Over the past few years, a new strain of left-wing politics has become increasingly influential in American society, particularly among younger millennials. Though clearly a product of the left, it can hardly be considered “liberal” in the traditional sense of the word. This movement, which has become increasingly influential on college campuses and has been promoted by such social and news media outlets as Twitter, Tumblr, Gawker, Buzzfeed, Vox, Upworthy, and Everyday Feminism, focuses primarily on addressing social inequities faced by various marginalized groups such as women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community. Commendable as their efforts may be, activists within this movement have often been criticized for a variety of reasons, including the hostility of many to anyone who disagrees with them even slightly, a common tendency to manufacture controversy, and the widespread presence of open bigotry by such activists towards members of privileged groups. These criticisms, which are not necessarily without merit, have enabled critics of this “illiberal left” to pejoratively refer to them as “social justice warriors,” “white knights,” and “special snowflakes.”
Although adherents to this new left-wing movement have successfully drawn attention to many legitimate social issues, such as disproportionate police brutality against black and Hispanic Americans, the high prevalence of rape and sexual assault on American college campuses, and increased rejection of the gender binary, a number of recent developments seem to indicate that the worst components of the illiberal left have lost much of their influence, if not all of it.
Perhaps the first nail in the illiberal left’s coffin took place following the Charlie Hebdo shooting on January 7, 2015, when two French Muslim brothers forcibly entered the satirical newspaper’s headquarters and shot, killed, and injured dozens. The brothers’ sole motivation was retaliation against the publication for displaying cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on their cover.
Although most people condemned the acts of senseless violence, a vocal segment of the illiberal left, including Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, placed greater blame on the murdered cartoonists, arguing that satire should always “punch up”and never “punch down.” The idea behind this is that satire should serve to challenge the status quo, but never to attack marginalized populations.
A close look at Charlie Hebdo’s leanings serves to discredit these claims of the periodical “punching down.” The paper has a strongly left-wing, anti-racist political slant. It is also staunchly secular, and has a history of using distasteful cartoons to criticize morally questionable values and practices espoused by various religions, including Christianity and Judaism along with Islam. While it is wrong to judge people based on what they look like (racism), there is nothing wrong with judging people based on how they behave. Because religion can greatly shape a person’s behavior for better or worse, there is nothing wrong with criticizing interpretations which justify harming people. Based on these facts, it is clear that the cartoons that inspired the shooting weren’t so much an attack on French Muslims as they were a criticism of Islam.
Taking these facts into account, it is my view that by demanding the cartoons be censured, the illiberal left were the real Islamophobes in this incident, as their view implies that Muslims are incapable of responding to perceived aggressions and slights against their faith nonviolently. That is not to say that Muslims do not have the right to take offense to these cartoons (they do). However, murder is not an acceptable way to express offense. Had the shooters boycotted the paper or picketed in front of its offices, they would have been better able to garner sympathy from all people. Furthermore, common sense dictates that anyone who would consider an irreverent cartoon as bad as or worse than murder has their priorities completely wrong and would do well to have their heads checked.
More recent developments have also greatly hurt the illiberal left, especially on college campuses where they have more influence. In higher education, they have called for “trigger warnings” (an appropriation of accommodations for people with PTSD now primarily used to censor any academic content that could make anyone uncomfortable for virtually any reason,) the punishment of students who commit “microagressions” (unconscious and/or unintentional acts of discrimination, such as touching a black woman’s hair or talking to a developmentally disabled person in a condescending, sing-song tone of voice,) and the dis-invitations of speakers with views that run counter to large swaths of student bodies. On September 15, President Barack Obama openly advocated for less oversensitivity on college campuses, pointing out that efforts to curtail free speech undermined the ability of students to engage in meaningful dialogue with one another and learn from each other. As an icon of the American Left, Obama’s opposition to the efforts of the illiberal left to curb free speech on college campuses surely undermined their ability to do so.
While Obama’s opposition to the illiberal left’s extreme “political correctness” was instrumental in helping to defeat them, he is hardly the first prominent figure to speak out against this tool. In June, Jerry Seinfeld, arguably the most well-respected comedian alive, said in an ESPN interview that the new culture of political correctness was bad for comedy. While other comedians, such as Chris Rock and the late George Carlin, had expressed the same sentiment years earlier, Seinfeld’s opposition to the illiberal left paved the way for an even greater number of comics to speak out against it, including Bill Maher and Dave Chappelle. This widespread opposition to the “new political correctness”among so many comedians suggests that the efforts of the illiberal left were effectively, if not intentionally, stripping American society of one of the greatest things that can bring people together: laughter.
As distasteful as many of the illiberal left’s views may be, there are some things that they are absolutely right about. There ought to be greater awareness of privilege and power as well as greater efforts to address needs specific to members of various marginalized groups. However, censoring free speech is not the way to go by it. “Stunning and Brave,” the season premier of the nineteenth season of South Park, manages to lampoon the authoritarianism of the illiberal left while offering better solutions to the legitimate problems they seek to combat. Rather than demonizing people in positions of institutional power or punishing those who offend members of marginalized groups without malicious intent, such incidents should be used to foster dialogue so that both parties involved can learn from each other, an idea which at least in my eyes is more reasonable, humane, and perhaps most importantly, effective.