Better to mock the Epstein-Biden story than to censor it
Late last week, Joseph Epstein wrote a ridiculous and insulting opinion column for the Wall St. Journal. It suggested that Jill Biden, holder of an educational doctorate, not a medical doctorate, should not call herself “Doctor.”
It was a weak, insulting column that relied on a dated snobbery and evident sexism to try to diminish Jill Biden. Indeed it was a flashback to a older, pre-Trump conservatism — more 1980s National Review than Breitbart — when conservatives liked to think of themselves as a kind of self-restrained upper class who defined themselves by their disdain for the striving classes. (Think of your average 80s teen villain, like Steff McKee from “Pretty in Pink.”)
The 2020s backlash to this 1980s sexism has been powerful and has included calls for the Wall Street Journal to retract the column, but that would be a mistake. For it is far better to defeat than to censor; to miss out on the devastating reactions would be to miss out on something important.
While Epstein has some tepid defenders (mainly trying to attack the attackers and gin up a partisan battle) he has nearly none on the merits. Instead, the reaction shows a near-unified contempt for such dated snobbery and sexism. Epstein has ended up dating and damaging himself, while the backlash itself is an important contribution.
I’m influenced in my views by John Stuart Mill who in his defense of free speech made an important but subtle point about the importance of testing received wisdom. As Mill once put it “however true [a view] may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.” Censorship driven by infallibility can be bad for you even even if you’re pretty sure you have truth on your side. Better to give your received wisdom the occasional workout and see how well the engine is running.
This — the power of engagement — has been well demonstrated by the Epstein reaction. Monica Hesse, writing in the Washington Post, wrote a take-down that was devastatingly hilarious:
We could go on picking things apart at the sentence level, but it becomes preposterously too easy; there’s no sport in hunting an animal that has already shot itself in the foot. I do doubt that Epstein would have written this column about, say, Dr. Henry Kissinger. I do believe Epstein wouldn’t have called him “kiddo.” I do believe that Epstein saw this as a column about titles, but it was also about his innermost beliefs regarding what kinds of people he thinks deserve honorifics and what kind — he implies that Biden’s doctorate was easy — do not.
As for Epstein’s suggestion that only those who deliver babies ought call themselves “Doctor,” Hesse also wrote
And finally: If he wants to get technical about it, Biden did deliver a child, out of her own uterus.
The condemnation was not limited to prominent newspaper columnists. Writing in Christianity Today, Sean Palmer wrote:
I tend to be more gracious, but “grossly snobbish” is an accurate descriptor. It is the stuff of a Freshmen Op-Ed in a not-so-great college’s newspaper and, frankly, The Wall Street Journal should be more embarrassed than we should be offended.
Though comical itself, I’ve heard the echoes of Mr. Epstein’s reasoning my entire life in the church.
Educators took their own offense — here in the Chicago Tribune:
Sure it was pandering and dismissive in both intent and execution.
But what really rankled a lot of us wasn’t just the cloying style. It was the utter disdain for education and educators, expertise and experts, in a time when such commodities couldn’t be more precious.
Even writers at the National Review were unwilling to go to bat for Joseph Epstein on the merits, instead describing the underlying debate as one that really should be for editorial nerds:
Readers took offense. No, they would say, the offense was given. In any case, they have spoken. They’ve also piled on.
The honorifics question, strictly considered, should interest editorial nerds. I’d be interested to hear them discuss it, though not today, not until the squall has passed.
The reaction has done little but strengthen the anti-snobbery norm that is one of this country’s great traditions. I’m not saying that it is a great thing that Joseph Epstein penned that column, that he has such easy access to the WSJ. But once released, it seems to me that the wide-raging backlash has actually a healthy thing for the country — and much healthier than censorship or a takedown would be.
For if there is one thing this country can unite on, maybe it is this: no one likes the boor, the snob, the man who seeks to tear down the hard-won achievements of another, whatever they may be.
Lawyerly Caveats and counterarguments
- I’m not saying that there is no speech that should ever be pulled or taken down — incitements to violence, dehumanization of entire groups of people, child pornography and other forms of hate speech form an incomplete list.
- Some might say that the piece was so insulting to Jill Biden, and to PhD academics in general, or to female academics, that it ought be pulled on that basis. I might feel different if Jill Biden wasn’t a public figure; and public insult wars are, for better or for worse, part of American discourse. Some might disagree on this, but offense alone strikes me as an insufficient ground for a takedown.
3. To get deeper into Mill’s views on the danger of dead dogmas he wrote:
The fact, however, is, that not only the grounds of the opinion are forgotten in the absence of discussion, but too often the meaning of the opinion itself. The words which convey it, cease to suggest ideas, or suggest only a small portion of those they were originally employed to communicate. Instead of a vivid conception and a living belief, there remain only a few phrases retained by rote; or, if any part, the shell and husk only of the meaning is retained, the finer essence being lost.