Incredulity. Astonishment. Disgust. Anger.
It is these feelings – amongst others – that describe the general reaction to the revelations of the Twitter Files and other egregious episodes of Big Tech censorship of the electronic public square.
The implicit deal with companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc. is very simple: we will look at your ads if you give use a service for free. The deal did not include censorship.
But what is society to expect when those doing the censorship seem to see absolutely nothing wrong with it. Moreover, that it didn’t even occur to them that what they were engaged in – often at the specific request of governmental agencies – was a problem?
For a generation that has grown up with speech codes and enforced nicety and automatic deference to the feelings of others and swaddled in bubble wrap against the vagaries of life, censoring of speech is not only not an ethical leap it is the right thing to do.
Couple that with a permanent purposeful self-infantilization that makes them defer to (or incoherently rage at for NOT censoring speech) anyone they perceive to be a grown-up – such as former FBI bigwig James Baker at Twitter – and the stage is not only set, the terrifying end of the play writes itself.
This generation is not necessarily Y, or X, or millennial – it’s a bit of a mix of those aged from about 16 to 36, numbers that will, sadly, most likely become lower and lower on the low end and higher and higher on the high end as time marches on.
It is a sub-cohort (I thought it best to learn their language) of people who have much in common – first, they have come from the now de rigueur smaller families, hence they do not have the thick skin and personal combat skills that one acquires when one has siblings.
They have usually grown up relatively comfortably, they are uncomfortable with confrontation, they went to the right schools, they do not understand how other people can think differently, they are over-credentialed but actually vastly under-educated, and they feel twinges of guilt when the grocery store delivers but are absolutely certain that a 25-minute trip to the store is a waste of their valuable time.
While there are many, many examples, two events stand out as exemplar moments for the Censored Generation. First, this rather well-known incident from Yale University in which a college student is angrily demanding to be treated like a child and this chilling tale of a professor struggling to deal with the “best and the brightest” demanding to be lectured to rather than participate in a thoughtful seminar.
From the piece, by Prof. Vincent Lloyd, Director of Africana Studies at Villanova University:
“Like others on the left, I had been dismissive of criticisms of the current discourse on race in the United States. But now my thoughts turned to that moment in the 1970s when leftist organizations imploded, the need to match and raise the militancy of one’s comrades leading to a toxic culture filled with dogmatism and disillusion. How did this happen to a group of bright-eyed high school students?”
This remembrance of things past, as it were, should not be viewed as garden variety “Damn kids, get off my lawn!” generational angst. This is not, when complaining about Elvis Presley’s hips, purposefully failing to remember exactly how much underwear was visible at a 1940’s swing dance.
These two examples starkly show that a sea change has occurred in just the past 10 or 15 years. It is simply unimaginable that students prior would have demanded more boundaries, more restrictions, more lectures, more being told what to think, and, especially, more being told how to think.
It literally has never happened before.
This, to quote Alan Furst’s The Foreign Correspondent, “doctrinal agony over symbols” has always existed but it only flourished in insular monomaniacal environments, like the cloisters of a medieval monastery or a dingy backroom full of bickering Bolsheviks. Now, these ultimately meaningless disputes capture much of the globe’s attention and involve a race to the bottom of dogma, to a purity purgatory which, thanks to the speed of social media, has engulfed us all.
The past has seen its share of equivalent events and trends, but the speed at which “facts” and thoughts and concepts move on the internet essentially destroys the usual “predators” of bad ideas – nuance, history, research, reason, time to reflect, reliable sourcing, and proper context. This has allowed people to simply ignore or dismiss anything they think may contravene their own ideations and the ideations of whatever happens to be ascendant that particular day. It is this permanent state of flux, intentionally unmoored from the evil past and its expectations, that allows the unthinkable to not only be thought but to be acted upon.
And because this is the only world – a world nonchalant destruction – the Censored Generation has ever known, it is only natural that they are so terrified of saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing, straying too far from the dictate of the day that they cannot grasp the enormity of their actions.
The astonishment of North Korea defector Yeonmi Park as she has wound her way through Columbia University – “I realized, wow, this is insane. I thought America was different but I saw so many similarities to what I saw in North Korea that I started worrying.” – is a warning that should be heeded but has not. It is the ultimate outsider noticing what others cannot or will not and it is disturbing to the core. Or at least it would be if it were not so dejectedly unsurprising.
This abandonment by putative progressives of the most cherished progressive position – all can speak, all can be heard, and you can decide to listen or not – is beginning to wear thin on even for the older left-of-center. Joyce Carol Oates touched off a Twitter storm – of course, sigh – when she savaged the recent announcement of the posthumous re-editing of the work of Roald Dahl by “sensitivity readers” hired by the publishing house.
For his part, Richard Dawkins – again, not a card-carrying conservative – said recently when asked about proposed elimination of the use of words like “man” or “woman” from scientific papers, “I am not going to be told by some teenage version of Mrs. Grundy which words of my native language I may or may not use.”
But it will take more than shame for the Censored Generation to understand its own aggressive emptiness. It is not until the system that created them, the system that credentialed them, the system that employs them now changes itself that they will be able to see themselves differently, see themselves as discrete individuals capable of freedom of thought and capable of allowing others that same basic right.
And those systems – educational, governmental, financial, social, cultural – have no reason to change. At least, not for now.