The Not-Talking Cure

Sam Schullman, Weekly Standard, December 14, 2016

Censorship was once so simple. Kings, emperors, hierarchs, dictators stifled free expression to protect their authority.

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The censors didn’t want to make us good or persuade us of anything in particular: Obedience would suffice.

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What we’re doing these days is something quite new: The people themselves seek to rehire the censors, restore the (social) network of snitches, and redeploy the police—to govern our own speech. The aim is not to ensure the stability of a regime but to save us from being unkind to one another and encourage moral excellence. The notion that vigilantly watching what we say makes us better people is a crazy one. But it has an even crazier corollary: the widely shared conviction that what people say aloud is a reliable gauge of their private thoughts. Consider the case of the student journalist and the terrorist.

“That thoughtful, engaged student I had met the first day of classes had snapped. He had tried to kill people.”

In these words, Kevin Stankiewicz, a student journalist at the Ohio State University daily Lantern, describes two different people: The thoughtful engaged student is the late Abdul Razak Ali Artan, whom Stankiewicz had the luck to interview for a roving reporter feature for his paper on August 23, the day OSU classes began. By coincidence, the subject of his paragraph turned out to be the man who set out on November 28 to kill as many students as he could knock down with his car and then stab with a butcher knife. Artan had injured 10 students and a professor before an OSU policeman stopped his attack by shooting and killing him.

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It is possible, if unlikely, that Artan only became persuaded of his duty to radical jihad at some point in the 97 days between his Lantern interview and his attack (in which case he concealed his change of heart from everyone who had contact with him in the interval). There is no way Stankiewicz could have known that Artan felt that way. But Stankiewicz lacks the journalist’s rage at finding himself misled.

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I am astonished that Stankiewicz didn’t even consider that Artan might have created the discrepancy by lying.

Why on earth not? That we are lying animals is the raison d’être for every institution—from marriage to justice—that mankind had to create to make it possible to live in communities and not as lone wolves. Brides, thieves, husbands, rustlers, farmers, murderers, shepherds—we suspect them all.

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Stankiewicz is admirably careful about making too strong a case for the theory that hate speech against Artan’s religion caused the “thoughtful, engaged” student to “snap” and become the very different person who tried to kill as many of his fellow students as he could, using the techniques that ISIS recommends to its admirers in the West. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, is not so reluctant. Commenting on the attack, he told reporters, “If we respond to this situation by casting aspersions on millions of people that adhere to a particular religion or if we increase our suspicion of people who practice a particular religion, we are more likely going to contribute to acts of violence than we are to prevent them.”

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I’m doubtful that a perfect control of speech and the militant guarding of the faith from aspersion would have prevented the Artan of August from becoming the Artan of November. The French journalist David Thomson just published a book of interviews with French Muslims who left the country to wage jihad with ISIS and have now returned to France, called Les revenants—the ghosts. Consider the words of Zoubeir, son of middle-class parents in Paris, describing his gradual radicalization as an adolescent. Whenever a terrorist attack takes place in France, Zoubeir’s high school teachers vigilantly mark the distinction between Islam and jihadism. The poor boy can’t bear it. “The more they told me that it wasn’t Islam, the more I was convinced of the opposite.” The massive and well-coordinated media and political enterprise intended to deny that there is any connection between terror and Islam is pointless and countereffective. Says Zoubeir:

I don’t like this constant attempt to say, “no, that’s not right, it’s not written in the Koran.” Well a kid .  .  . isn’t stupid. .  .  . He’s going to look at the book and see that it is written there. .  .  . He’s going to see that [the Koran] does legitimate fighting against the people who fight against us.

The still-prospective terrorist Zoubeir testifies to the futility of permitting only those opinions that are flattering and chic. I wish others would mind attractive lies as much as he does—or be able to detect them.

 

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