MS-13 are animals. We all are.

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Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

President Donald Trump called MS-13 gang members “animals.”

E.J. Dionne from the Washington Post disagreed, saying that “It’s never right to call other human beings ‘animals.’”

And writing for the National Review, Dennis Prager responded that Dionne reveals “the moral sickness at the heart of leftism.”

Dionne thinks his position is beyond debate: “No matter how debased the behavior of a given individual or group…dehumanizing others always leads us down a dangerous path.”

Worse, “Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.”

Prager, however, writes that dehumanizing some people actually protects the rest of us. He continues, “By rhetorically reading certain despicable people out of the human race, we elevate the human race. We have declared certain behaviors out of line with being human.”

Prager means human in the moral, not biological sense. Otherwise, what meaning does the word “inhumane” have? Would Dionne not see the Nazis as inhuman?

Prager clarifies that inhumanity should be based on behavior and not “directed at people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or any other immutable physical characteristic.”

Dionne deals in absolutes: never and no debate. But the problem with absolutes is a lack of nuance. However, Prager doesn’t add enough nuance to this discussion. He still imputes inhumanity to individuals based on group membership. Certainly joining the Nazi party or MS-13 involves a serious moral compromise. But some Nazis and gang members commit worse atrocities than others.

We have all harmed others. A key question is: At what degree of harm do we lose our moral status as human? And what must we do to gain it back? Too often the answer is self-serving and lacking in self-awareness.

We are all animals. Biologically and morally.

Homo sapiens evolved over millions of years. And like our chimpanzee cousins, we can be vicious. Even bonobos may not deserve their peaceful reputation. And we still carry this evolutionary heritage with us. But we also evolved frontal lobes capable of inhibiting violent behavior—capable even of reason when we are at our best.

We are all animals. But we can do better.

Prager’s statement about the sickness at the heart of leftism highlights the problem. His us-vs.-them attitude seems to assume that progressives are sick and conservatives are morally elevated.

Does Prager recognize that he too is an animal?

The animal within can too easily escape if we fail to admit we too are capable, under certain circumstances, of inhumanity. Those who fail to understand this are in danger of becoming the monster they seek to destroy.

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Conservatives are false friends of free speech

True friends of free speech support the first amendment even when they’re deeply offended.

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, Arizona. Arizona. © Dave DuBay

I’ve been an ardent supporter of free speech since high school when I first became interested in politics.

In the 1980s free speech was considered a liberal issue. Conservatives—especially the Christian Right—frequently tried to ban books. Even Judy Blume novels.

The left wing free speech movement, however, which was born at the University of California Berkeley in the 1960s, died at Berkeley in 2017.

Free speech becomes a conservative issue

Today it’s not uncommon for people to think I’m a conservative because I support free speech. I’m neither conservative nor liberal/progressive.

With progressives disinviting not only conservative speakers but even centrist or left of center freethinkers—and others shouting down anyone they disagree with rather than engaging in thoughtful dialogue—conservatives have been vocal about the importance of free speech.

Meanwhile, progressives have increasingly argued against free speech. It’s popular to claim that hate speech is not free speech. But that only shows progressives’ ignorance of the first amendment.

Free speech is a guarantee that you will be offended. So expect it. Deal with it. You’re an adult.

And remember, defending free speech doesn’t mean you agree with what’s being said. You can’t agree with everyone, but you can defend everyone’s right to free speech.

Yelling fire in a crowded theatre

People also like to repeat the cliche that you can’t yell fire in a crowded theatre. This comes from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1919 opinion in Schenk v. United States.

But Justice Holmes was wrong. Schenk was a challenge to the Sedition Act of 1918 which made protesting US involvement in World War I illegal. Many socialists, including Eugene Debs, were thrown in prison for anti-war protests.

The first amendment does indeed protect public opposition to war and criticism of the government in general.

Besides, being anti-war is in no way comparable to yelling fire in a crowded theatre. And if you did yell fire then your crime isn’t what you yelled but rather the bodily harm you caused to people who subsequently panicked.

You hurt my feelings

Progressives today, however, defend the “yelling fire” argument by claiming that free speech hurts their feelings, and therefore speech (and even open dialogue) is violence even when no bodily harm occurs.

These are the same people who wonder why they can’t win elections.

More to the point, you’re contradicting yourself if you support the “yelling fire” argument while also supporting Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem. Kaepernick has hurt many people’s feelings, and that’s the same as violence according to progressives and their predecessor, Justice Holmes.

But progressives only oppose speech they disagree with. They quickly abandon their alleged principles when someone says something they agree with.

And so conservatives hold themselves up as paragons of American liberty.

Not so fast

As it turns out, conservatives also support free speech only when they agree with what’s being said and abandon their principles when someone says something they disagree with.

It’s as wrong to say Ann Coulter should be deplatformed as it is to say NFL players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired.

Are you offended when football players kneel? Get over it. Free speech means you will be offended from time to time.

But it gets worse. Republicans control all three branches of government. The first amendment doesn’t apply to private universities or companies like Google even if ethically they have a responsibility to uphold American values like free speech.

After all, free speech is the cornerstone of human rights. Without it all other human rights are at risk.

Government officials and agencies, however, are legally bound by the first amendment. Yet President Trump called for the FCC to revoke NBC’s license because he doesn’t like what the media says. To its credit the FCC rebuked the president. Revoking NBC’s license would be unconstitutional and unAmerican.

That the most powerful conservative in the world—Donald Trump—is so disdainful of free speech, American liberty, and the United States Constitution—and that so few conservative proponents of free speech chose to denounce Trump—shows that conservatives are false friends of free speech.

Identity politics is nothing new

But the focus has shifted from supremacy to oppression.

Flagstaff, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

Human beings are a tribal species. We sort ourselves into “us and them” with little effort. And from the dawn of humanity various groups have promoted cultural narratives and even legislation to their advantage.

Historically the focus has been the superiority of the in-group. In the 1600s British colonists in what became the United States of America justified African slavery with the allegation that Africans were the cursed sons of Ham (though Genesis chapter nine says nothing of the sort). And whites labeled the indigenous nations of North America as savages.

The ideal of equal and universal human rights is a desired antidote to supremacy claims, but identity groups can be a barrier. In the 1850s when scores of Catholic immigrants arrived from Europe, Anglo-Saxon protestants in America claimed that something must be done about these cultural pollutants. The short lived American Party—better known as the “Know Nothings” due to their secretiveness—at one point managed to elect over fifty party members to the House of Representatives on an anti-immigration platform. Though the American Party quickly collapsed, nativism continued and anti-immigration legislation based on race persisted into the twentieth century.

And of course, the Ku Klux Klan emerged after the Civil War to enforce unequal treatment based on race, helping along the creation of Jim Crow laws.

Starting in the 1950s the civil rights movement reasserted the ethic that we are all created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. But in contrast to this message of unity, by the late 1960s left wing groups were advancing an ideology based on identity group conflict. Rather than claiming supremacy, the emerging identity politics of the left focused on oppression. In the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels claim that,

The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

Whether you are privileged or oppressed is based on your demographic profile. Everyone belongs to multiple groups, however, and the concept of intersectionality—the complex matrix of identity groups that individuals belong to—emerged to navigate the degree to which one might be oppressed. And higher status is conferred on those who are the most oppressed.

Though neo-Nazis continue to carry the tiki torch of racial superiority, groups labeled as privileged are increasingly adopting the left’s oppression based identity politics. And this has significantly shifted conservative politics.

Samuel Sommers of Tufts University and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School write in the Washington Post that their research shows that by 2011 whites on average perceived anti-white bias as more of a problem than anti-black bias. The researchers note that this belief stands in contrast to shorter life expectancy for African-Americans compared to white Americans, the greater chance of blacks facing police brutality, and other forms of discrimination. Sommers and Norton interpret these findings as a zero-sum mindset—improvements for blacks are thought to come at a cost to whites.

But it’s not just white Americans. The assumption that we must focus our concerns only on oppressed groups has resulted in a counterreaction from those who disingenuously claim men are more oppressed than women. While men and boys do face unique challenges, the claim that men are now second class citizens overstates the case. Instead, as I wrote for the Good Men Project, we should challenge the notion that a group must be oppressed before we take their issues seriously.

Finally, Emma Green writes for The Atlantic that “most American Christians believe they’re victims of discrimination.” She cites a survey on immigration from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institute which finds that “nearly eight in ten (77%) white evangelical Protestants say that discrimination against Christians now rivals that of other groups.” Though only half of Catholics and mainline Protestants agree, three-quarters of Republics concur.

While the Pew Research Center has found that public opinion of evangelicals is much lower among younger Americans—57% favorable for Americans in their 30s and 40s compared to 67% favorable for those over 65 — people in their 20s show a slight uptick in approval of evangelicals (59%). In contrast, most Americans in all age groups have an unfavorable view of Muslims.

Identity politics on the left and right seem to be pushing us into a downward spiral. Status based on oppression incentivizes maintenance of a victim identity, which includes finding more and more subtle ways one is oppressed.

Resentment grows. Various groups feel more alienated from one another as their shared identity as Americans and as human beings erodes. In some cases this even leads to a willingness to initiate violence.