(a) The Free Speech Principle: Free speech should not be restricted, even in cases where this involves the expression of racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. ideas.
(b) The Anti-Bigotry Principle: Racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are bad, and we should seek to eliminate them.
(c) The Non-Confrontational Principle: Because discussions about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are uncomfortable, we should seek to avoid them.
The tension between these three principles should be evident. In particular, the tension between free speech and anti-bigotry are the topic of much debate. For the sake of argument, I will grant that they can somehow be reconciled, such that we know how to handle the tough cases in which they offer conflicting counsel. Let me also say that, even beyond the sake of argument, I am sympathetic to both.
I am more interested in how the non-confrontational principle interacts with these two commitments. The non-confrontational principle doesn’t have quite the air of moral authority of the free speech and anti-bigotry principles. Of course, ceteris paribus, we should not make people uncomfortable, but very rarely is ceteris paribus in any discussion that matters. For instance, we should not avoid talking about colon cancer because thinking about someone’s ulcerated GI tract makes some of us squeamish. Similarly, we should not avoid talking about racism simply because highlighting its mechanisms and effects makes some of us self-conscious.
There is also something especially hypocritical about outspoken advocates of free speech and anti-bigotry being non-confrontational. After all, if one believes that free speech is important enough that one is willing to grant it to bigots, whom one recognizes are doing a bad thing that should be eliminated, then it seems very odd to discourage others from exercising their free speech with the aim of identifying bigotry and its effects—these would appear to be good things given one’s opposition to bigotry.
Yet, I think that a nontrivial segment of the left espouses precisely these three commitments. Given that the non-confrontational principle does not appear to enjoy the same status as the free speech and anti-bigotry principles, and also seems to invite legitimate charges of hypocrisy, why would one hold it? I speculate that, in some cases at least, a plausible explanation is the phenomenon known as white fragility. Robin DiAngelo nicely summarizes the core of this phenomenon:
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.
If white fragility is in place, then the non-confrontational principle is a plausible ideology for reinforcing “white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.” If we’re to avoid uncomfortable conversations about race, as the non-confrontational principle recommends, then real talk about race is taboo, uncouth, etc.
However, I want to point out that white people aren’t alone in this. Many victims of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. also want to recruit the non-confrontational principle. However, there are good reasons to think that there is no black, female, etc. fragility that explains their invocation of the non-confrontational principle. First, people in marginalized groups do not enjoy the same kind of “comfort” that DiAngelo attributes to those exhibiting white fragility. Second, members of marginalized groups experience racial (and other kinds of) stress more routinely than those who exhibit white fragility. Third, one’s opportunities to display emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation, are often an artifact of not being the victim of racism, sexism, etc., i.e. of privilege. (To choose an example close to home: an Arab guy with a shaved head, deep voice, etc. is only allowed to display a limited range of anger and frustration before he comes across as ‘intimidating,’ ‘threatening,’ etc.) I think that all of this points against the idea that non-white fragilities explain marginalized individuals’ use of the non-confrontational principle.
Now, perhaps these considerations make marginalized individuals’ invocation of the non-confrontational principle more justified. Furthermore, members of marginalized groups are generally more consistent than their more fragile counterparts: they frequently deny that bigots should have unlimited free speech. This removes much of the hypocrisy. However, it does not erase the initial shortcomings of the principle, namely that it lacks a sound justification. For instance, even if one is routinely made uncomfortable by discussions of other people’s GI tracts, that is no reason to avoid talking about colon cancer. Similarly, even if one is the victim of routine bigotry, that is no reason to avoid conversations about bigotry.
For my part, I remain committed to giving everyone fairly august rights to free speech. I want to know what the bigots are thinking, and want to use every means of nonviolent expression available to tell them the twenty-seven different ways that they’re horrible people. I also want to tell all those fragile white people to get over themselves. So, I say to everyone: let’s stop it with all this non-confrontational bullshit.