Rod Dreher

Social Media & Soft Totalitarianism

This is absolutely chilling. Have there been racist and offensive tweets by A&M students? No doubt, and shame on them. But what counts as “racist” and “offensive”? No doubt. But what is the line? How can you know you’ve crossed it? People are being called racist for not taking the maximalist BLM position. People are being called racist for not saying anything at all (“White Silence = Violence”). As the reader who pointed this out to me said:

Lots of informants and those wanting to virtue signal, punish the minority opinion, or get with the dominant force in the culture.

Once again, I’m telling you, the people who lived through Soviet-style communism understand what is happening here. Here is an excerpt from Live Not By Lies:

Kamila Bendova sits in her armchair in the Prague apartment where she and her late husband, Václav, used to hold underground seminars to build up the anti-communist dissident movement. It has been thirty years since the fall of communism, but Bendova is not about to lessen her vigilance about threats to freedom. I mention to her that tens of millions of Americans have installed in their houses so-called “smart speakers” that monitor conversations for the sake of making domestic life more convenient. Kamila visibly recoils. The appalled look on her face telegraphs a clear message: How can Americans be so gullible?

To stay free to speak the truth, she tells me, you have to create for yourself a zone of privacy that is inviolate. She reminded me that the secret police had bugged her apartment, and that she and her family had to live with the constant awareness that the government was listening to every sound they made. The idea that anybody would welcome into their home a commercial device that records conversations and transmits them to a third party is horrifying to her. No consumer convenience is worth that risk.

“Information means power,” Kamila says. “We know from our life under the totalitarian regime that if you know something about someone, you can manipulate him or her. You can use it against them. The secret police have evidence of everything like that. They could use it all against you. Anything!”

Do you trust an American university in this current climate to fairly sort out unambiguously racist tweets and social media posts from ones that simply state an opinion on matters pertaining to protests, riots, and the like, that do not conform to progressive dogma? I do not. I absolutely do not.

How far back do these searches by A&M go? A week? A year? What if an incoming student posted something racist or otherwise offensive in high school, but repented? Is A&M going to deny them a college education now? What if they posted something that was perfectly acceptable six months ago, but which is now considered racist? Drew Brees simply reaffirmed his previous stance on not kneeling during the National Anthem, and he was widely trashed as racist (he apologized). Nobody can know

Nor do I want universities policing the private speech of any student, however offensive. Unless the student is calling for specific acts of violence, or unlawfully abusing (slandering, etc.) someone else at the university, why is it the university’s business to hunt for heresy?

That’s what it is: heresy-hunting and inquisition. From Live Not By Lies, these words by the late Sir Roger Scruton, who I interviewed a year ago:

Settling into his farmhouse library in rural Wiltshire, Sir Roger agreed that we are not waging a political battle but are rather engaged in a war of religion. “There is no official line in this, but it all congeals around a set of doctrines which we don’t have any problem in recognizing.”

He explained that in the emerging soft totalitarianism, any thought or behavior that can be identified as excluding members of groups favored by the Left is subject to harsh condemnation. This “official doctrine” is not imposed from above by the regime but rather arises by left-wing consensus from below, along with severe enforcement in the form of witch-hunting and scapegoating.

“If you step out of line, especially if you’re in the area of opinion-forming as a journalist or an academic, then the aim is to prevent your voice from being heard,” said Scruton. “So, you’ll be thrown out of whatever teaching position you have or, like me recently, made the topic of a completely mendacious fabricated interview used to accuse you of all the thoughtcrimes.”

Texas lawmakers ought to demand that Texas A&M officials cease and desist — or if they don’t, that they make clear what the rules are for posting on social media.

Kamila Bendova is right: anything you say, and anything you have said, of which there is a record, can and will be used against you by the powerful. And, we are actually at a point where anything you have not said will be used against you. You will have seen on social media, possibly, the woke advising the other woke to monitor their friends who say nothing, and take note of it.

This is soft totalitarianism. At one university, Texas A&M, students now have to worry that authorities are searching their social media feeds looking for evidence of racism or offensive behavior — evidence that may be used to deny access to the university. And if they find it, where will the smeared student go? Who wants a racist student at their university? See how this works?

And the state never would have had to get involved. This is why it’s soft totalitarianism. There are no gulags. No secret police. But you may still find your future access to university and to employment closed off forever. You must conform, and your silence will not save you. Do you get it now? There is no end to this. Truth is whatever the Party says it is:

UPDATE: Reader Adam Kolasinski comments:

Texas A&M Prof’s (and Faculty Senator’s) update:

I have talked to some people involved in the matter. Everyone needs to calm down.

The student has not been disciplined. The “investigation” is just an inquiry into whether the student violated University Rule 31 against racial or ethnic harassment, which explicitly protects speech that is covered under the first amendment. You can read it for yourself here:

https://student-rules.tamu….

Based on the letter of the law, so long as the student did not cross the line into threats, incitement to violence, or pervasive harassment (speech not covered by 1A according to SCOTUS precedent), he won’t be officially sanctioned.

There have been other cases like this in the past, where students said horrible and ugly racist things, and though their speech was rightly condemned verbally and disavowed by university officials, they were not disciplined. I am therefore confident that this student’s free speech rights are going to be respected, no matter how vile that speech was.

BTW, the Texas A&M harassment definition requires something pretty severe, well beyond the mere posting neo-nazi symbols and slogans on social media (which is apparently what he did):

“31.2.1 To rise to the level of Racial and Ethnic Harassment, behaviors must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive. The conduct must also be sufficiently serious to deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the educational program and/or experience.

“31.2.2 In order for the Texas A&M University to have authority to take action under section 31.2 of this rule, two conditions must be met. First the complaint must be alleged in an “operation” of the University; that is, a program, activity, or event under the control of the University. Second, the complaint must be filed in a timely manner with the Official Contact of the University as listed below.”

In the future, Rod, I would suggest waiting for more evidence of a free speech violation before hysterically accusing a venerable institution such as Texas A&M of totalitarianism.

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