When Brendan Eich, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, was named CEO of Mozilla in March 2014, he pledged to ensure that the Internet company "will remain a place that includes and supports everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, economic status, or religion." There was one problem: Eich had in 2008 donated $1,000 to the "Yes on 8" campaign, which sought to ban same-sex marriage in California. (It seems so long ago.) A week after his appointment, during which online voices decried Mozilla for letting someone with bigoted views helm its operations, Mozilla announced Eich would be stepping down.
Andrew Sullivan, a commentator who is gay and among the first to publicly defend same-sex marriage, summed up the decision poignantly: "When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line. This is McCarthyism applied by civil actors. This is the definition of intolerance." His quote appears among many that draw attention to an intolerant tolerance that Kirsten Powers believes is on the rise. The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech (Regnery) is the Fox News commentator's new book, a journalistic polemic on the many Americans on the cultural and political Left who have forsaken some of their most cherished values, including free speech.
Powers, best known among CT readers for her dramatic Christian testimony, recently spoke with print managing editor Katelyn Beaty about the rise of the "illiberal Left."
Your book criticizes an intolerance among the cultural Left toward those with dissenting viewpoints. You give many examples of how the “illiberal Left,” as you call it, is not just disagreeing with but discriminating against those with different views. What are some of the most powerful examples of this from your research?
There were an endless number of examples, to the point that I had to cut a couple chapters. If I had to, I’d say the absolute worst [example] is one in which a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara physically attacked pro-life demonstrators who were doing a peaceful demonstration. It’s a prototype of these cases, not in the fact that it was violent, because that’s unusual, but her argument is typical: Disagreement is treated as an attack and even violent in and of itself. The act of expressing a point of view they disagree with is an act of violence. This came up over and over in the police reports when the professor was arrested. She was the victim, even though she was the persecutor. She had been harmed, they [the protestors] made her unsafe, and she has a right to go to work and feel safe and they made her feel unsafe.
This actually just happened, so it's not in my book: [Scholar] Christina Hoff Sommers has been on campuses lecturing about feminism for the past 20 years, and she’s a critic of gender feminism and talks instead about equity feminism. In April, at two different events, one at Georgetown and one at Oberlin, she had to have campus security protection because the students were posting things that had the administration so alarmed for her safety. She has been a critic of the rape statistics that are cited to show there’s an epidemic of rape on campuses, so she’s been deemed a "rape apologist," even though she’s obviously not denying rape; she’s talking about statistics. Some Oberlin students wrote a letter to the editor before she came and said, “There’s nothing we can do to stop her from coming here, and so let’s stand together in the face of this violence.” And she hadn’t even spoken yet.
Traditionally liberals in the United States have valued free speech as enshrined in our Constitution, have recognized that dissent can be good and shape public policy in important ways, and that the freedom to say what we think and feel is an important element of democracy. Why is free speech such an important value, and what’s the cost of losing it?
Our conception of free speech in this country comes directly, indisputably, from liberals. We would not understand free speech the way we do today if not for—and I’m sorry to say, conservatives who don’t want to hear it—the American Civil Liberties Union, and liberal Supreme Court justices who charted the course of expanding the view of the First Amendment, and activists during the Vietnam War. So this is a core part of American liberalism. So we have people who call themselves liberals on the Left of the political spectrum, acting in complete contradiction of their values and the arguments that underlie them.
In the book I reference Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard and somewhat of a libertarian. He says that you can’t have knowledge where disagreement and dissent are not possible. That should be intuitively obvious; otherwise you get groupthink. But the illiberal Left is circumventing that process: "We’ve already decided what’s true, and if you dissent from that, we’re going to treat you as someone who deserves to be punished and lose their job or be expelled or get a bad grade." The loss is that we all lose information and knowledge. Research doesn’t get done because people are afraid of reaching the wrong conclusions, or they’re never there in the first place because they can’t even get hired.
Liberal theorists came up with the correct theory that you can’t have real knowledge without diversity; you have to have different people coming with different ideas. If you have such a homogenous group racially or gender-wise, [the illiberal Left] would be alarmed. They argue that you need to have people of different cultures and people of different experiences and people of different genders because that brings a robust diversity to education. Today it’s, “Let’s get a bunch of people with different skin colors and different genders and different socioeconomic backgrounds who all think the exact same way.” And what they’re doing is intellectually rigorous?
So what’s lacking is ideological diversity, at least in higher education.
Yes. And from a basic human rights, civil rights perspective, people have a right to think what they want to think and say what they want to say and that they should be able to express that without a fear of retaliation or punishment. They should be able to, rather than demonizing and delegitimizing a person from the outset, they should be able to argue with them on the merits of their ideas. Which are what college and the media used to be.
Today if you talk to people who are evangelical Christians in a newsroom, they’re not going to talk about it because they are afraid. Or if you’re a professor and you’re conservative, you are going to hide it. This is what Jonathan Haidt has found, that people didn’t feel safe discussing their views.
Are there limits to free speech from a Christian perspective? I’m sure that many of the illiberal Left want to protect others who have been marginalized or demonized.
If it’s wrong to marginalize and dehumanize people, then it’s wrong to marginalize and dehumanize people who you disagree with. I’ve talked a lot about the fact that I think the church has not been particularly loving to gay people. That there's a lot to repent for and that I haven’t seen the level of repentance that’s necessary, and that there’s a lack of understanding. I’m going to try to talk to people about that and persuade them, versus saying, “If you don’t get in line with me, we’re going to push you on the margins of society.”
Is the dynamic we're seeing simply political correctness run amok, or is something more insidious at play?
I don’t refer to the dynamic as political correctness, because that downplays what’s going on. It’s something much deeper. In the book I don’t diagnose why it’s happening, I’m simply trying to establish that it is happening.
But what struck me while writing the book is that the illiberal Left reminds me of religious zealots, except of a secular religion. The average religious person has their beliefs, but they’re not trying to get people fired who don’t have their beliefs. But zealots do do that. It’s not enough for them to believe it; they can’t tolerate other people who don’t believe what they believe, and they have this absolute certainty that they’re right. It’s self-sanctifying. They have to establish that they are morally superior to people who disagree with them. It’s social signaling: “My identity comes from the fact that I’m pro-gay marriage and pro-choice and believe in climate change and oppose charter schools.”
There’s nothing wrong with believing those things. It’s the need to de-legitimize anybody who doesn’t believe them, that puts them in a different category.
In the book you mention that several Christian professors told you they had been intimidated, harassed, and denied tenure, and that they weren’t willing to go on record lest their professional lives be destroyed. Is the new intolerance affecting Christians disproportionately?
This is something that affects everybody, but it’s become an existential threat to Christians. I’m not just talking on campuses. Brendan Eich at Mozilla [who is believed to be Catholic], what happened for Chick-fil-a, you can’t express this view [on marriage] without being treated like you’re a KKK member. At this point Christians are countercultural, ironically. They have become the counterculture. They are what the liberals used to be, and when the liberals were them, they were fighting for the free speech rights.
You write, “To the illiberal left, any opposition to same-sex marriage translates into hatred of gay people.” Today is there room in the public square for a Christian with a traditional view on sexuality to articulate that view?
If they articulate those views, they will be demonized. I can’t imagine any scenario where they’re not. My viewpoint as a Christian is, why do you need to talk about theological things in the public square? The Bible is quite clear that we’re not supposed to hold nonbelievers to the standards of the Bible. At the same time, Christians should be free to practice their religion, to talk in their churches openly. What happened to Louie Giglio [in 2013, after being selected to pray at the presidential inauguration] is horrifying. Giglio was selected because of his leadership role in fighting human trafficking. To have him pushed out when an issue like that could have been elevated, that’s the level of intolerance.
Or you have Frank Bruni writing in The New York Times that Christians should basically be forced to change their interpretation of the Bible. Replace Christian with Muslim, and how does that sound? There are certainly arguments for reform of religion, but it’s not the role of outsiders to try to enforce their ideological views on religion. That’s the job of the people within a religion, to make theological arguments for why something should change.
At the same time, I don't think it's our job [as Christians] to be lecturing how sinful nonbelievers are when they don't even believe in sin. We're supposed to be helping society flourish and loving people. I know some Christians would say, "If you know a gay person, it's not loving to not tell them that they are sinning." If you're in a relationship where you feel like you need to have that conversation with another believer, that's different. But that's not our job in society.
So you draw a distinction between Christian virtues within a church or theological church, and society, and that we can’t expect the laws of the land to reflect our particular views. We live in a pluralist society and there are many different players at the table. So what does or should Christian witness look like in the public square? Rod Dreher recently put forth the Benedict Option: “a radical response — a kind of deliberate, strategic retreat so that we can tend our own gardens, so to speak, and cultivate the deep roots that our kids and their kids, and their kids’ kids will need to hold on to the faith through the dark times ahead.”
I’m assuming you would not echo the retreat model.
I don’t think it’s true that you can’t live with integrity as a Christian in the public square. Look, are you going to be the most popular person around? Probably not. Will some people think you are a weirdo? Yes. I don’t have a right to expect people to not think I’m a weirdo because I believe that what the Bible says is true. I’m not saying this is what Dreher thinks, but I do notice that Christians will say, “We are so persecuted because people think we are bigots.” It’s not persecution if someone thinks you’re a bigot. It’s persecution if you lose your job over it, but people not approving of you isn’t persecution. We’re supposed to be different. If we don’t seem strange, then something is probably off.
Being a person who became a Christian later in life, I didn’t grow up thinking I was part of the dominant culture. To me, being a Christians was always something that was going to make my life harder. I became a Christian in Manhattan. When you live in the South or some Midwestern town where nearly everyone is a Christian, it’s different. But I’ve always been in the minority with people reacting, “That’s weird.”
A lot of the cultural dynamic is an adjustment, of Christians coming to terms. But the answer isn’t, “Now that we’re not in charge any more, we’re going to take our marbles and go home. Now that we’re not getting things our way, we’re out of here.” The response should be, “Maybe we need to be talking about these issues differently. Maybe there’s another way to engage and serve people.”
Being humbled is a good thing.