Mary Katharine Ham is a conservative journalist, serving as a senior writer at The Federalist and editor at both Townhall Magazine and Hot Air. She also appears on CNN. Guy Benson is a Fox News contributor and an editor at Townhall Magazine. Together, they co-authored the recent book End of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
HPR: In your book, End of Discussion, you discuss the ‘outrage machine’ as something that has come to permeate discussions both political and apolitical. In your view, what are the common mechanisms deployed by this ‘outrage industry,’ or ‘outrage machine,’ to foreclose discussion?
Guy Benson: There is a number of tactics that are deployed. I think one of the core underlying problems that is exploited by the outrage machine or the outrage industry is a suspicion of motives and an impugning of motives of people on the other side, where bad faith is immediately imputed. That generally makes it much easier to demonize, demagogue, misconstrue. If you are beginning with the premise that the other side believes something for a bad reason, a malicious reason, it is not a good-faith disagreement. That is an overarching issue that we try to tackle in End of Discussion.
In terms of specific tactics, you see everything from literal shouting down of speakers—on campus in particular—to this increasingly accepted conflation of speech with violence. If you believe that hate speech is in fact violence, that formulation can be deployed to justify a lot of things to silence speech.
Mary Katharine Ham: One of the things we talk about, too—and this is not necessarily the mechanism of those who are outraged, but it is part of this problem—is that we have lost the ability as a society to say: ‘Your concerns are noted, and we will be moving forward with this speech, with this event, with whatever it is as planned. Feel free to protest, but it is not going to end what we are doing here.’
One thing we argue—and you see it very often on college campuses—is that the people who are in charge of putting on these events and college administrators too quickly fold to very small groups of people, either threatening heckler’s veto or worse. That [turns] out badly for the many people who wanted to hear the speech and who would have been fine with some peaceful protest. Often, whether it is online or in person, those who are outraged are very, very loud, but they do not represent as broad a group as they are given credit for. That is something that is amplified on social media. That is something that, as we have watched the outrage industry become more professionalized, there are tactics that they use to be louder. It behooves the larger population to allow the protests and the event to coexist. That is something that we used to do regularly. Due to the conflation of violence and speech, now it is like we cannot let that go on. Mere protest is not enough.
HPR: One feature of your argument seems to be the use of this outrage tactic as a strategy by certain activist groups. What do you see as the motive underlying the strategic use of outrage and how do you think this motive perpetuates itself across groups without explicit coordination?
GB: I think the motive is to win political and cultural debates without really having the debates: to win by default by shutting down and delegitimizing other views. Sometimes, there are examples where there are coordinated tactics, but a lot of this is just a very human impulse of not wanting to be discomforted in your thoughts and not wanting to exert a terribly taxing amount of thought or critical thinking. I would have said that it is coddled particularly on the left and in academia, but we are seeing this is something the president caters to all the time.
MKH: I would say there are two different levels: there is a cultural-slash-academic level and there are actual political campaigns, in which it very much is strategic and incentivized by media coverage. One of the good examples from the presidential campaign was how Trump’s speeches were carried live constantly because he was whipping something up, and then the only time Marco Rubio’s speeches were covered was when he was talking junk about Trump. All of a sudden, people were carrying him live, then they would go to a panel and ‘tsk tsk’ him for his behavior. Well, that is what got him carried live.
On college campuses and in a cultural sense, I do think—and this is supported by data as well— there is an increased way that it permeates. There is an increased cultural understanding that is the opposite of the Voltaire apocryphal quote: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.” People do not share that understanding anymore, certainly on college campuses and broadly culturally, certainly in younger generations.
GB: Let’s actually explain to people with specificity why they are bad and wrong. That takes a lot of work. What is easier is screaming ‘white supremacy’ and leaving it at that, as if it is self-evident that Betsy DeVos equals white supremacy. It is like Q.E.D. Any questions, potential white supremacists? People are like, ‘Well, I am not a white supremacist. I do not want to touch that.’ So, it is bullying.
HPR: If in your view, the unifying thread of the use of this tactic is to avoid the rigorous and difficult intellectual work of defending your positions, what do you see as the unifying thread between all the people who are targeted by these attempts to quell free speech?
GB: On college campuses, where the prevailing winds blow inexorably to the left, it tends to be conservative figures. Let’s say the dynamics on campus were completely different and most campuses were bastions of ‘right wingery.’ If a group brought Colin Kaepernick to speak about racism and wanted to start the program with an anti-pledge of allegiance or something, I think that person would be targeted by our side.
Mary Katharine and I [have written] multiple speeches, went on Television, [and] talked about the Google firing of that engineer who wrote a [controversial] memo about gender stereotypes. Technically, Google has the right to fire him as a private entity, but it is wrong to fire him. This is chilling ideas; it is chilling speech. Our readers and conservative viewers were like, ‘Yes’ and ‘Preach.’ Then, two months later, the president says NFL players who kneel should be fired and they were like, ‘Yeah, fire ‘em.’ And we thought, no.
MKH: One thing we argue, too, is that one of the issues with how this works is that the standard is always moving. Acceptable speech is always changing, and you see it in some of these circles [of] people of color and feminists. With intersectionality, they break out into these brawls amongst themselves because the rules are ever changing. The mechanism by which you determine if something is acceptable is subjective because it is whether someone is offended. Well, you are not sure until you say the thing. Then, you are informed. The victims of this silencing can be ever-shifting. That is one of the things that is most chilling.
For instance, in our book, we point out that there was an organization that would put out a [monthly] guide to how you are allowed to talk about trans issues. It is like people are scared to even ask a question because they do not know how to couch it so that it is acceptable on this Wednesday, October 25th in the year of our Lord 2017—which is problematic because I said ‘year of our Lord.’
GB: Theocracy, Mary Katharine.
MKH: But in this day, that is how complicated it gets. It ends up chilling people’s ability to ask questions.
HPR: A phrase that you have both used is ‘chilling effect.’ Given that free speech is also inclusive of hate speech that seeks to alienate or devalue the views of certain members of society, how do you think people can strike an adequate balance between speech that seeks to chill the thoughts of others and the participation in society of others and free speech?
GB: I do not think you balance it. You respond to it with more speech. I think you attack it for being wrong and evil and disgusting. Take Richard Spencer at Florida State: this white supremacist asshole. I do not think the solution is to ban Richard Spencer from speaking. I think that is unconstitutional. I would like to have a chat with the student group that thought he should be invited. You do not have to give people a platform, but once someone has been offered [one], a government entity coming in and shutting it down is wrong. Even white supremacists and neo-Nazis have a right to free speech.
The way you deal with it is that you can make clear the views are odious, you can reject those views, you can do all sorts of things that fall short of banning or disrupting. One of the best weapons in that arsenal is ignoring and marginalizing. Do not show up. If the point of Richard Spencer’s speech is to stir up a bunch of divisions and nastiness, you can get together the day before and [protest]. Then, he shows up to a basically empty room. To me, that is the perfect response. Generally, the answer to objectionable speech is more speech.
MKH: The problem with saying hate speech is not protected, one of many problems aside from it not being constitutional, is [subjectivity]. What is hate speech? The principle of free speech is tested by someone who has odious views, and if you do not allow that person their constitutional rights to express those views, balanced of course with the right of those to protest, then the scale keeps moving down. Who is the next person who does not get to speak? Because perhaps the administration changed and someone new is at the Department of Justice and has decided they do not like [what] certain groups are saying. That is the part that is very worrying.
GB: If you look at the trajectory of this at Berkeley over six months, Spencer was not even invited. The problem is you have some of these agitators who will say Richard Spencer is Milo Yiannopoulos is Ann Coulter is Ben Shapiro. The same tactics were used to stifle all of them. Those tactics should be used to stifle none of them, but Richard Spencer is an actual white supremacist, whereas Ben Shapiro is, according to the Anti-Defamation League, the number one target in all of social media in 2016 of white supremacists and neo-Nazis because he is Jewish.
HPR: You identify many negative repercussions of this outrage industry, but one thing that deviates from many arguments is that you couched it partially in the language of fun. What do you think the value of fun is in civic discourse?
MKH: The first thing is that both of us grew up with people who think differently than us and look differently than we do. To me, that is such an enriching part of life that too many people are shutting themselves off from because the message has become that unless you assiduously avoid everyone who disagrees with you, you are somehow tainted by them and their beliefs. I enjoy mixing it up with people. I enjoy debating with people. I enjoy trying to understand why they believe what they believe. That is part of humanity.
The other thing we argue in the book is that constantly finding something to be upset about in every TV show or every movie just takes the enjoyment out of so much of what our culture has to offer. One of the things we tell our own side when they say they want to fight the other side [is that] this arms war ends with all of us miserable. So, we would like to avoid that.
GB: Another aspect of the fun argument is that because there is this premium placed on perfect language and inclusiveness and not saying anything that bothers anyone ever, a rich target becomes comedy. You now have a number of very talented, elite comics in America who say they do not want to perform on college campuses anymore because they get hypersensitive kids losing their minds over politically incorrect jokes. We talk about one of our favorite games, Cards Against Humanity, and how they were targeted and ended up pulling cards out of the deck, the whole point of which is to be offensive because some people were offended. We are hopeful that young people will be like…
MKH: They’re taking away our drinking games!
GB: Exactly. That might be a bridge too far.
Image Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore
This interview has been edited and condensed.