Imagine a controversial feminist, much maligned for incendiary rhetoric about gender relations. Scheduled to make a speech to like-minded people in some bastion of conservatism, she is approached by male critics, doused with several drinks, and pursued down the street by an angry, shouting crowd, quite plausibly out to do her physical harm.
This scenario shouldn't be hard to imagine; outspoken women of all political stripes get death threats and abuse all the time. Most of us would condemn it. Most of us would be dismayed by the attack on our hypothetical feminist.
Yet too many of us are willing to cheer when the person doused with drinks and pursued down the street is saying things we find to be horrific and evil.
Take the oozing pustule Daryush Valizadeh, better known as Roosh V. Roosh — whom we have mocked before — is thoroughly awful in every way. He's a vocal anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, a proud rapist of women too drunk to consent, and generally a grotesque dehumanizer of women. He wrote a piece suggesting that rape should be legal on private property. Though he now claims it was satire, it's a testament to his persona that it's perfectly plausible that he meant it literally. At the very least, it's satire in the Ann Coulter sense, meaning that he wrote what he thought and then just punched it up a little bit.
Naturally he's controversial. Just as naturally, he has fans. Nobody ever went broke telling folks they're right to hate the people they already hate, and that all their ills are the fault of the people their foes. Roosh planned a Canadian tour, which predictably was met with a petition to deny him entry to Canada. In other words, people used their free speech to petition the government to use force and state power to exclude someone based on his speech. That's a worthy subject of its own post, but put it aside for now.
While in Montreal, out in the city looking for women to whom he could be a repulsive tool, Roosh had several drinks thrown on him and was pursued down the street by an angry group shouting obscenities.1 Many responses have been amused, triumphal, or approving.
It's beyond my modest abilities to feel empathy for Roosh; I won't pretend to. There is in my gut, in my lizard brain, a visceral joy at seeing him humiliated and threatened.
But we try not to order society via our lizard brains, and that's a good thing. Now, if we were to govern by my lizard brain, that would be perfectly acceptable, because my deep-seated hates and fears and instincts are all reasonable and proper. The problem is all those other damn lizard brains out there, worn by lunatics with different hates and fears and instincts. Roosh has a lizard brain too, and so do the losers willing to pay sixty bucks to hear him talk about how evil non-plastic women are. When we unleash the lizard brains — when we give into the temptation to ignore the distinction between speech and assault, between insulting and attacking — we will find to our great regret that the majority of lizard brains don't work like the ones we see on our carefully moderated Twitter feed. Most lizard brains are really fucking scary. For every lizard brain cheering when someone we hate gets chased down the threat by a screaming mob, there's two our three lizard brains ready to cheer when that happens to someone we agree with. I am more afraid of the consequences of normalizing and condoning this behavior than I am gleeful about the humiliation of an awful person.
I'm not saying you shouldn't revile Roosh. I'm not one of the people saying we need to respond gently to Roosh so his speech won't be chilled. Quite the contrary. Revile away. But keep your hands to yourself. Drench people in words, not beer. Let your words pursue them down the street.
Yes, I know. This is "concern trolling" or "slippery slope fallacy" and lack of perspective and sympathy for the devil and so forth. But go out unto the internet and look around and see the freaks and scum and extremists. Then come back and look me in the eye and tell me it's a good thing to encourage that crowd to react to speech like this.