Friday, February 21, 2020

Conservative Whisper Networks?

To add a layer of context to my last post, what got me thinking about whisper networks and power this week was a column by the conservative (but anti-Trump) New York Times opinion writer, Bret Stephens, in which he describes people who are afraid to publicly express their support for Donald Trump for fear of reprisal from angry liberals as "Trump's whisper network."

Based on the number of "secret voters" who voted for Trump in 2016 but denied doing so to pollsters, Stephens anticipates that this "whisper network" could swing the 2020 presidential election to Trump again. He argues that the intolerant, angry condemnation by "snickering moralists" on the political left of anyone who expresses the slightest sympathy for Trump is only driving potential anti-Trump voters into "Trump's whisper network." He concludes that there is only one way for the Democrats to defeat Trump in 2020, that is:
By treating Trump voters with respect. By asking why so many of them wound up in his tent to begin with. By acknowledging that not everything that’s said in a hush is shameful, and that not everyone you disagree with is a bigot. By listening, not denouncing; empathizing, not ridiculing; understanding, not dismissing.
Whisper networks ought to have no place in the land of the free.
Implicitly, this is a ringing defense of "good communication" (acknowledging, listening, understanding) as against the abuse of cultural power by the intolerant left to silence and oppress Trump sympathizers, which not only is wrong (violates their freedom of speech) but also is ultimately self-defeating as it only feeds the growth of Trump's whisper network. Trump supporters, the victims of abuse by liberal "snickering moralists," just like the victims of workplace sexual harassment and abuse, are empowered by their whisper network, but ideally there would be no need for either oppressed group to resort to such a means of empowerment, Stephens implies.

To bridge the very wide gap in this analogy, Stephens opens his column with praise for the "honesty" and "courage" shown by the author, Katie Roiphe, in her 2018 Harper's Magazine article, "The Other Whisper Network: How Twitter feminism is bad for women." While she welcomes the #MeToo movement against workplace sexual harassment and abuse, Roiphe is critical of its excesses, including its vitriolic intolerance of anyone who questions those excesses. Women who voice criticisms of #MeToo are subjected to harsh condemnation by "Twitter feminists," with the result that many women with similar views are effectively silenced:
For years, women confined their complaints about sexual harassment to whisper networks for fear of reprisal from men. This is an ugly truth about our recent past that we are just now beginning to grapple with. But amid this welcome reckoning, it seems that many women still fear varieties of retribution (Twitter rage, damage to their reputations, professional repercussions, and vitriol from friends) for speaking out—this time, from other women. They are, in other words, inadvertently creating a new whisper network.
It would be naive to interpret these uses of "whisper network" as merely broadening the meaning of a term or innocently drawing an analogy. The rhetorical purpose in both cases is something like to pull moderates away from radicals on the left or in #MeToo by pricking the liberal conscience with accusations that the radicals are perpetrating a form of oppression not unlike the very forms of oppression that their movement ostensibly opposes. The issue resembles the disputes about tactics that often go on between movement radicals and moderates. In this regard, Roiphe's appeal to members of a movement she basically supports is considerably more credible than Stephens' pitch across the yawning left-right divide in US politics. Both, however, tend to dilute the meaning of "whisper network" by distracting from its primary pragmatic context, in effect, changing the subject.

Another context for Stephens' argument is the recent tendency of conservatives to challenge the power of the left on university campuses and elsewhere by appealing to liberal values of free speech and diversity, stretching the meaning of the latter term to include "intellectual diversity" and "political diversity." Using liberal arguments to empower conservatives. Nevertheless, they are sometimes good arguments.

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