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The supposed 'Silencing': How Kirsten Powers Is helping far-right sell pervasive meme

by Jeremy Hooper

Let me start by saying I typically like Kirsten Powers' work and have agreed with much of her commentary over the years. There's this really annoying thing that happens in this age of social media where, as soon as you enter into a dialogue with someone and challenge their stated views, people (and even the person you are debating herself) jump to the weird idea that your engagement is personal and heated and catty. As someone who prefers to focus on concrete words and actions rather than a person's character, it's very rare that my passions turn to the individual rather than his or her commentary/political work.

I give you the above caveat because I know from today's Twitter exchange with Ms. Powers (and the mass of conservatives who rushed after me) just how eager people are to muddy that line. It just so happens that the idea of fair engagement being an "attack" segues perfectly into what I want to say about Ms. Powers, her new book, and an anti-gay far-right meme that she, a progressed LGBT ally, is helping to sell at the expense of fair discourse.

Let me also say that I haven't yet read Ms. Powers' book in full; her publisher has it in transit to me right now. So I want to make it clear right up front that in this post I am speaking only to the multiple excerpts she has released, her interview with Christianity Today, the lengthy Twitter exchange the two of us shared this AM, the additional (and quite generous) excerpts available to me via Google Books, her interview with Bill O'Reilly from tonight's show, and the basic premise that she believes to be true, and that I believe to be both flawed and dangerous. I am also focusing almost exclusively on my interests: the LGBT rights debate.

With that, let's begin.

This morning, I noticed that several Twitter users who are known for opposing LGBT rights were eagerly tweeting around a piece that Ms. Powers placed with The Daily Signal. For those who do not know, The Daily Signal is an in-house publication of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that, in recent years, has made opposing LGBT rights (and particularly equal marriage rights) a marquee focus. Knowing of Ms. Powers' support for LGBT rights and commentary that is often geared in that direction, I was surprised to see her placing a column on a "news" outlet that is really a house organ for Heritage.

But then I remembered hearing she was writing a book titled The Silencing: How The Left Is Killing Free Speech. I heard about the project a few months back when I was looking through a publishing website (I'm in the early stages of working on my next book and keep an eye on what's selling) and found it somewhat concerning at the time. Mostly I put it Screen Shot 2015-05-11 At 9.22.13 Pmout of mind. This morning was the first time I'd thought about it since.

Intrigued, I went over and read Ms. Powers' piece, which is really an excerpt from the book itself. It's all about Brendan Eich, the Mozilla CEO who ultimately resigned from his job after internal and external pressure over his past donations in support of California's discriminatory and unconstitutional Proposition 8 measure. Powers frames the whole thing as an exercise in "silencing" driven by the "illiberal left."

The illiberal left is eradicating these “habits of the heart” so Americans won’t even remember what it was like to be able to speak freely without fear of retaliation from a silencing mob or a few disgruntled lefties.

“Mankind ought to have a rational assurance that all objections have been satisfactorily answered; and how are they to be answered if that which requires to be answered is not spoken?” asked British philosopher John Stuart Mill in “On Liberty.” “Or how can the answer be known to be satisfactory, if the objectors have no opportunity of showing that it is unsatisfactory?”

The more success the illiberal left has in terrorizing people who express dissenting views, the fewer objections there will be. Most people understandably just want to do their jobs and support their families. Given the choice between being shunned by their peers or losing their job for a personal view, they will almost always choose silence over confrontation.

Because of this, society should always err on the side of respecting people’s right to determine their own beliefs and express them without fear of official or unofficial retribution. Debate and persuasion should be the reflexive response to disagreement and even harmful propositions, not an authoritarian impulse to silence. It should be so not only because it is just, but because no society can flourish without the clash of ideas.
How the Illiberal Left Uses Silencing Tactics [Daily Signal]

I understand it's a convenient notion, this idea that "the bullied have become the bullies." I also understand it's a marketable one, since it's a compelling coda to the long LGBT versus anti-LGBT "culture war" that we've all lived under. But it's a deeply flawed view that overlooks key points in order to sustain itself. And ultimately, it's the view that robs people of speech.

You may fully agree, fully disagree, or stand somewhere in the middle on the way the Brendan Eich thing played out. I'm actually somewhere in the middle. But when it comes to whether or not Eich was "silenced," there is no debate: He was not. In this country of ours, we all have the right to engage. We can make cogent and compelling arguments, and we can also make horrible arguments. Twitter is filled with all kinds. But we all have the right to say and do any awful thing, and then others have a right to respond to those things that we say and do. There cannot be any limit on this. Limiting that free flow would be true silencing.

Limiting that free flow is actually what Powers is suggesting in this excerpt, sadly enough. By (deliberately) using words like "terrorizing" and "mob" and "retaliation," Powers is helping sell the false notion that everyone who has and expresses concerns about situations that are concerning to them are acting in bad faith. The idea that people should be Screen Shot 2015-05-11 At 9.23.29 Pmfree to speak and act "without fear of official or unofficial retribution" is not an American concept! The ability to scrutinize and push back and come out in large numbers against something you find offensive is an American concept. And that is true even if you think the scrutiny or push back or crowd is wrongheaded.

For years I've watched groups like the American Family Association protest and boycott and do whatever they could to truly silence any company or television program or ad campaign or anything else that supports LGBT equality. I've mocked them for it. I've challenged them on it. I've highlighted their efforts because I think doing so actually helps our cause, not theirs. But never once have I thought that their engagement itself was an out-of-line act. Even if they are trying to silence in the sense that they want the TV show or commercial pulled, or want the company to stop talking about LGBT rights, I've never claimed that their efforts were an act of "silencing" against the people in question. Anyone the AFA targets has every right to respond. As someone who has utmost faith in the worth and winningness of pro-equality arguments, I always put my faith in my "side's" ability to win that kind of debate. I always think we win with more sunlight and speech, not less.

But every single time it happens the other way, we LGBT activists, no matter how reasonable our discourse or properly focused our campaigns, are turned into these "silencing" bullies who hate "free speech." When Chick-fil-A's CEO made really nasty comments and some donations came to light, they said we were "silencing" when we said, "nah, not gonna eat there anymore." When that Duck Dynasty guy made a string of horrid comments in GQ magazine and beyond, we were "silencing" this rich TV star for having a reaction to a publicity interview he gave a national magazine. When any number or employers have made decisions based upon a potential or current employee's chosen public engagement, the far-right claims people and media outlets who have done little more than say "hey, look at what this person said" are somehow "silencing" the people whose own rhetoric they highlighted. It's a notion that we LGBT activists know all too well.

Sadly, Powers is giving it a new shot in the arm. Which brings me to my Twitter exchange with her. It began with me simply stating that her premise about "silencing" is simply wrong, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with outcome:

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This led to a condescending and misrepresentative response—one that both put words in my mouth and implied I need to be led "in the right direction":

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We continued:

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My mistake. I thought Powers posted the excerpt because she wanted people to form opinions. That is typically how I go into reading any piece—as an opinion-former. But fair enough; I did agree that reading the book would be helpful:

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 At 7.55.59 PmScreen Shot 2015-05-11 At 7.56.02 Pm

But I did take one exception with the whole "not partisan or ideological" part. In addition to her book using a subtitle that specifically goes after "the left" and condemns the "illiberal left" throughout its pages, Powers' excerpt ran on The Daily Signal, an in-house publication of a major conservative think tank. I noted as much:

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To which she replied:

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And I replied:

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Let's stop here. The Daily Beast is a commentary hub that features voices of all stripes, including more than a few Republicans. It is wholly disingenuous to act as if placing another except on The Beast, where Kirsten herself contributes, somehow invalidates my questioning the choice to place an excerpt on an in-house organ of a policy shop that opposes LGBT rights. Placing excerpts from a book that goes after many recent LGBT rights blowbacks on the Heritage Foundation's site very much raises pertinent questions, and I would be a fool to not raise them.

We continued with a pair of closing tweets before taking conversation off Twitter:

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And I truly believe what I say here. By helping foster the far-right's meme the pro-LGBT people's dissent, debate, or blowback is most always tantamount to "silencing," Powers is helping push this dangerous blanket narrative that, by design, punishes a long-stigmatized and long-marginalized minority for standing up against shitty situations.

What followed for me was a day of Powers' supporters going after me and misrepresenting my position in every way possible. But even though Kirsten was herself tagged in these tweets (and had sent me cordial emails off Twitter), she saw no need to clarify anything or tone down her defenders' rhetoric. I did precisely that:

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But nope. Nothing from Powers, even as the tone got truly vicious. That's a bummer to me.

But even more of a bummer, I get the sense that this is exactly how Ms. Powers (and her publishers at conservative Regnery Publishing, which is most known for publishing flame-throwing far-right books), wants to happen. Having had the chance to read her book's section on the Chick-fil-a controversy (which I know all too well), I was truly stunned by the thing that Powers overlooks and/or misrepresents. Most noticeable is how she claims that Dan Cathy, who supported anti-gay groups financially through his company's charitable foundations and who said that we are invoking God's judgement through marriage equality, had actually only stated "unremarkable" Christian beliefs:

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 At 8.24.12 Pm
[Google Books]

For someone who supposedly researched the situation, that is just a stunning claim. It's hard for me to understand why someone who truly does support LGBT rights, and who truly wants to know why people were so against Chick-fil-A, would be so negligent with basic reasoning behind the protests. If you claim that the supposed "silencing" is out of line, you at least need to know what the blowback was all about!

Moreover, Powers claims that Dan Cathy had the same position as President Obama:

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[Google Books]

Because you all remember that time when Barack Obama claimed trying "to redefine marriage" is due to a "deprived mind," yes? And remember when he helped finance groups that support "ex-gay" therapy? You all remember that Barack Obama? No, me neither.

And the rest of the Chick-fil-A section reads the same way. If you had a negative opinion about Chick-fil-A, as millions of Americans from all walks of life did, then Powers portrays you as part of "the illiberal left" engaged in a "vicious smear campaign." Truly; that's not an overstatement. And in fact, most every section I've had a chance to read so far is the same sort of thing. It's all broad strokes that seem far more interested in stoking a "culture war" rather than fostering healthy discussion. That it's under the guise of attacking supposedly unhealthy discussion only makes it more surreptitious, in my opinion.


*UPDATE: The broad strokes were quite broad on O'Reilly's show:

She makes a point of saying she isn't talking about people who are civil and interested in debate, but that she's only focused on those who attack and whatnot. But the truth is that her conceit, at least on all of the LGBT portions that I've had a chance to view both in the book and in her subsequent interviews, completely erase the many of us who did engage in each of these situations, but who did so in a perfectly fair and rational way. That is the true story of how these LGBT rights situations played out, from national groups on to the grassroots. But by focusing on what she sees as the "attackers" and the "silencers," she is ether craftily or unwittingly erasing those of us who very much dissent and debate, and who do so fairly. We are all "silencers" in Powers' framework, as she made perfectly clear to me today.

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