Kirsten Powers’ new book The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech surveys the political landscape of the past couple years and finds something new to worry about.
A self-described liberal, Powers writes that the “illiberal left” is trying to dominate the discussion on campus, online and in the media through intimidation. In our discussion, Powers suggests there is an authoritarian impulse at play, one that has been gaining steam in the broader culture.
What follows has been lightly edited for space and clarity.
Breitbart News: Tell me a little about the genesis of the book. Was there a particular moment when this idea clicked in your head?
Kirsten Powers: There were different things along the way that I wrote columns about for my USA Today column–the Brendan Eich situation at Mozilla where he was forced out of his job for giving money to the anti-same sex marriage initiative. And then the Aayan Hirsi Ali incident at Brandeis. The various commencement–I call it commencement shaming incidents. I just started to think something is going on here that I think goes beyond the old P.C. I wanted to look into it and see if there was something more than just one-off events. Another incident was Louie Giglio being disinvited or being forced to bow out of the inauguration for a sermon he had given 20 years ago, which was noteworthy because four years prior Rick Warren, who had the same exact position on homosexuality had been at the President’s inauguration. So something had shifted clearly. I started looking into it and interviewing people who are free speech activists. I discovered that there was something much bigger going on here–it wasn’t just a few one-offs it was a pretty wide-ranging silencing.
BN: Jonathan Chait wrote a piece back in January in which he talked about political correctness. That piece shares some common themes with your book. Did you read that piece?
KP: I did, yeah.
BN: Both of you are liberals. Why is the left taking up this topic and making this an issue?
KP: I only became really aware of it in the last few years. I think it is a fairly recent phenomenon in how frequent it’s happening now. In the past you would hear stories but now I feel like, if you follow the issue, almost every day something seems to be happening. One of the things that’s noteworthy is that it used to be focused on conservatives and so I think conservatives were just more attuned to it. It’s something that is now getting everybody in their crossfire. They’re becoming targets of this whether they’re a moderate Democrat or a liberal who has sort of strayed on an issue or just a politically agnostic person who offended somebody. I tell the story in my book about the student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who wrote a satirical piece and next thing you know the campus newspaper is under a special harassment investigation for satire. This girl is a self-described feminist and Democrat. And I’m not saying it’s okay to do this to conservatives, I’m saying that as it sort of broadens out more people are becoming aware of it.
BN: You must have gone into this expecting some kind of backlash. How has that been so far? I’ve caught some if it on Twitter. What has your experience of it been?
KP: Yeah, it’s unpleasant and actually I’m not going on Twitter now because it’s very unpleasant and it’s precisely proving the point of my book, unfortunately. First of all, the people who are complaining haven’t even read the book. It was very clear because they keep misrepresenting what I’m saying. When you do try to engage them on the issue it become, well, I’m a homophobe because I defended Brendan Eich, even though I support gay rights and even though I opposed Proposition 8, which he gave money to. It is exactly what I’m talking about in the book. Rather than be like, let’s talk about this issue… No, we have to choose some toxic moniker to attach to you so we can shut down the conversation.
BN: Obviously anyone who speaks out on this is going to take a hit. Are there other people that you’re aware of who are maybe not speaking out at this moment because they don’t want to take that hit? They don’t want to experience the backlash on Twitter and that sort of thing. They don’t want to become the target.
KP: There definitely are. A lot of the people maybe aren’t in the public eye but they are working in institutions where they feel like there might be a backlash, not so much on Twitter, but where they are. I was talking to somebody at Harvard Law, a student who is an evangelical and he opposes same-sex marriage. He would never say that on campus. So there are people who just aren’t saying things, it doesn’t have anything to do with Twitter or social media. And then there are people I know who are Democrats who also feel like they can’t really say something because of precisely this. The whole point of the book is there’s no debate. You say something and the person doesn’t come back and want to talk about the issue they want to just label you as a misogynist or a homophobe or a bigot or a racist. Who wants to have those names attached to them?
BN: One of the things I found interesting about the book is, with a few exceptions, the examples you give are really recent, often within the last two years. Do you see this as a peaking trend? Where are we in the evolution of this?
KP: That’s a really important point is that I didn’t have to go back 10 years to find examples. This is something that–especially even in the last year–this does seem to be something that has a sort of velocity. It just seems to be picking up steam. I don’t think that it has peaked and now it’s going to drop off. I think it’s moving in one direction and it’s going to keep moving unless people start pushing back against it and saying we can’t have a culture where people are not allowed to debate things and where we just shut things down this way. Because…it’s very authoritarian the way these people behave. They just have this idea that we have figured it all out, we know what people are supposed to think and we’re just going to hand it down to you and then if you push back against it we’re going to crush you.
BN: A lot of the incidents in the book take place on college campuses. You kind of play on the irony of that…Do you have a theory about why that might be?
KP: My goal was more to establish the fact that it was happening because whenever I would bring this up to people they would often bowdlerize and say, ‘Oh yeah, this is this crazy person at this university or this crazy person over here. Those are outlier events.’ And I really wanted to establish that, no, this is actually happening. This is not my opinion. It’s not a polemic, it’s a heavily researched book including interviews with people to establish this is a real phenomenon, a real cultural phenomenon that needs to be addressed. I have theories on why this is happening but they are not completely fleshed out. One of them is that the people who do this really behave like religious zealots. They have their current capital ‘T’ truth and they cannot tolerate or will not tolerate people who think differently. And it’s actually sort of an assault on them, on their being. I don’t know if that is because this has now become the sort of social signaling issue where, you know, ‘this is who I am’ much in the way a religion would be, an identity issue that I believe all these things that are right. Like I said it’s a very authoritarian impulse… I will not tolerate. It’s not just that they’re over here kind of thinking the things that they think. They’re going the extra step of saying other people can’t say things differently or even, if you look at the speeches on campuses, a speaker who is coming to speak to the young Republicans or the young Libertarians. It’s not just that they don’t want to hear it it’s that they don’t want anybody else to hear it. That’s where you get into dangerous territory. Very few people are taking the extra step of trying to shut down other people hearing from people this group disagrees with.
BN: One of the things I noticed in the book is there seem to be two sides to this. There are the people who are for “safe spaces” and trigger warnings who seem to be taking a defensive posture. They don’t want to be hurt or offended by something. And then on the other hand you have a group of people who are very aggressive who attack anyone who challenges them. For instance, the feminists who call anyone who disagrees with them a “rape apologist.” One is very aggressive and one is defensive… I’m just wondering how you see them working together.
KP: I actually see them both being aggressive. I see the trigger warnings as being extremely aggressive. I think people have laughed them off frequently and the safe spaces and sort of say ‘Oh, these poor…they’re so frail.’ And that may be true. They are very intellectually frail. They’re unable to deal with different ideas but there’s a real intimidation factor to it. So when you’re Christina Hoff Summers showing up at Oberlin, as happened in April, and you have people portraying you as if you’re creating an unsafe environment for them, to the point that the university has to give you security. And you show up and there’s a sign outside saying, “Warning: You may hear discussions of sexual assault or a person denying your experience,” which is of course nothing she’s ever…she’s never denied anybody’s experience of being raped. And then a safe room in this room. That’s an intimidation tactic. If you’re Christina Hoff Summers, first of all, it’s lying about who you are and it’s meant to delegitimize you and to make it seem like you’re a person who is expressing views that are dangerous. They’re so dangerous that you have to go to a “safe space.”
BN: So it’s aggressive and passive-aggressive.
KP: Right. Yeah, it’s passive-aggressive but, I don’t know, it’s an aggressive act to treat somebody as if they pose some sort of psychological danger to you because they’re expressing an opinion. And that’s what they’re doing. Like I said it’s one thing if they’re off doing this on their own. Whatever. They can do whatever they want but that’s not what they’re doing. They’re trying to delegitimize a speaker who is coming by pretending that you need to have a safe space because she’s speaking and they’re standing their with trigger warnings. A trigger is supposed to refer to PTSD. That is a serious illness. To suggest that somebody coming in and speaking about equity feminism, which is what she was there to do, is a potential threat to your psychological well-being, literally to the extent that you could have a melt-down because of what she’s talking about–it’s delegitimize her as a speaker.
BN: So it is an attack in a way.
KP: Yeah, that’s why a lot of people when they laugh about it… this isn’t funny. Sometimes it is funny but you have to kind of then step back and see it in the broader context and you realize these aren’t things that you should just roll your eyes at.
BN: If you look at the chronology of the examples in the book, one of the earliest ones is the White House going after Fox News. Do you think there’s any sense in which the White House normalized this behavior to some degree? It continued with the “war on women” in 2012.
KP: I do think that they did. I think this was something that was already happening without them but certainly by having the President of the United States engage in this behavior it was normalizing it. It was normalizing the idea that you can do the delegitimizing–and that was exactly their language, that Fox News was not a legitimate news organization. And again, not just that we’re not going to talk to them–which is not okay for the government–but they we’re also telling other people not to treat them as a legitimate news outlet. They’re taking an extra step of telling everyone else what they’re supposed to do and it’s intimidating. To me this was a very serious issue. I do think, like I said, if George Bush had done something like this to a media organization people would’ve been screaming from the rooftops, including me. But for some reason this was something that really got very little pushback. There were a few reporters–namely Jake Tapper was probably the main one who said ‘you know, this isn’t okay’–but for the most part it was just accepted.
BN: Finally, you’re pretty critical of a lot of feminist writers, the people at Jezebel etc. Do you consider yourself a feminist and how do you differentiate your views from what they do?
KP: Well, I do consider myself a feminist but I would differentiate myself in the same way I differentiate myself from all the other liberals in the book, because I consider myself liberal as well but I call them the illiberal left… I actually think that feminists have it right when they say you shouldn’t objectify women, that you shouldn’t make misogynist comments about them or obsess about their appearance if they’re running for office and all these other things. And yet, as you see in the book, when it involves a conservative woman or a woman they don’t like they are more than happy to engage in that kind of behavior. And they know full well that it works because they’re the ones who invented the theory that objectifying women is dehumanizing. I actually believe that and I don’t think you should do it to anybody. I don’t think you should do it to any woman whether she is liberal or conservative.