Several months after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke and the #MeToo movement got powerfully underway, Katie Roiphe, writing in the reliably liberal Harper’s Magazine, wrote an essay on what she called “The Other Whisper Network.” It was the sort of piece that took great honesty to write and greater courage to publish.
The original “whisper networks” comprised women quietly warning other women about predatory and abusive men in their work and social environments. But as a succession of #MeToo stories unfurled in the media — some of which seemed far more ambiguous and less egregious than the early headline cases — Roiphe noticed something else: Women were afraid publicly to second-guess aspects of a movement they felt had lost a sense of fairness and proportion, largely out of fear of social media’s Jacobin call-out culture.
“Can you see why some of us are whispering?” Roiphe asked about this new network. “It is the sense of viciousness lying in wait, of violent hate just waiting to be unfurled, that leads people to keep their opinions to themselves, or to share them only with close friends.”
In recent years, these whisper networks have only proliferated from one subject, one institution, one domain, to another. Is sex, biologically speaking, binary? A columnist for The Denver Post thought so and last month lost his job, he claims as a direct result. Should writers of one race or culture be able to create characters and inhabit cultures not their own? One such writer recently had her book tour canceled over safety concerns following criticism of her novel about the plight of Mexican immigrants.
You needn’t take one position or another on any of these questions to notice, and object to, the overall trend.
Speech is free, except where and when it isn’t. Widely held religious views entail potentially ruinous professional hazards. Broad areas of intellectual inquiry are treated as off limits. Having a “bad opinion” means being a bad person. People who freely share the most intimate details of their sex lives with near-strangers think twice about sharing some of their political views with old friends.
And a new version of the Miranda warning seems to apply across all media, social and traditional: Anything you say, or have ever said, in context or out, deliberately or by misspeaking, can and will be held against you.
Which brings me to what is perhaps the biggest whisper network of all: the one involving inner flashes of sympathy, frequently tipping into support at the ballot box, for President Trump.
Plenty of people are aware of this phenomenon: One recent academic study noted that so-called secret voters supported Trump over Hillary Clinton by a two-to-one (54 percent to 27 percent) margin in 2016. That statistic should be every bit as alarming to Democrats this time around, not least because it suggests that polls may be dramatically underweighting the scale of Trump’s support.
Yet beyond the question of why people might want to conceal their voting preferences — reputation management, social harmony, and so on — it’s worth asking whether the very fact that a vote for Trump was supposed to be shameful is also what made it so attractive. After all, forbidden fruit is appealing not because it is fruit, but because it is forbidden. For every voter who pulled the lever for Trump out of sympathy for his views, how many others did so out of disdain for the army of snickering moralists (at the time including me) telling them that a vote for Trump was unpardonable?
My hunch: probably enough to make the difference in the states that made the difference.
I would also guess that the number has only grown as the censorious left has become more aggressive and promiscuous in its condemnations. No wonder the administration has taken up the banner of free speech: Even a president who called the media the “enemy of the people” has a case to make that his opponents are more hostile to the letter and spirit of the First Amendment than he is.
Conventional wisdom about this year’s election is that it will come down to about 300,000 voters across five or six states. That’s probably right. Republicans will organize their campaign around the country’s material prosperity under Trump; Democrats around its moral deterioration. The latter is the trickier argument to make, but it’s been done before, most recently when George W. Bush promised to restore honor and integrity to the White House after eight years of Bill Clinton.
How to pull it off this time? 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.