Say what you will about autocrats and fascists, enemies of democracy and illiberal rulers: I don’t fear them as much as I fear complacent, hesitant ‘progressives’ and ‘liberals.’
Don’t get me wrong, Vladimir Putin is far more deadly and dangerous than, say, Chuck Schumer or Kamala Harris. No question plenty of people in this world have much to fear from leaders like Putin, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Lukashenko, bin Salman, etc. in a way they don’t leaders who embrace democracy. But as long as there have been leaders, there have been bad ones, and the bad ones are consistent in how they act. At this point in history, we know what to expect from them–and we should know how to stop it, and if we don’t, that’s on us, not them.
The case I’m making, to invoke Godwin’s law here, is that Nazi Germany didn’t become Nazi Germany because a really bad guy wanted to do a really bad thing. Nazi Germany became Nazi Germany because the Weimar Republic was weak and didn’t stop him. Whether you call them Nazis or give them some other name, there have always been people in this world who seek power for power’s sake and stomp out anyone they perceive as trying to share in that power. And yes, that happens on all sides of the aisle, but by and large it boils down to egocentric views where the “rugged individual” prevails over all else.
What worries me is that, today, in a time we should know better, in a time we should have learned from the past, we’re not just repeating history, we’re doing a worse job than our ancestors in keeping “evil” in check.
And every time the subject of keeping “evil” in check comes up, we seem to find some excuse to come along and give “evil” a pass.
Take a few recent examples:
“We want to hold Trump accountable, but if we do, when the GOP retakes Congress, they’ll use the precedents we set to retaliate against us.”
“Julian Assange may be a terrible person who committed crimes that got people killed, but he can’t be held accountable, because the precedent that would set could be used to harm journalists and others who aren’t doing anything wrong.”
“Facebook may be a tool that’s used to dismantle democracy all over the world, but if we hold them accountable and begin regulating speech, it could harm people who rely on Facebook for their livelihoods.”
“Social media companies in general are not able to hold white supremacists accountable and remove hate speech, because if they did, they would have to remove speech from too many duly elected politicians.”
Everywhere I look, I see some version of these slippery slope arguments, where seemingly, otherwise “good” institutions or people who work to defend and uphold democracy simultaneously undercut it when they’ve based their policy on fears of “what might transpire” if the thing everybody thought was best actually happened.
Is it possible that a bad faith actor who comes to power following “the good guys” takes legislation that was used to stomp out evil and turns it around on his opponents? Sure. Absolutely. But:
Bad faith actors are going to act in bad faith regardless of whether they use and weaponize the tools you enacted to hold them accountable. If you don’t hold them accountable, because you fear what they’ll later do with said accountability should they ever come to power, you’re playing their game, by the rules they set, and they’ve already won. What if, instead, we work to make sure they never come to power in the first place?
This is about the point in these arguments I get annoyed with someone who brings up some kind of weird Kipling-esque argument: “They look upon We / As only a sort of They!” So how can we ever know which side is right? Don’t you become the bad guy once you start wanting to regulate speech?
I dunno, have you logged into Parler lately? Been on Telegram? Have you scrolled through the literal plans people were making on Facebook to “storm the Capitol” two years ago–plans that were being made wide open in the public, plans our intelligence community undoubtedly were aware of but didn’t take seriously, plans for violence?
My argument is not that we wholly silence bad faith actors from all their beliefs, or right to share them, but that a society cannot function if we aren’t holding and enforcing our collective agreement that speech that curtails basic human rights (at the bare minimum) doesn’t belong in the public or private sphere.
And slippery slope arguments, like those I listed above, are generally good signs of logical fallacies, but when you can trace the slip and slide from “Let’s go Brandon” to “let’s organize a militia” on the internet happening in real time, you might want to pause and consider which slippery slope arguments you want to take up and which ones you want to leave behind, cause right now, we’ve got it entirely backwards, and the result appears to be the fracturing and dividing up of our society.
For me, though, this boils down to my long-held view that intolerance of intolerance is the best path forward, and the only time intolerance is permissible. The relativism of tolerating everything, including violence or speech that suggests certain people should not exist, is a relativism that isn’t working. Or rather, is working, to the benefit of people like Putin, like Duterte, like Trump. And nothing good can come from that.