Countering right-wing movements that thrive on transgression is a challenge. One of the terrifying things about Trump’s victory is that it appeared to put the fundamental assumptions underlying pluralistic liberal democracy up for debate, opening an aperture for poisonous bigotry to seep into the mainstream. In California, a man named Patrick Little, who said he was inspired by Trump, is running for U.S. Senate on a platform of removing Jews from power; in one recent state poll 18 percent of respondents supported him. On Thursday, Mediaite reported that Juan Pablo Andrade, an adviser to the pro-Trump nonprofit America First Policies, praised the Nazis at a Turning Point USA conference. (Owens, West’s new friend, is Turning Point’s communications director.)
It’s a natural response — and, in some cases, the right response — to try to hold the line against political reaction, to shame people who espouse shameful ideas. But shame is a politically volatile emotion, and easily turns into toxic resentment. It should not be overused. I don’t know exactly where to draw the line between ideas that deserve a serious response, and those that should be only mocked and scorned. I do know that people on the right benefit immensely when they can cultivate the mystique of the forbidden.
In February, Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has garnered a cultlike following, asked, in an interview with Vice, “Can men and women work together in the workplace?” To him, the Me Too movement called into question coed offices, a fundamental fact of modern life, because “things are deteriorating very rapidly at the moment in terms of the relationships between men and women.”
Having to contend with this question fills me with despair. I would like to say: It’s 2018 and women’s place in public life is not up for debate! But to be honest, I think it is. Trump is president. Everywhere you look, the ugliest and most illiberal ideas are gaining purchase. Refusing to take them seriously won’t make them go away. (As it happens, I’m participating in a debate with Peterson next week in Toronto.)
More debate, I think, is what’s needed. Not with everyone — I wouldn’t bother talking to a huckster like Milo Yiannopoulos, for example. But a left that’s confident in its ideas and values should be able to debate someone like Ben Shapiro, a young conservative who often speaks on college campuses, or Christina Hoff Sommers, a critic