Extremism, the Imagination, and Socially Free Speech

Back in my college days I had ornery libertarian inclinations. So, I did what ornery college libertarians do, and applied for a Koch fellowship to help fund some work at a think tank over the summer. At the Koch fellowship, I met some really ueber-libertarian college students. Not libertarian in the sense of “fiscally moderate/conservative and culturally cosmopolitan,” but libertarian in the sense of supporting Ron Paul, railing against monetary authoritarianism, and generally talking about politics in the strongest, most Manichean language. Libertarian in the sense that they thought that Congress was divided into two parties: the socialists and the fascists.

Today, I inhabit a more mainstream world – researching for a university and ghost-writing for a moderate. But I’m still Facebook friends with a lot of those old college libertarians, many of whom haven’t left that world behind and are still going on like they did three years ago. On my Facebook newsfeed I get regular glimpses into an ideological world in which the Federal Reserve is always pushing us ever closer toward hyperinflation, Iran only poses a threat insofar as we aggress against it, and the modern welfare state was built with the cynical goal of enriching the political class.

Needless to say, I think these beliefs, and the people who hold them, are wrong. But while I don’t think these people should be in positions of power, I’m glad they are on my Facebook newsfeeds. Ideational extremists—people who are radically outside of the mainstream—are extremely intellectually valuable, because they expand our imaginations. By challenging our sources of intellectual authority, they help us understand them better. In my college economics classes, it was taken as a given that transportation infrastructure was a natural monopoly, hence a market failure requiring public procurement. But at the Koch fellowship I encountered people who were convinced that there were wonderful possibilities for a free-market system of transportation infrastructure—competing toll roads, etc. Though I’ve ultimately decided that the mainstream economic opinion is probably correct, I went along with the libertarian ideas for a bit – and I’m glad I did. The mainstream ideas were kind of stale in my mind before they had been challenged. Only when I encountered ueber-libertarians who would actually say things like, “There is no such thing as a market failure, properly understood,” was I forced to think really hard, critically, and independently about what market failure was.

The same goes for my friends on the far Left. I learn a lot more about the world, and get more intellectual excitement and imaginative gestalt shifts, from my barely-reconstructed Marxist-Leninist labor-activist friends, than I do from the mainstream, ever-friendly, ever-palatable-to-the-professional-classes’-tastes New Democrats. And I predict that as the pace of social and technological change continues to accelerate, it will be my peers who spent their younger years as ideational outcasts who will be best positioned to find imaginative solutions to our future problems – adjusting public bureaucracies to the modern age, finding an intelligent approach to growing income inequality driven by technology and globalization, etc.. People who grew up in the technocratic mainstream may only have the mindset for, and the solutions to, today’s problems.

Second, I find that extremist libertarians, in particular, are well-positioned to point out hypocrisy. Because they have such strong, unyielding, ideological objections to foreign military interventions—and don’t frame their objections in pragmatic terms—they’re better than most of us at being equally critical of Republicans’ and Democrats’ chosen wars. With the exception of Glenn Greenwald and a few others, the biggest critics of President Obama’s detention and Guantanamo policies have been writers of the libertarian “Right,” rather than the liberals who were so critical of the same policies under W.  Again, I don’t agree with libertarian foreign policy, but I’m glad they’re there to point out our hypocrisies, as they will be in the future.

So this was my attempt to reconstruct a cliche that is often said but less often spelled out—that extremists have an important role to play in our discourse.


There’s a ritual that takes place in the middle-brow media every couple of weeks. Some outrageous figure will say some outrageous thing. Then, outrageous media outlets will whip up an outrageous controversy. Other outrageous figures will attack the original outrageous figure in the most vicious terms, demand his resignation or defunding, or whatever. Then, defenders of the original outrageous figure will decry these attacks, demanding that “free speech” be protected. In turn, their opponents will point out that “free speech” is a political constraint—i.e., it prevents the government from punishing him—that also guarantees the right of critics to say whatever they want.

That final position—the last sentence—is clearly true. The first amendment gives us protections against political reprisals, not social reprisals, for our speech. So it guarantees our enemies the right to hate and exclude us for our speech as much as it gives us the right to speak. Back in my college days, there was a consensus among my smart Yale Political Union friends that we not only (rather obviously) had a right to criticize and stigmatize people who have said wrong things but that (more controversially) we had the obligation to do so. This was, we thought, the only way to maintain a free society. If we didn’t punish objectionable or potentially harmful speech at all, then we would allow harmful ideas to reproduce. But if we used government to clamp down on those ideas, we would be giving away our freedoms up front. So a free society, our thinking went, must offer political protections for free speech, but must also rely on a culture that regulated such speech through social pressures and stigma.

I think there’s definitely a lot of truth to this argument, and we definitely should stigmatize overt bigotry, group hatreds, etc. Stigma can be the most powerful way to advance social change.

But otherwise, partly because of what I wrote above about the social functions of extremism, I worry that our society has taken social censoriousness about people with “bad ideas” too far. I’m disturbed by the media’s practice of ideational gotcha politics—of finding acquaintances of political figures who are outside the mainstream, and guilting the political figures by association. This is common among both Right and Left media outlets. My fear is that these practices will scare my and future generations out of  indulging their curiosity and seeking out ideologically idiosyncratic groups, in a way that will reduce the imaginativeness and openness of our political discourse in the future.

There’s a sweet spot here—a place where bigotry is stigmatized out of existence and power, but students don’t need to feel nervous about indulging their curiosity about Students for a Democratic Society or the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, or whatever.


One thought on “Extremism, the Imagination, and Socially Free Speech

  1. I sometimes wonder to what extent the “gotcha!” politics are related to the academic practice of over-analyzing. We’ve all written that paper in which, to fill space, we try to squeeze out the significance of a comma, although we’re pretty sure it’s completely /in/significant. Conversely, we’ve all read Shakespeare and discovered that one essential word (which is almost every word, in Shakespeare) that colors a character’s world so precisely and profoundly that we can’t imagine the play without it (Shakespeare’s micro-control of language is pretty close to perfect).

    What I think I’m trying to say is that your observation of “gotcha!” politics reminds me of our pop-academic culture of pseudo-Freudian psychoanalysis slash literary (postmodern?) over-analysis, in which slips and pauses govern and convey (supposedly) as much content as sentences and paragraphs. While I agree with you about the media and the benefit (necessity?) of open dialogue, I sympathize with our tendency to treat Romney as if he’s Antony (or Iago) in examining the minutiae of his speech. Word choice is important in subtle ways, and can possibly (emphasis on possibly!) clue us into the biases of our sources of information. And as I’m sure you’d agree, discerning bias is an important skill in interpreting an opinion.

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