For years, I've been criticizing the trope that the American Right (for want of a better term) is victimized by the mean rhetoric of the American Left (ditto). I ridiculed a rightie blogger when he said that accusations of racism are inherently tyrannical and silencing, I dissented when Clint Eastwood complained he should be able to tell ethnic jokes without being criticized, and I scoffed when Kirk Cameron said that he should be able to say homosexuality destroys civilizations without people being mean to him about it. I've discussed how both the "Left" and the "Right" have stretched the term "bullying" beyond recognition.
It's time for me to confess: I'm not entirely sure what some conservatives are up to.
Have they immersed themselves in "victim of speech" culture, accepted its premises, and become part of it? Are they making fun of it subtly? Are they acting to discredit it by overusing it? Are they illustrating how it can be abused, and how it is unprincipled?
Hell if I know.
Take Dennis Prager. I've criticized Prager before for suggesting that mean liberal rhetoric bullies conservatives into changing political positions. In his most recent foray into the issue, Prager portrays himself as the victim of a leftist mob based on angry reactions to comments he made about national dialogue over campus sexual assault. He said:
One in five women are sexually assaulted on campuses? You know what sexual assault means? Did you ever look at what counts? An “unwanted kiss” is considered sexual assault. I’m stunned it’s only one in five. Four out of five women have not gotten an unwanted kiss? My wife gets unwanted kisses every so often!
Prager then nails himself to a cross, citing incendiary comments at places like Huffington Post and Wonkette. He complains:
Second, mockery — indeed cruel mockery — is the norm on the left. I urge readers to visit any of the liberal websites cited and read the comments after the articles. No significant American group hates like the Left does. If you differ with them — on global warming, race relations, same-sex marriage, the extent of rape on college campuses, and any number of other things — they will humiliate, defame, libel, and try to economically crush you.
Look, I know this will provoke a few dozen comments making the empirical claim "the Left just is meaner than the Right." I don't buy it. I think we're hardwired to take more offense at attacks on "our side," and disregard attacks made by "our side." Take a look at the comments on Prager's own column — or on any column on NRO — if you doubt me. I guess that "their commenters fairly represent them, but ours don't represent us" is an argument, but it's not a persuasive one.
So what are Prager and his ilk up to? Do they genuinely see themselves as victimized by rough criticism? Do they actually think that social pressure directed at their speech is different from the social pressure they seek to direct? Or is this an elaborate pantomime, designed to illustrate that "bullying" rhetoric is unprincipled and can be used by anyone against anyone?
Whatever the answer, it's a misstep. If conservatives have fallen prey to the speech-victim ethos, it's a failure of character; if they think they are teaching a lesson, they are too optimistic about their audience. As I said recently in the context of "GamerGate," when you use rhetorical tropes and techniques, you normalize them, so they can be more easily used against you.
Bullshit should be identified as such. Complete lack of proportion should be commented upon. True threats should be reported and their makers stomped. Genuine harassment should be called out. But "we can't endure the unique rhetorical meanness of the other team" does not convey "our ideas are right and we deserve to lead." Instead, it insidiously promotes the very worst and most un-American of ideas: that we have a right not to be offended, that we have a right not to be ridiculed or disagreed with, and that speech might be as bad as action, and therefore a proper subject for regulation.
Cowboy up, Dennis Prager.