When I was in third grade, my family spent a few months in LA. It was a middle class neighborhood, but a pretty lousy elementary school, where the teacher would routinely harangue the class of thirty eight third and fourth graders about how much worse we were than the class she had taught in the same classroom forty eight years before. The kids weren’t particularly badly behaved, but they did respond to her abuse by muttering insults and harassing each other all day, and pretty soon it was decided that as the new kid, I was going to have to fight the biggest kid in the class, John R, after school.
John R. looked like he should have been shaving, despite being in fourth grade, and was savvy enough to accuse one of the girls of “giving a blowjob” to a bottle of Coke she was drinking during snack time. But I went out and met him after school in a far corner of the schoolyard– all the boys in the class were already there, in a circle. We went to the center of the circle, stared at each other, and then…I let him put me in a headlock for a minute or so, until he got bored and let me go and I walked away.
Why didn’t I fight back? I asked myself the question often afterward, especially as I realized later I probably could’ve been friends with more of the kids if I had. They weren’t bad guys. I wasn’t particularly scared of John R, as I recall, it just seemed pointless to fight. (Blame the bad influence of watching “Gandhi” the year before.) But it was probably the wrong answer, even if it meant that, as the teasing and rubber band-shooting got worse instead of better afterwards, I got the teacher to let me go to the school library and read or talk to the mousy and bespectacled librarian most days. A victory for literature, a defeat for social development.
I’ve mentioned a few times that the middle school boys in the school in the South Bronx I taught at didn’t like to fight. They’d bump chests a few times, yell out, “hold me back, hold me back,” and then they’d be more than happy for you to hold them back. The girls were a different story- they didn’t have any interest in being seen to be willing to fight, but once in a while they were more than willing to hurt each other, scratching and hairpulling and all. I saw a more full-throttle fist-fight between middle school-aged boys when I happened to be walking behind a school in Himachal Pradesh, India than I ever saw teaching in the Bronx.
Why was that? I mean, were the boys in India just “worse kids” than the boys in the Bronx, wilder and more innately violent? It doesn’t seem very likely– they were certainly very quick to stop fighting and politely say hello when they saw me walk by. It seems more likely, apart from the Indian kids just having more time to be unsupervised, that the Bronx kids knew that fist-fights could escalate to more than fist fights. “Let me go get my gun,” was a constant joke, but it was a joke that said everyone knew things could get real bad, real quick.
There’s an analogous problem happening with political discourse, both literally and figuratively. Take the not-quite-controversy over the masked anti-fascist who showed up on camera on Inauguration Day to punch the white nationalist Richard Spencer before running away. I share with BD Sixmith the idea that punching someone over their political beliefs is a bad idea under any circumstances but is worse if you run away afterwards:
My initial reaction was contempt – not so much contempt on seeing aggression but on seeing cowardice. The hooded, masked assailant ran off before Spencer could even recover his wits. If you are going to punch someone, I firmly believe, you should at least give them a chance to defend themselves. I am sure that he feared a life in prison and not Spencer’s uppercut but he looked, I think, to most people, gutless and sly.
But what of the moral issue? Let me separate this from the case of Spencer, who is less interesting than he seems, and consider acts of ideological vigilantism in general. I am neither a pacifist nor a free speech absolutist. Who is? I would be surprised if half the members of the Alt-Right, many of whom think it was the height of comedy for Pinochet to throw trade unionists out of helicopters, would extend unlimited freedom to the left. People are more pious about free speech, in general terms, when their own speech is unfashionable. It tends to be self-interested.
Sixmith brings up some relevant issues around polarizing politics and a loss of social trust, that contribute to the breakdown in free speech norms, but there seems to me a more central issue: the way technology makes the most distant quarrels intimate, and prevents local disagreements from remaining local, personal squabbles from remaining personal.
No political fistfight is going to stay a fistfight in 2017 USA, in symbolic terms if not literally.
When I think about free speech, or breakdowns in the norm of free speech like the riots/protests in Berkeley and New York last week, or tempests in a teapot about whether it’s right and proper to “punch Nazis,” I think about Blueberry Park. Blueberry Park appears in the great young adult novel The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, by Daniel Pinkwater, as the place where anyone can give a speech about anything. The main character Walter and his best friend Winston Bongo have just emerged from a middle-of-the-night Laurel and Hardy movie marathon after sneaking out from their respective apartments, when they come across this unexpected agora- a Toothpick millionaire has endowed the park with specific instructions that people be permitted to speak there, and they do, all through the night. People come to hear the speakers babble about this and that, and occasionally throw vegetables at the bad speakers and applaud the good ones, and mostly just heckle.
But what happens in Blueberry Park stays in Blueberry Park. The norm of free speech is not just a norm of “respect,” it’s a norm of containment. People are willing to let others be heard because they believe that they can respond (or heckle) and because a temporary victory for their opponents isn’t seen to be permanent, isn’t seen to be universal, isn’t seen to be total. Why seemingly normal middle class people in Berkeley or New York believe that it is critically important to American democracy to stop second rate controversialists like Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking escapes me, but it must have something to do with the symbolic weighting that we have given to every conflict, so that everything is about everything, and every political defeat is the end of all. This is the kind of thinking that turns norms of free speech into arguments about “platforming” versus “no-platforming,” and makes it impossible to keep a big, complicated and inevitably divided country together.
Later, the main character decides that he should give a speech at Blueberry Park, so he sneaks out of his house by himself at night and goes there.
The main character steels himself at last to make a speech, which ends up being about his awful high school and mentally defective teachers: