“Victimization is now a source of power”


We live in a deeply censored and illiberal era. Few events have illustrated this more clearly than the response to the Harper’s cancel-culture letter. When a group of public figures – including major writers like JK Rowling, Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie – wrote an open letter expressing their despair at a growing culture of intolerance that stifles debate, there was an immediate reaction. , accompanied by cancellation requests “the signatories.

Wendy Kaminer was one of the signatories of the letter. She is a seasoned free speech activist, former member of the ACLU National Council and a sharp journalist. Kaminer has joined sharpby Brendan O’Neill for the last episode of his podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. The following is an edited excerpt from their conversation. Listen to the full episode here.

Brendan O’Neill: I want to tell you about the now famous – or infamous – Harper’s letter. Many people, including yourself, have signed a letter defending free speech and against the tyranny of culture cancellation. You signed on Harper’s letter, and then you wrote a really excellent article for sharp, saying the response to the letter was proof of why it was needed in the first place. Can you explain why you thought it was so important to put your name on this letter, and what you did with the lopsided response that greeted its post?

Wendy Kaminer: Why didn’t you put your name on this letter? I thought, when I first read the letter, that it was terribly good. If I had written it, it probably would have been a little louder and less diplomatic. But I would have been embarrassed not to sign it. He was just saying that we have to be tolerant of a wide range of opinions.

Maybe it was naivety on my part. But what I didn’t anticipate about the reaction was that our opponents would try to argue that the people who signed this letter just didn’t want to be criticized. It was kind of gas lighting, really. The letter said that you should not overreact when criticized or try to quash people who criticize you. Simply put, that was one of our main points in the letter. I felt like I had walked through the looking glass.

When people are completely irrational, as I think a lot of people who have responded to this letter have been, I just opt ​​out. One of the many things that makes me really unhappy with where we are now is that I find it really difficult and increasingly rare to have conversations with people who are not. disagree with me. I’m not really interested in talking to people who agree with me. I’m not learning anything from that. It’s not funny. I think the arguments can be invigorating. I think we can all learn by listening to rational people who have opposing views. I find that even with members of my extended family there are so many topics that are now off limits. I find that very disheartening.

O’Neill: I connect with this point so clearly, and have had the exact same experience. I speak a lot on campuses and really enjoyed the lively discussions I had with students and faculty after giving a speech. You would always learn something or find yourself expressing yourself better because people were really challenging you and putting you on the spot. But in the last five or ten years it has become very difficult to do so. Most of the time now I give a talk somewhere and then I go, because I know the discussions afterwards will often be pretty irrational and red people.

This kind of good faith discussion with people who have deep disagreements, which can be incredibly fruitful, is disappearing. This touches on a point you have raised on several occasions – on the dangers of our hyper-partisan political climate in which people basically live in bunkers and do not engage with the other side except to throw grenades at them. . It creates a very impoverished intellectual climate, doesn’t it?

Kaminer: And also a serious decline in critical thinking. If your ideas aren’t challenged by rational, intelligent people, who have different ideas and can engage with you persuasively and intelligently, you won’t learn much. You are not going to develop your own thinking skills. You will become more stupid. You deprive yourself of the opportunity to learn to think. Argumentation is a form of thinking. I like to write because I don’t really know what I’m thinking about until I start to write something. When I write something, I often argue with myself, or maybe I argue with something that I read somewhere. It can be interesting, but it is even more interesting to have an argument with a real person.

O’Neill: I want to ask you a question about feminism. You have written extensively on the negative tendencies of modern feminism, especially the tendency to portray all kinds of behavior as sexual harassment, and how this can undermine interpersonal relationships between men and women by imbuing them with this culture of suspicion and of fear. . What you wrote about it had a big influence, certainly on my way of thinking.

It seems to me – and other people far more important than me, like Margaret Atwood and a few others – that the feminist movement has adopted a sort of stalinist, pointed-out culture in which the mere denunciation of someone, in some case, was enough to end their reputation and potentially their careers. Is this problem getting worse or do you think there are glimmers of hope there?

Kaminer: I think it intensified. And I think what you call the Stalinism of the #MeToo movement was fueled by the cancel culture mentality. In a way, #MeToo has become part of the cancellation culture.

I feel very detached from contemporary feminism. When women, especially young women, talk about sexual assault, I don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t know if they say “a guy put his hand on my butt”, or “a guy raped me”, or “a guy groped me in a really intrusive way”, or even just “a guy. intimidated me “. I don’t know what they mean.

I’m not the only one of my generation to have written about it, but this notion now that women should expect to be traumatized by anything, even the most casual unwanted touch, is so crippling. Unless of course you use the power you get from calling yourself a victim to go after people you don’t like. And now we see the use of victim status as a source of social and even political power in many cases.

We also see it in the debates on freedom of expression. To a certain extent, when people express ideas that you don’t like, you can silence them by pretending that their ideas are in some way the equivalent of active discrimination or acts of violence against people. I don’t know if people really believe it. I guess at some level they do. But really, it’s a power play. It’s a way of silencing people you don’t want to listen to, and don’t want to be heard.

Wendy Kaminer was talking to Brendan O’Neill in the last episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:


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