In the Republican National Committee’s pathetic postmortem on the 2012 presidential race (the “Growth and Opportunity Project”), the GOP sages forgot to address what is arguably the most effectively used weapon in the Democratic Party’s arsenal: the smear.
Fortunately, two conservative writers, Guy Benson and Mary Katharine Ham, are on the case with their new book “End of the Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).” Talk show host Hugh Hewitt gave it a blurb to die for:
Come for the writing and the humor, stay for the point: The ‘outrage industry’ is destroying politics. Benson and Ham have diagnosed a new kind of media cancer, one that is metastasizing and eating away at our ability to survive as a free people, freely debating our future. Yes, that sounds serious for a book with as wonderfully light a touch as this, and one so full of laugh-out-loud moments. But it is true. That’s why you need to read this book.
If conservatives are really to have an opportunity for growth, they must acknowledge the prevalence and the power of the smears deployed against them. Denial is dangerous. I have just ordered the Ham-Benson opus, so I can’t give you a review yet. But Ramesh Ponnuru has reviewed it at Bloomberg:
An important reason that we celebrate free speech, then, is that — to put the point negatively — we don't want to be fearful and brittle people, or a fearful and brittle people.
That's exactly what Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson think we're in danger of becoming. Their new book, "End of Discussion," is about the culture rather than the law of free speech. They take aim at what they call the "outrage industry," which uses exaggerated claims of offense to shut down debate.
Many of the examples Ham and Benson cite are well known: the defenestration of Brendan Eich as chief executive officer of Mozilla for refusing to profess support for same-sex marriage; the disinvitation of commencement speakers for violating arcane campus orthodoxies; the firing of liberal pundit Juan Williams from NPR for admitting while on Fox News that he "gets nervous" when he sees people "in Muslim garb." Other stories they recount didn't make national news. They mention a disc jockey at a North Carolina bar who was told not to return to work after playing the song "Blurred Lines," which a patron said might be a "trigger" for victims of sexual assault.
What typically gets forgotten in these incidents is a sense of proportion. Ham and Benson acknowledge that there's a reasonable debate to be had about that song; what's unreasonable is making someone lose his paycheck over playing it. They don't oppose boycotts in principle, and I doubt they'd deny that a CEO could say something so offensive that it morally obligates his company to oust him. But they think these tactics should be used sparingly — and not against people who merely oppose same-sex marriage (even though they themselves support it).
The authors are conservative commentators, and they concede that receiving hyperbolic responses to their opinions is part of their jobs. What's especially objectionable about the outrage industry, they write, is that it targets people who are not in public life, like that DJ. It makes more and more of daily life resemble a political campaign in its potential for career-ending gaffes.
For the record, the writers do concede that conservatives are often guilty of trying to tamp down debate. But the phenomenon is mostly found on the left, perhaps because of its dominance in the press and academia. The liberal commentator Kirsten Powers has bravely taken a look at the same phenomenon in her new book, “The Silencing: How the Left Kills Free Speech.”
Taken together, these two books (which admittedly are still only on my reading list) may present a more realistic picture of the vitriol dissenters (who right now are conservatives) often face. It is important that they learn to respond rather than blathering on about "growth and opportunity."