The Dangers of Liberal Herd Mentality
And the importance of open and honest discourse
The growing polarization within our political party system is no obscure truth. The chasm between liberals and conservatives has been ever-expanding, a bottomless pit of deadlocked despair. Government shutdowns, fiery debates, relentless filibusters and marriage disapprovals are only a few examples of its consequences. It doesn’t help that social media, an unavoidable societal staple, contributes to the political polarization by creating "echo chambers" which not only magnify confirmation bias, but also stifle cross-pollination of ideas and harden extremist views.
But recently, a new phenomenon is on the rise: the revival of cancel culture and the silencing of non-progressive, contrarian views. What it means to be an “accepted liberal” has seemingly changed. You could have voted for the Democrats in every presidential election, participated in every Women's March, donated to LGBTQ initiatives, supported income equality and Black lives, and yet, if you just so raise a finger questioning the effectiveness of riots, or lament property destruction, I'm sorry, you're cancelled, and maybe you should also consider resigning.
Social media has its own merits, which I won’t get into, but it has also unintentionally propelled the emergence of a new social construct — one that suppresses intellectual discourse and good-faith disagreements. Any person, idea, or research can fall prey to a mob takedown on Twitter. You either subscribe to the predominant narrative on social media, or you’re definitely wrong, and probably a racist. This reaction has tainted prominent publications, as Bari Weiss stated in her resignation letter:
Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor.
Her letter came weeks after her colleague, James Bennet, resigned as editor of The New York Times' editorial page. Bennet had drawn widespread criticism from colleagues and prominent figures on Twitter after the publication of Republican Sen. Tom Cotton's controversial op-ed, which called to “send in the troops.”
In her letter, Weiss wrote:
As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.
Whether or not you support Sen. Cotton's argument, it is undeniable that he, a Senator for Arkansas and likely the Republican presidential candidate in 2024, is an important public figure with substantial political backing. Thus, his opinions are a critical reflection of the realities that exist in our country. Given that the New York Times, one of our nation's most coveted news platform, felt compelled to outwardly apologize for publishing a conservative viewpoint, what does that say about all the other conservative voices that make up the United States? Ignoring these views, regardless of whether they are accurate, implies a denial of this reality. Perhaps this is why we (liberals) failed to predict the rise of Trumpism, as we don’t even want to hear anything that goes against our own righteous beliefs (in fact, we criticize conservatives for being stubborn).
If the mainstream media will not host a diversity of opinion, or puts the “moral clarity” of some self-appointed saints before the goal of objectivity in reporting, if it treats writers as mere avatars for their race and gender or gender identity, rather than as unique individuals whose identity is largely irrelevant, then the nonmainstream needs to pick up the slack.
A vicious cycle develops, fueled by a “chilling effect,” where writers, researchers, and public figures alike refrain from mildly controversial topics in fear that doing so will result in the loss of their jobs and / or reputations. Questioning the liberal herd mentality, posing challenging beliefs and even calling out the strain on free speech, regardless whether you identify as a liberal, may generate animus amongst your colleagues and peers.
Recently, a prominent group of writers and academics signed a seemingly harmless open letter arguing that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” The letter raised eyebrows, and responses criticized its vague text and suggested that “marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing.” Moreover, a Princeton professor was chastised for publishing his mildly opposing stance on a faculty letter that demanded perks to people of color.
The rebukes are valid, but the resulting backlashes appear to misconstrue the original objective of the author(s). But those who have stood up to denounce the impairments on free speech are prominent individuals, well respected for their literature, research, and societal contributions. They know they will survive the backlash, but many others, silenced from fear of being cancelled or losing their jobs, remain in the shadows.
America has long ways to go to promote a safe and anti-racist space for all marginalized communities, but we also need open and honest discourse to debate existing misconceptions and define the best solutions to dedicate our resources towards.
The dismissal of certain thought expressions reinforces tribalism, and democracy becomes less meaningful as people become more tribal in nature. In other words, let’s avoid a neoliberal orthodoxy, and instead, channel the energy towards discussing the immediate reforms our country needs to take and debate the merits and limitations of those ideas.
You should be able to embrace liberal values and support progressive movements while admonishing the current limitations on free speech. The objective is the same — to establish a society that actively addresses the startling inequality in our nation and the racism deeply rooted in our systems. Rather than calling out The New York Times for publishing Tom Cotton’s op-ed, let’s discuss why his approach hurts society; rather than shutting out opinions against violent protests, let’s instead discuss police reform and incremental, rational changes in the workplace and college campuses.
The chasm between the political parties and the emerging fissure within the liberals do not need to get any bigger. The best policies come from active participation and open discourse, and publications are in the best position to drive this dialogue.
Once we set aside our previous affiliations, acknowledge different perspectives, and proactively challenge and question others and our own beliefs, we may actually see real change and growth.