St. Paul, MN – July, 2022

When we talked in 2012 Robert shared an interesting explanation for why so many Americans don’t participate much in our political process: from a Libertarian perspective there isn’t a clear enough connection between our actions – such as voting, and any noticeable political impact, so because we can’t sense a direct cause and effect many people feel little incentive to stay politically engaged. I started off this year’s conversation by checking back in with him about that idea and whether he still identifies as a Libertarian. He shared that while he still would generally consider himself Libertarian, that same low incentive premise has played out in his life, and that he actually hasn’t voted since 2012 – except in one municipal election about garbage pick-up. 

A big part of that choice seemed to be that he had gone into corporate banking for his career, which he said he enjoys, and his work life was the arena that mattered to him now, the place where he feels the impacts of his actions. He mentioned that some people lose their jobs over the political statements they make these days, so on the one hand that means engaging in politics is more risky, and on the other he said  “I just don’t necessarily see the benefit. You end up getting people shouting past each other rather than engaging with each other.”

He likes reading the news regularly, and he mentioned loving to read the New York Times, saying  ‘I’m yelling at it from a libertarian perspective, but that is only going out into my own head.”

He was in the process of buying a house when we talked and mentioned that he had read an article in the New York Times that proposed public subsidies for builders to address the housing market being too tight. At first he rolled his eyes a bit at that idea because “from a pure libertarian perspective that wouldn’t be called for” but then he admitted that it might actually not be such a bad idea. He continued, saying the housing shortage “is really a case of a market failure. And I would say libertarians are not blind to the fact that you can sometimes have market failures. I think libertarians tend to think market failures are more rare than people from other political stripes, but they do occur.” I appreciated that he was willing to bring up something that went a little against his own espoused beliefs, and noted how sometimes our lived experience doesn’t quite align with what we think we believe.

Robert went on to say, “I feel like the Left/Right divide has become more cultural and less ideological” and when I asked him what he meant he brought up the issue of censorship and free speech.

He said, “we don’t truly have a pro-speech and an anti-speech faction anymore. You just have various flavors of anti-speech.  He talked about how on one side cultural conservatives are working to ban books in schools and public libraries and on the other publishers are self-censoring by refusing to publish authors who are writing about controversial subjects.

I heard what he was saying as a form of both-siderism, which I felt minimized the real problem of censoring books that acknowledge race, gender and sexuality, while at the same time overlooking the problem of hate speech being able to circulate in public discourse, speech that undermines the humanity of certain people or threatens them harm. I used the metaphor of the danger of yelling fire in a crowded theater trying to make the case that some forms of speech cause real damage to people and make sense to be limited. Robert said that phrase is a libertarian bugaboo, and that the Supreme Court case it came from ruled that protesting the US draft during the 1st World War wasn’t allowed because it was dangerous speech – clearly not my idea of hate speech that needs limiting.

I tried again this time more directly, giving examples of the rise in anti-gay and anti-semitic language circulating these days, and asked him isn’t it important that we find ways of stopping that kind of speech from growing because it creates the conditions where people get hurt and even killed. He disagreed. He said “Ultimately, the powerful will always get to decide what speech is allowed and is disallowed if we have restrictions. And so if you’re trying to help marginalized groups by limiting speech, it’s ultimately going to backfire. It might take some time, but if you build the structures for people to limit speech to help vulnerable groups, unless those vulnerable groups are the ones deciding what speech to limit, which they never will be – because by definition, they’re vulnerable, they’re going to be the ones who are harmed.”

I said I still think there has to be a line, a line based on whether people are held to have full rights as humans, that we need to enforce – overt racism being one of the places that line is crossed. 

His response again was to bring it back to who gets to decide where that line is, and what if they are wrong?

He went on to say “Do I want people to be racist? No. Do I think it’s good that they’re racist? No. But, yes, I want people to be allowed to be racist. I want that to be just another diversity of all the different kinds of points of views.”

“When we start shading what is out of bounds and what is in bounds, as we draw those boundaries narrower and narrower the likelihood starts creeping up that we lose something. You know, at one point in time, it was a dangerous heresy to say that the Earth revolves around the Sun. If we’re going to police dangerous heresies, we’re going to lose out on the world.”

It feels so deeply wrong to neutralize racism into just one of many diverse perspectives that all deserve to live in public. And yet his points make me question my ability to assess where the limits of speech should be drawn. After our conversation I noticed my own mind trying to regain a sense of sureness about my point of view. I told myself his neutral stance might be based on not knowing actual people who are impacted by racism, so the subject can remain an abstraction rather than a threat to real people he knows and cares about. But I didn’t have the clarity to check in with him about this as we spoke. I was uncomfortable in a way that made it hard to shape my thoughts and feelings into a conversational question in that moment. This also feels like one of the places where our differences don’t really come down to logical arguments, at least for me, they also come down to deeply felt relational commitments.

Link to 2012 Conversation

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