

    I find younger conservatives today to be happier, funnier, more relaxed and optimistic, more comfortable in their own skin, more forgiving, and eminently more open-minded about opposing views than the standard SJW. In fact, it ain’t even close.

    How did this happen?

    • That’s a good question and something I wonder about too. My guess is that it’s because the left dominates the intellectual classes, including universities, reporters, tech companies and Hollywood. So they have a lot of power to control the conversation and created an echo chamber that fuels a feeling of superiority. Most liberals consider themselves wiser and kinder than the right.

      Yet the left hasn’t had as much success in imposing their views on society; this causes frustration and then they compromise on their principles in an attempt to gain more power.

      Just a guess.

    • AC Harper says

      A very interesting observation, and one I think has merit. I could argue that the dominant tribe/philosophy/political view *of the time* generates its own internal strife and ‘social policing’ as individuals scramble for personal advantage and status (not necessarily wealth). Internal strife is far more to the point because success and failure is judged within the tribe/philosophy/political view. The narcissism of small differences springs to mind.

      Once the internal differences spiral out of control the other tribe/philosophy/political view seems to offer a more rational and logical way of addressing life issues. You can argue that the ‘outbreak of populism’ is merely(!) the pendulum swinging back from a leftish dominated period.

      Success breeds its own failure.

    • Thrash Jazz Assassin says

      @a_centrism

      I agree. Good question. What happened!? I have always been rather apolitical, and in the past it was much easier to be so. It really didn’t seem to matter, to me or anyone too much. My esteem for politics in general was summed up pretty well back then, when I once ran on a joke ticket in student elections, convinced after a few beers at the uni bar one evening, coming up with the policy statement: “Boo scum, big man in red!”. Basically the first nonsense thing that came to mind in my beer soaked brain at the time.

      Now, it seems that every corner of public discussion wants to press me into taking one side or the other. But I just don’t seem to fit. I find myself self-censoring with my left-leaning peer group (which would make up the majority) than others these days. Though it wasn’t always the case. Given that, I’m quite sympathetic to what Russell Blackford has to say. I also somewhat agree with @Circuses and Bread, that this phenomenon is inherent to politics itself. I would also say that one cannot reduce the human condition to politics alone, as much as people never cease trying; that the issue has a deeply spiritual dimension to it. But that topic is now off limits too, because a) it requires a kind of non-reactive practice of self-awareness and epistemic humility, and b) because, well, it’s all just woo woo, isn’t it.

      • Circuses and Bread says

        @Thrash

        Thanks for the comment. It’s interesting that you bring up being unable to reduce the human condition to politics alone and then discuss spirituality. How about we tug on that string a little more?

        Perhaps we have a part of our psyche that needs to be filled by a God or god-like presence? If so, then it’s reasonable to assume that something is going to fill that space. It might be a religion or a set of philosophies, or some other presence. I’m of the view that in our increasingly secular culture, the “presence” that is filling the space once reserved for God or religion is politics.

        Im only being a little tongue in cheek when I refer the various political factions as “cults.” If you stand back and look at the political factions, they have their own catechisms, statements of principles, rituals, charismatic leaders, and wild-eyed believers. And they also have a sense of exclusivity in that THEIR political faction is the One True Faction. So then is it any surprise that cultists want to evangelize you? To offer you your secular salvation?

        Praise be.

        • Thrash Jazz Assassin says

          @Circuses and Bread. Thanks for your reply. Yes, I think you are definitely tugging on the right string there. And the characterisation you give to politics as a kind of ersatz surrogate for some form of god-like presence or similar philosophical outlook, with all the various factions displaying the salient features of religious cults is really not far off the mark!

          In the absence of this ‘presence’ (we could even say the ‘numinous’ as a phenomenal and experiential dimension to living that is neither the product of reason, nor merely fixed belief), people need to stir up the drama and conflict of politics to feel as though there is (they have) some sense of meaning; to be for something, to be against something. Something to reify. We could say that it provides a secular cosmology to live by, whether explicitly articulated or not. But as surrogate, it’s like an addiction to sugar with all its typical symptoms, like for example, poor impulse control.

    • Ray Andrews says

      Easy. Those out of power believe in freedom, those who have power try to suppress freedom so as to keep hold of that power. The SJW-leftie-lib types have had almost absolute social-cultural power for twenty or thirty years, and they want to keep it that way.

  5. Farris says

    To the author:
    Have you ever considered that your so-called friends are not really your friends but merely people who find you useful? Once you’re perceived as no longer useful those type of “friends” will always abandon you.

  6. We’ve been here, done this before… in the ’60s. All it got us were the ’70s. Long before that the whole issue of mob madness/tyranny (however it manifests itself) was feared and addressed in the structure of the U.S. Constitution (and addressed in the Federalist Papers). People wonder why North Dakota gets 2 senators like California and New York. This is why.

  7. Evander says

    Don’t mean to be rude but this sneak peak is light on content. What fresh angle does the author take? We already know social tyranny is a threat to free expression.

    Also – and I don’t mean to be uncharitable – what has the author, as an academic, done to stem the tide of illiberal thinking and activism from his ‘tribe’?

    Moral courage is sorely needed.

    Partially interested in the book, but would like a clearer idea of the case he will make before purchasing.

  8. Morgan says

    “Otherwise, we can be shunned, harassed, dog-piled, smeared, publicly shamed, and otherwise hurt and harmed for trivial, dubious, or non-existent transgressions. Our good reputations can be destroyed, our jobs can be threatened or ended, and our careers can be ruined.”

    That is, your own will do to you what you all have been doing to others.

    Reap what you sow.

    Remember that too when you want the government to have more power. Because administrations change in a democracy and those that you detest will some day have the power you happily gave to your buddies. Thus, a rational person advises that it is foolish to give the government more power than one is willing to grant to one’s opponents. Indeed, a prudent person would advise to give less so.

    • Lee Floyd says

      Wise thoughts. The young, because of their youth, and lack of experience, push for the antithesis of freedom. Didn’t use to be the case. Are we so decadent? Do we deserve to continue? These youth will be you one day; imagine the mess.

      • But it is so odd that the youth claim a need for both safe spaces, demand respect alternative cultures and/or minority views, but then use public shaming without trigger warnings and express disrespect for whites, men and western values.

        • Morgan says

          One the most endearing characteristics of youth is its almost pathological need to be original while comically failing to display any.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @Morgan

      ” Thus, a rational person advises that it is foolish to give the government more power than one is willing to grant to one’s opponents.”

      Perfectly said.

  9. Andrew says

    “We’re afraid of right-wing populism, and we deeply fear its fringes of outright fascism.”

    Whereas both Socialism and Fascism are forms of Collectivism, Socialism is mostly hardware-centric, with its focus on the public ownership of the means of production and exchange, while Fascism is better understood as an analogue to the upper portions of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It emphasizes the esteem and self-actualization of the nation-state, and its people as a whole. It is Collectivism operating at a higher level of abstraction than Socialism does. It is somewhat baffling that, in our very abstract Western world, Fascism is not only not popular, but almost universally despised.

    In contrast to Fascism, Populism could be seen as an analogue to the lower or perhaps middle sections of the same pyramid, as it appeals to a desire for economic security and community belonging. Perhaps the only overlap between Fascism and Populism is a fairly benign sense patriotism. Populism is a movement based on common, everyday concerns, rather than abstract socio-political concepts. Why does your social circle fear it?

    “… I grew up in an industrial city in Australia that was dominated at the time by its steelworks.”

    So did I 🙂

  10. In biological terms, a cell has a cell wall, in the absence of which it doesn’t exist.

    Classical liberalism creates a wall between the individual and the State in the form of negative freedom, that is, setting out autonomous “spaces” for individuals in the rights of free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association. This creates private, autonomous individuals and organizations.

    In contrast, every single “positive” freedom can only be enacted through the destruction of negative freedom. “Equal opportunity” requires the suppression of freedom of association, then freedom of speech, and, in the service of LGBT rights, the destruction of freedom of religion. Single payor health care leaves the state in control, directly and indirectly, of individual personal medical decisions. Wage and hourly restrictions and environmental regulations put the State in the center of private enterprise. The government can force you to bake a cake for someone, can tell you who you have to hire to bake it, can dictate how you have to bake it, and then can decide how much profit you get to keep, and how much they take. Even the Mafia is less coercive.

    Classical liberalism may be impractical or outdated, but the positive “liberty” that is replacing it is more totalitarian in practice than anything Fascist Italy came up with. There is no such thing as “positive” rights or “positive” liberty, it is just a nice word for state paternalism. Further, state paternalism is simply the socialization of a master/slave relationship, with the slave master being the state, and the citizen being the slave.

    What we have seen in the 20th Century and the 21st Century is an astounding increase in state paternalism, which we are told is okay because our parent is motivated by “compassion”. Yet “compassionate” totalitarianism is distinguishable from the non-compassionate form how?

    Perhaps slavery is the natural condition of the human being, and 18th and 19th century just represented a departure from the historical norm, but please don’t tell me that I am more free because master has to provide shelter, food and medicine, and “guarantees” my opportunity to pick cotton.

    • Authoritarianism is the oldest form of population control, central to most/all religions. People are born with parents who is responsible for them, then seek employment so a boss can be responsible for them, and want a government that is responsible for them.
      It seems that liberty is very hard; just as communism/christianity is hard; the ideals may be greater than human societies can really handle.

  11. Thank you for this. I feel in very similar way, and I know I’m not the only one.

  12. David Resnick says

    I love the image used at the head of this article. Where is it from?

  13. TarsTarkas says

    Another way to say ‘Positive liberty’ is License, i.e. government giving you a permit to do ‘X’, without which you are breaking the law. Also called ‘Mother may I’.

    One of the biggest problems with ‘Progressivism’, Cultural Marxism, and their fellow fish (which includes wannabe NSDAP people) is their sincere belief in their own infallibility (which is laughable because if it were true there would be no need or excuse for social mobbing). The ability (or courage) to admit error and the willingness to forgive and forget is the difference between the grim humorless censorious self-censoring perpetually enraged SJW crowd and normal people who have utterly no desire to eat drink and sleep politics, political correctness much less engage in the everlasting search for new things to be offended about.

  14. Richard Russell says

    These endless moanings about the need for self-censorship, etc. are entirely a phenomenon of the Left. While this is often oh-so-carefully hinted at in these articles, it is never stated plainly, and openly debated.

    In contrast, conservatives are not only unafraid of saying what they think, they welcome debate and argument–it’s what makes having opinions fun.

    There are also chronic entreaties for Moral Courage in the face of these Leftist depredations. These are doomed to fail in a ecosystem that actually places no value on morality, and understands only naked political power.

    It’s very hard to feel sorry for these folks that are only reaping what they so deliberately and cravenly sowed…

  15. Orion Buttigieg says

    Being vocal about economics and politics on FB with libertarian & conservative views, my observation has been is that I can disagree within my ‘general circle’ as not all libertarians/conservatives are not homogeneous. BUT the opposite is true of my more “progressive” or modern liberal friends.
    I’m sure this is consistent among folks and tells us who we should be concerned with and not.

  16. Orion Buttigieg says

    Further to the point of intolerance and authoritarian (walking fine line of fascism), there was a debate (Munk Debates in Toronto Canada) between Frum and Bannon – both ‘defined’ as conservatives.
    Like clockwork the ndp party (very left – search “leap manifesto”) – 3rd major party in Canada – called for censorship of Bannon which of course was soon endorsed by the rest of the party.

    Following USA politics I’m not even remotely concerned with Trump and the made up ‘white nationalism’. Folks should get clear on support for legal vs illegal immigration. While Trump rhetoric has at times harsh regarding media – arguably justified – I might remind folks that it was the progressive obama that jailed or went after journalists via the IRS.
    The “right” doesn’t scare me, the left does and they have a long history of why we should pay attention to their tactics.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/11/bannon-frum-munk-debate-what-really-happened/574867/?fbclid=IwAR0I_21C5R52bNb8AXcUux691RZ61QcLpfpGN0CCmht-6lZdDsycsGHt-c4

  17. Damian O'Connor says

    You could always start by being honest. You are not a ‘liberal’; you are a socialist.

    Damian O’Connor
    Author of ‘A Short Guide to the History of South Africa.’

  18. Victoria says

    “We dislike Rupert Murdoch and President Donald Trump. We’re afraid of right-wing populism, and we deeply fear its fringes of outright fascism.”

    Fearful, selectively-honest, and intolerant man wonders why his tribe is dysfunctional.

    What I mean by that is that:

    1. Trump/Brexit-style populism actually combines both labor protectionism and civic nationalism, traditional liberal-left positions, so the “right-wing” label is just a smear meant to cover up the radicalization of his “tribe” towards utopian internationalism.

    2. The fury at Murdoch/Fox News is just outrage that those with differing opinions have media forums at all. Without Fox News, all major networks in the U.S., plus NPR, and almost all major newspapers would be Democratic partisan outlets.

    These blindspots, selective truths are par for the course with Quillette, where I’ve yet to see anti-Trump exhibitionism that wasn’t deemed fit to print.

    • Richard Russell says

      “These blindspots, selective truths are par for the course with Quillette, where I’ve yet to see anti-Trump exhibitionism that wasn’t deemed fit to print.”

      Tell it like it is, Sister!

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