Last week, a cultural shaming revealed itself by way of a text-messaging / group-chat scandal involving members of Columbia University men’s wrestling team. The wrestlers sent messages ranging from “did you see any of those nigs in North St Louis protesting that teenager getting shot by cops,” to “every girl begs for the cock so hard,” amongst other sentiments.
The problem, however, is in how these exchanges were exposed. The messages were captured by screenshot, taken secretly by an unknown copier, in what was assumed by all participants to be a private conversation. There is an obvious privacy issue at play here, but I’d like to instead focus on the resultant effect on how we communicate.
When the natural manner in which people speak is revealed, and they experience shame because of that exposure, it will cause them to change their behavior in ways we might not like. Moreover, the strength of a society can be measured by how well it incorporates views that range from moderate to extreme. An increase in cultural shamings like the one at Columbia will prove harmful to political discussion.
This problem of cultural shaming has unintended consequences. First, and specific to this controversy, this is exactly the type of locker room talk we can dismiss as being meaningless. Young men say stupid, obscene things, and they say them often. Making overgrown boys, whose physiology keeps them semi-adolescent until they’re in their mid-20’s, walk over the hot coals of cultural indignation just isn’t a worthwhile practice.
More importantly, if a person holds an opinion in earnest, even a disgusting one, then it is problematic with respect to freedom of conscience to cause them to hide it. And, by causing people to hide their earnestly held belief, those doing the shaming relinquish the possibility of debating with and changing the mind of the person with whom they disagree. Maligning as “racist” (or as it has grown more popular to describe incautious loud-mouths: “Nazi”) every person who says something ugly in a private conversation is counterproductive. “[D]isgust dehumanizes its targets,” as Jonathan Haidt has written.
Free speech is not entirely free. While the legal system protects one’s right to be vulgar and outrageous, culture and social acceptability causes people to limit themselves in what they’ll say. As literary theorist Stanley Fish has explained, “[w]ithout restriction, without an inbuilt sense of what it would be meaningless to say or wrong to say, there could be no assertion and no reason for asserting it.”
But this inbuilt limitation must arise organically, or the psychological pressure of suppressing (what the left perceives to be) intolerable ugliness will distort the individual and society. And shame culture, combined with a profligate and accessible social media, doesn’t foster organic creation.
We ought to prefer a natural self-regulation of speech. But the key is that it’s self-regulation. When people are forced to modulate their views because of coercive shaming, or are outed as being out of step with trendy identity politics, the incentive to self-regulate is destroyed. These self-regulating communities can’t operate properly now that they’ve been warped by a technology-driven devolution that fundamentally changes the way people interact with one another.
The election of Donald Trump causes one to consider how strongly averse the electorate has grown to a culture of shame. Is it plausible that Trump’s brashness not only didn’t hurt him, but maybe even helped him because of a public tired of a smothering language police? This speculation about a national weariness toward shame culture is borne out in a Pew Research poll whose result is that most of those polled agree that people are too easily offended.
There is no miracle cure. The impossible solution would be to junk social media. But even more implausible than that is arguing that the current trend of shaming non-public figures into submission will result in a more tolerant and better society. Instead, those figures will be driven underground, the chance to change their mind will be gone, and the country will be more polarized than ever. A culture of free speech, you see, demands a little privacy.
Alex Grass is a Young Voices Advocate and a student fellow at the Floersheimer Center for Constitutional Democracy at Cardozo School of Law. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Gina, and two kids, Joseph and Lucia.