On silencing

By now, you have probably at the very least read something about Minnesota poet Anders Carlson-Wee's poem for The Nation. The poem was written in an objectively bad imitation of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), it contained some ableist slurs, and it was supposedly about the relationship between homeless people and passersby on city street. It wasn't very good, and a lot of people on Twitter dragged Carlson-Wee for writing such a bad and thoughtless poem. Eventually both he and The Nation's poetry editors apologized.

And now, of course, if you check Carlson-Wee's mentions on Twitter or read center-left blogs, you'll see plenty of examples of the outraged-by-outrage rants that have replaced actual cultural criticism in the mainstream since the election of Donald Trump. People (mostly older, mostly white) are whining that Carlson-Wee was "silenced," that the "PC mob," drunk on its "outrage culture" has fed on another innocent victim.

But here's the thing: I see a lot of these complaints about silencing and "Twitter mobs" and so on. But those complaints are built on hot air and nonsense. Who was actually silenced here? Carlson-Wee wrote a poem, people voiced their opinions, Carlson-Wee apologized, and so did The Nation. If he wanted to, he could run the poem elsewhere. Why is Carlson-Wee's freedom of speech worth inherently more than those people on Twitter who also exercised their freedom of speech? And for that matter, how was Carlson-Wee silenced? He still has a Twitter feed, he still has a book coming out next year, he's still been published in many magazines. The Nation still exists. Nobody lost their jobs.

So what, really, is the problem? Is it that people should be allowed to publish bad poetry without any repercussions? Or is it that white people should be allowed to write in a thoughtless and inconsistent version of AAVE without facing criticism from Black people? Is it that people aren't allowed to say when they find ableist language to be offensive? Was it that too many people responded to the poem? Would one thoughtful essay in response to Carlson-Wee's poem, say, published in the New York Times be acceptable? Or would that critical response, too, be too much for Carlson-Wee and The Nation to endure?

So far as I can see it, nobody's freedom of speech was violated here. Nobody suffered any physical harm. The people who are upset over the "PC mob" seem to be concerned that the status quo as they see it is being attacked by people who are unlike them. This makes sense. The status quo serves them, and has served them for as long as there has been a United States.

Now they're afraid that one day they're going to feel as irrelevant and marginalized as they've always made everyone else feel. They don't want to share the stage. They don't want to think about the consequences of their actions. They don't want to be aware of everyone else's feelings. The world is changing, and they're scared. I can't really find it in my heart to muster up even a moment's sympathy for any of them.