We seem to be living in the Age of the Self-Identified “Free Thinker.”
Kanye “Ye” West, as far back as 2009—a few years before anti-Blackness became his brand, but after his idolization of Hitler and Nazis had reportedly begun—was already predicting he would “spark a generation of thinkers who will question traditional thought until they find the absolute truth.”
In a recent speech, Former Democratic congresswoman turned Fox News contributor Tulsi Gabbard reminded her audience, lest they forget, that she is “an independent thinker.” Joe Rogan’s entire brand is being a “free thinker,” his mind is so gapingly wide open it might be mistaken for a wind tunnel.
Back when the alt-right was festering into a particularly nasty national rash, Milo Yiannopoulos declared the movement so full of rebellious free thinkers that it was “the new punk.” There’s also a whole slew of crank comedians—Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais, Russell Brand, to name just a few—who free-think so hard that they all complain about being canceled, as they rant from the stages of many-thousand seat arenas in highly publicized comedy specials.
The “free thinkers” see themselves as valiant truth-tellers in a time of overwhelming leftist wokeism—the last brave holdouts against liberal orthodoxy and social justice warriors who have pushed things too far. They claim that left-wing overreach has quashed new ideas and open debate, and many of them profess to be one-time liberals who did not defect from the left, but were instead left behind by a movement gone off the rails and now careening toward a cliff built on meaningless politically-correct terminology and safe space obsessions.
They have proclaimed themselves victims—no, wait, martyrs—of an all-powerful censorious and illiberal left that controls the universities, the media, the social media platforms, and Hollywood—demanding unthinking, lockstep ideological agreement. Worse, they say, this cabal punishes those who disagree by banishing them to the fringes of society, turning them into friendless and untouchable political lepers. It’s all very the left can’t handle the truth. Yet despite all this, they boldly carry on, bucking the system, man, and defying the close-minded gender warriors and race-obsessives.
It’s all such bullshit. And yet, here’s Elon Musk, former richest man in the world and recent proprietor of Twitter, claiming that criticism of his friend Dave Chappelle’s transphobic jokes is evidence that “wokeness” basically wants to make comedy illegal.” (These would have nothing without hyperbole.)
There’s writer Andrew Sullivan, defender of The Bell Curve and all things negrophobic, decrying a “ferocious campaign to quell dissent, to chill debate, to purge those who ask questions”—roughly six months before demanding 1619 Project lead Nikole Hannah-Jones offer proof that Black men don’t have great big black cocks. (No really. He did that foul shit.)
Noted Harvard professor Steven Pinker wrote in his book, Enlightenment Now, that “intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress,” then blithely promoted the idea that heritable biological difference makes Ashkenazi Jews very smart and Black people… mmm, not so much. (I admit to not having read Pinker’s book, just like he admits to not having read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist while in the same breath accusing it of creating an academic “spiral of silence.”) I could, but won’t, go on.
Instead, let’s focus on what’s so funny about the “free thinkers,” which is their delusional victimhood and overblown estimation of their own iconoclasm. For starters, none of these people are actually suffering from being canceled—they all have large platforms and huge audiences of people who nod in agreement with every inane point they make. Netflix, Spotify, and Substack are not no-man’s lands, and most of them continue to collect plenty of money and audience adulation from like-minded “debate me” bros, “free speech absolutists,” Intellectual Dark Web aspirants, libertarian edgelords, professional devil’s advocates, “I’m just asking questions” dudes, right-wing trolls, and garden-variety shitposters.
Consequences and criticism are not tantamount to cancellation. Be for real.
But also, it’s just absurd that these people think they are, to quote college freshman everywhere, “subverting the dominant paradigm.”
Somehow, all these “free thinkers” let their minds explore forbidden psychic territories and still arrived at the most conservative, traditional conclusions. Anti-racism has gone too far! Transgender people should just pick a sex! The old identity politics—the ones that centered whiteness—were cool, but the new identity politics are bad! Black people’s absolute refusal to entertain derailing tactics like “Black-on-Black crime” and “but Chicago,” and debates over whether they deserve the rights conferred upon whiteness, are chilling my speech! (As if Black and other marginalized folks’ speech hasn’t always been chilled, sometimes under penalty of death, or at minimum, loss of livelihood. Maybe ask Colin Kaepernick about it. See if Fred Hampton is available for comment.) I mean, these people offer the most boring fucking thoughts ever, and somehow, they want to be applauded for them.
There is nothing “punk rock” or transgressive about literally rattling off the same tired and exclusionary opinions that have shaped, and continue to define, our dominant oppressive culture. There’s no radicalism in punching down on the same marginalized people who have always been used for cheap laughs. Race science isn’t new, trans people have existed forever, and reverse racism is some bullshit y’all made up to account for having to compete on a widened playing field still slanted in your favor. It’s almost like the free-thinker label is self-applied by people whose opinions are so tired and worn that they need the label to seem interesting.
Musk tweeted not too long ago that “the woke mind virus has thoroughly penetrated entertainment and is pushing civilization towards suicide,” because, I dunno, there are black hobbits now? People keep wanting to make Idris Elba the new James Bond even though he has said he doesn’t want the role and honestly, we should really just stop trying to make fetch happen? (Don’t worry, Elon. Hollywood is rethinking all that equal opportunity stuff already.)
The Twitter/Tesla/SpaceX boss went on to add that there “needs to be a counter-narrative” to all this wokeism, as if conservatives haven’t been legally outlawing classroom discussions of race, and school boards haven’t banned books about racism and LGBT rights. As if Fox News doesn’t have a massive audience of ventriloquist dummies, some of whom have taken it upon themselves to threaten people’s lives for putting on drag shows or just living their authentic lives. As if “freeze peach” absolutist Musk, himself, isn’t banning journalists whose coverage makes him feel bad while welcoming literal neo-Nazis back onto Twitter, essentially ensuring that a site that brought about the arrests of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers and the groundswell that was #MeToo never does that again?
Journalist Bari Weiss, a hero to the anti-woke “free thinkers,” literally founded a school for “independent thought”—but whose Board of Advisers contains not a single avowed progressive (a few can be generously described as center-left). Weiss’ quest for diversity of opinion in the academy seems poised to produce an echo chamber of “free thinkers” who barely disagree with each other.
The truth is, the “free thinkers” are pissed that the rules have changed and accountability exists for saying wild racist, transphobic, and otherwise crazy shit. They’re especially pissed that the people pushing back on that wildly offensive shit are people they never dreamed they’d be accountable to before. They finally have to consider what they say in the same way marginalized folks have always had to do.
Maybe more than anything, they want to pretend that the weight of history has no bearing on the present. That their own victimology supersedes those of folks driving the movements they claim are going too far. But all those people are really trying to do is get free.