Protest In The Age Of Corgan (Billy Corgan)

Yes, the title is a riff on "Love in the Age Of Cholera."

I do like Billy Corgan, and want to be fair to him (not sure the press always is). I do like Smashing Pumpkins classic period a great deal.

But, Billy Corgan might not always be purely 100% all there. Dude says some crazy stuff. This week, he visited the "talk show" of Conspiracy Theory maven Alex Jones and proceeded to talk, and talk, and talk.

I know this might be hard for you to believe, but the media reaction to his comments was quick, harsh, and not particularly thoughtful (shocker).

Here are some examples:

Noisey had the following to say (Click HERE)

Pitchfork just cut and paste the transcript or did careless equivocation for the most part (Click HERE)

Rolling Stone also mostly focused on the equivocation of the KKK and "social justice warriors" (Click HERE

So, because I like him more than the media appears to (and because he is right about some of what he says) I am going to try to give a more thoughtful and measured response to Corgan's comments here. Not that I suspect he really cares what I think (or if I am more fair to him).


One of Corgan's explicitly stated points is that the press (and "social justice warriors") are more interested in the race to judgement and crucifixion of people making careless public statements than they are in trying to find truth or in making actual social progress. He said:

"I predict that this hashtag generation–look, for everyone that's out there spinning their little New Year's toy in your reporter's face–and I've watch those clips and I'm horrified as somebody who believes in free speech and is an artist, because those people are gonna be coming for me. Let's face it. It may not be tomorrow, but it's soon enough because I said the wrong thing on the wrong day because I was tired and I didn't take my X2 that day, or whatever. You know what I mean? It's like, to live like that, to live where every word is a landmine–you know what I'm saying–it's not the world I want to live in."

In fairness, in this instance, he appears to have a point. I did not get the feeling in any of the articles above that they had been particularly thoughtful or had taken much time to try to decipher what he was trying to say. 

On the other hand, careful comment and criticism would seem fair because Corgan did not seem to be speaking off the cuff or in response to "Gotcha" questions. He was on friendly turf and he was saying what he wanted to say. These were not comments that he made erroneously on the "wrong day."

So, what was right and wrong about the rest of what Corgan said?

Free Speech?

Let's recognize the elephant in this particular room, Corgan is talking about Black Lives Matter. The examples he gives (waving a New Years Toy in a reporters face and the Bernie incident with the Black Lives Matter protesters) were both Black Lives moments. I have no idea where both Pitchfork and Rolling Stone are dreaming up that he means "progressives" when he says "Social Justice Warriors" because he is clearly talking about Black Lives Matter protesters.

Now that I have that out of the way. One big problem here is that he is misunderstanding what the Constitutional right to free speech entails. He mentions free speech in the rant above and then goes on to provide more context:

"Let's go back to–and I'm sure you could find this–remember, what was this, around 1978, Skokie, heavily Jewish community north of Chicago. I was there growing up at the time when they let the KKK march down the street, and what was the big issue? It was a free speech issue. We don't like it. They're thumbing in our nose but, you know what, it's better to have an America where these idiots get to walk down the street and spout their hate."

And also:

"That's the world I grew up in, a liberal, Democratically-leaning Chicago that was about tolerance and free speech, not "shut it down because it's unpleasant." And again–you haven't said this here so it's not again–the lack of tolerance of ideas and other points of view is the great Achilles heel of the social justice warrior movement."

And Skokie gets right to the heart of what Corgan (and many others) miss. When "social justice warriors" pounce on someone and shame them nearly to death for something they inadvertently said they are engaging in constitutionally protected free speech too. They are not restraining the object of their scorn from speaking. What they are doing is engaging in a brutal form of what classical first amendment scholars call "counter-speech."

The Nazis were allowed their right to speak in Skokie and Paula Deen was allowed to speak wherever she uttered her fateful speech (es). If Paula Deen, for example, had wanted to continue to say surreally racist things she absolutely 100% could have doubled and tripled down. All of the consequences were a result of her speech NOT a restraint on her ability to speak. 

The entire idea of free speech is that you are allowed to test your ideas in the marketplace just like everyone else. Nobody can use the law, or organs of Government, to restrain your speech except in areas where your speech could cause danger to other people (yelling FIRE in a crowded theater is the classic example - no Constitutionally protected rights are absolute) but other people have the same right to RESPOND to your speech. In other words, your speech can fail in the Marketplace of Ideas. Sometimes that failure can have painful consequences (like losing customers or being shamed through counter-speech).

So, to make a long story short, Corgan is wrong about Social Justice Shaming being a Free Speech Issue.


Implicit in what Corgan said, however, was also a call to tolerance. This seems a bit odd given the paternalism he showed towards Black Lives protesters throughout the discussion, but he is clearly arguing that we used to live in more tolerant times (in regards to controversial utterances).

I do feel some of what he is saying here. I personally believe that all people are a complex combination of elements and assumptions. I believe that most people participate in structures of racism and sexism every day even if they are enthusiastically anti-racist and anti-sexist. There are certainly times when "person x said y racist thing so they must = a terrible person and should be shunned," but I doubt that approach rids the world of much racism

I also believe in tolerance, as long as what I am tolerating does not result in damage to other people. For instance, I will support your religious right to think being LGBTQ is a "sin" BUT once you start trying to create legislation to prevent citizens from engaging in the same activities heterosexual people can engage in freely, I oppose you.  

If the goal is to reduce racism, shaming seems much more likely to push racism underground (make overt racists become increasingly covert) and to make people more concerned with if they are called racist than if they are actually doing racist things. For example, structural racism clearly exists in hiring (look at any study), but I suspect the vast majority of HR people are not explicitly racists. In fact, I bet they would be as surprised as anyone to find out that they hire a disproportionate number of white people (against the percentage of the population). 

In addition, and I know this from my research and experience in addiction, shaming is often counterproductive. Shaming is often at the root and can be the trigger of people's actual anti-social behaviors and/or addictive cycles. Don't get me wrong, shame is great as long as it is productive (as long as it works as a preventative agent in our conscience to prevent us from engaging in bad behavior). But social shaming often pushes people into such isolation that what emerges from isolation comes out anti-social, poorly integrated, and angry.

That is why I try, very hard, to engage in discussion and persuasion instead of social shaming. I would much rather have productive (or even unproductive) discussions about social justice - even when they are saying awful things - than I would want to socially shame the people I disagree with. At the same time, I do not believe in using ONLY persuasion, I will always also do what I can to rally opposing forces against legislation or ordinances that would work against social justice goals. 

Tolerance is not the same as letting people do whatever they want whenever they want. At the same time, I did not really get the feeling Mr. Corgan was feeling particularly "tolerant" of the (euphemism) "social media warriors" either.


Hmmm...what hat is Billy wearing on Gish?

Sorry if this is getting too deep here, but Corgan also made several references to (euphemism) "Social Media Warriors" being closet Maoists. He also talked a great deal about people who get all of their information from only one silo (Apple News, Huffington Post, whatever) and that criticism probably fits in with what he is trying to say about Mao as well.

In addition to what I posted above, Corgan also said:

“...let's take my friend who's a HuffPoreader, OK? He, in his heart, is a classic liberal: He cares about everybody, he loves music from every race, creed, and color–not a racist in his heart. OK? He reads that stuff and he thinks by participating, by hashtagging, he's on the good team, right?” So the people you gotta get through to is the people who don't have the Little Red Book yet, who do care about humanity and do care about free speech. And you have to get them to understand how their participation in those systems.

What Corgan is talking about specifically here is Mao's Cultural Revolution and the forced re-education and humiliation of arrested Chinese "intellectuals." This is a version of a pretty long-standing right-wing criticism of progressive politics. Basically, this criticism conflates calls for reflexivity with forced re-education campaigns in China. If you want to see how re-education worked, I would heartily recommend the movie "The Last Emperor."

Anyway, there is a LARGE difference between suggesting that someone ought to be reflexive about something that they said and forcing them to change their beliefs. In the Chinese version of re-education, people were jailed and tortured until they recanted their beliefs. This is hardly the case here. 

However, that does not mean that Corgan's criticism is without merit. It is possible that social justice campaigns that shame people can both push people's questionable beliefs underground (when a person continues being racist but does not utter public racist statements) and silence possibly valuable dissent (make people too afraid to contradict the dogma and face the shaming themselves).

Again, I think the quality of the argument for reflexivity probably determines how persuasive the appeal to rethinking is. Again, I suggest instead of using shaming as a response we should try to make better arguments against our opponents. Yes, you might not persuade them, but it is often the audience listening to a social media discussion that matters.

I was not a big fan of NYC running all the homeless people and riff-raff out of the city for the same reason. We should be trying to make the world a better place for everyone by fighting racism, not moving problems out of our sight. Our goal should not involve building a shining city on a hill surrounded by sewers of suffering.

As for getting all your information from one silo, I am against it (unless that one silo is On Pirate Satellite - JK - kind of).

KKK Analogies?

Why do these things always have to end with ill-conceived KKK or Nazi references?

How many times has a KKK analogy ever ended well? 

Sigh - Corgan with help from Jones said"

"(Jones) people will talk to them and go "Listen, I don't even support Trump, but I support free and open elections. What about Bernie Sanders?" And they just spit in our reporter's face and spit on somebody else just because they just wanna hate somebody and they are literally like a dumb Klan guy that just pulls over on some black guy walking home from work and kills him 'cause they're black. They want to just project something onto you."

Corgan continues:

"Let's flip the script here for a second. OK? And this is a very–I'm gonna try to say this in a sort of hypothetical Star Warsholodeck type of way. OK? If we could transport back to, you know, a much, much more racist–I'm not saying America doesn't have a racist bent, so let's put that out there to start with, but let's go back to a time where racism was accepted, it was institutionalized. OK? If you could go back to Selma 1932, and the Klan member spitting in some person of color's face, don't you think that guy thought he was right, too?"

Jones says, "Yes." Corgan finally says, "OK. So how is this any different?"

First (and not as important, but I feel compelled), The Holodeck is Star Trek dude.

Now that I have that out of the way, it does really suck that Corgan said this. Yes, everyone (especially KKK members in the 1930s) thinks that they are right. But, what you are really in the same annoying, careful, and euphemistic way is saying that the Black Lives Matters protesters who took the Mic from Bernie or yelled at reporters are the same as the KKK.

WRONG! Categorically wrong. You are making a terrible argument.

Bernie can be a 100% liberal and still say and do things that can be "wrong." Sometimes, the only way to get attention is to insert yourself into the corridor of power. Sometimes, the only way to get the attention of a media that is driven by advertising is to make yourself controversial.

A KKK member has every right to march in Skokie and try to use that message to draw members to their racist cause through the resulting press coverage. By doing so, they also build resistance against them since most people find their message abhorrent.

A Black Lives Matter protester, or an angry gardener, or any citizen has the right to try to get press coverage and attention through legal protest. 

The bizarre thing about your argument is you are celebrating the KKK members in Skokie (who were explicitly trying to build up American racism) with tolerance while excoriating "Black LIves Matter" protesters for engaging in legal and protected protests (which were explicitly designed to dismantle racism). That is some perverse shit, Brother Corgan.

Of course, you are also making a gross an inaccurate parallel between a hypothetical KKK member spitting in a Black face and a Black Lives protester arguing with a liberal candidate or reporter. Arguing is not spitting, and the content of the argument being engaged in matters here.

The KKK thinks they are right, but are wrong and put many people's lives at risk. The Black Lives Matters protesters are right, and may not always use tactics you approve of, but are trying to make the world a better (and more just) place.

Your analogy was poorly conceived and your argument was poor. And, at the very least, you should extend at least as much "Tolerance" to Black Lives Matters as you seem willing to extend to the frickin' Klan.

And last but not least, speaking almost entirely in coded language doesn't really help you here. As concerned as I am sure you are for "liberal reporters" and "Bernie," it comes across as pretty disingenuous and sketchy. 

What did you think of what Billy Corgan said? What is your opinion of the press coverage of what he said? I would love to hear any and all civil arguments, so leave a comment!