marginalizing odious views: a strategy

If you looked out at the National Mall on any Inauguration Day from 1944 to 2012, you might conclude that Nazism had been effectively marginalized in the USA. The president who was being sworn in might be leading a war against actual Nazis (Roosevelt) or might be a veteran of such a war. The growing array of monuments, memorials, and museums along the Mall included explicit repudiations of Nazism (the United States Holocaust Museum, the WWII Memorial), and lots of images and statements at odds with Nazi ideology. Even a white-supremacist like Jefferson was represented–selectively but not falsely–as a proponent of values antithetical to Nazism. And certainly no one would feel the need to explain why no Nazis were invited to this party.

As further evidence that Nazism was marginalized in the USA between 1941 and 2017, consider that:

  • No censorship was required to keep Nazi materials off respectable shelves, except sometimes as historical evidence of evil.
  • The word “Nazi” was an epithet, not requiring an explanation as to why it was bad.
  • People who shared a lot of beliefs with Nazis remained prevalent, but they denied that they were Nazis or resembled Nazis.
  • The word got misapplied as an insult to people who didn’t deserve it. The debate was not about whether it was OK to be a Nazi but whether it was OK to call someone that.
  • The word gained a penumbra of moral seriousness and shame. Joking about it was generally off-color, although it did produce some brilliant satire.
  • [We did still read Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, which shows either that the marginalization was incomplete or that it’s possible to make judicious exceptions.]

Marginalizing Nazism was an achievement. It was a form of self-governance, the imposition of values on a population by the population. Even if you’re not a purist about First Amendment principles, you might still agree that successful marginalization of an odious view is more effective than state censorship. It is also in some respects safer, because states that censor may easily abuse that power. (And censorship is ultimately backed by the gun.)

Although marginalization need not employ state censorship, it does make heavy use of authoritative rhetoric, rituals, social norms, selective invitations to speak, and refusals to listen. It is incompatible with engaging alternative views, listening to learn, being open to changing one’s mind, seeing the good in everyone, etc. It explicitly repudiates dialogue. We can either engage in dialogue or we can marginalize; we can’t do both to the same target.

As such, marginalization can be misused. For instance, socialism hasn’t been fully marginalized in the US since the Palmer Raids of ca. 1919–but close. Many people who share views with actual social democrats or democratic socialists deny that they do. In many circles, the term “socialist” suffices as a critique and doesn’t need an argument–it functions as an epithet.

Again, the marginalization of socialism has never been complete. There have always been socialists in the US with significant influence and secure positions. Just lately, we are seeing a real resurgence. Still, the degree of marginalization has been sufficient to distort the public debate. I happen to be mildly skeptical of socialism on several grounds, yet it seems obvious that the policies employed in thriving countries like Norway and Germany deserve consideration in the USA–and are, in fact, sometimes employed here. Marginalizing the word that best describes those policies prevents the public from considering them on their merits.

The temptation to marginalize is felt across the spectrum. For instance, neoliberalism is perhaps the reigning orthodoxy of our era. Yet no one calls himself a “neoliberal.” The word is almost always used in circles where people oppose market capitalism, as an epithet. It substitutes for an argument. It is hard to define “neoliberalism” in a way that (a) accurately describes the views of the alleged proponents, and (b) is actually bad. A commitment to personal freedom is something that alleged neoliberals would acknowledge but that also seems attractive. A preference for corporations over people is something that they would deny. Once you propose a precise and accurate definition of neoliberalism, you are engaged in an argument rather than marginalizing anyone–but you risk losing the argument. Now you are no longer just charging opponents with being neoliberals but considering whether choice and competition might be helpful under specific circumstances.

To the target, marginalization feels like censorship. When a university refuses to invite a certain kind of speaker to give a formal talk, or disinvites someone who was invited, that is not–in an important, technical sense–censorship. The university has a right and even a responsibility to invite selectively. However, when the university is part of a larger movement to marginalize a given view, then holders of that view face what feels like censorship when they are not invited. If those people are Nazis, then their marginalization is an achievement. But if they are merely out of step with dominant views on college campuses, then they may have a legitimate complaint.

In short: marginalization is a powerful and appropriate strategy when the target deserves it. The power to marginalize is a political resource. It is a form or aspect of governance. But its power is so tempting that we must be careful not to abuse it. One reason not to marginalize any given view is that we may then fail to learn from it.

See also responsiveness as a virtue; civility, humility, tolerance, empathy, or what?; civility: not too much, not too little; and (from 2009) a theory of free speech on campus.