I recently watched the documentary film “Can We Take a Joke?” It was made with help from Reason and FIRE. The film explores how our culture has become less and less tolerant of offensive speech from the perspective of controversial comedians.

It starts with prosecution of Lenny Bruce, a comedian arrested and charged for saying dirty words. The public reaction, largely from the left, was to defend his act from government censorship. Fast forward to today and now it is the left, especially universities, that are stamping out offensive speech, even comedic speech meant for a laugh without any malicious intent. It quotes George Carlin: “Censorship from the right is to be expected. Censorship from the left took me by surprise.”

The 1960s Left vs. Today’s Left

Those who lived through the sixties may remember the left being champions of free speech. There was even a notorious Free Speech Movement at Berkley, which promoted not just political speech but also profanity designed to offend the dominant conservative culture of the day. Yet today this same left leads the charges against not just offensive speech but even simply dissenting ideas.

This trend is echoed in other issues. Once the champion of racial equality, today the left embraces openly racist organizations and advocates in favor of racial segregation on campuses.

Is the left being hypocritical? No. It is actually very consistent. An understanding of why comes from controversial philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s Moralities

Friedrich Nietzsche enjoys BDSM with Paul Ree and Lou von Salome

Nietzsche (right) with his lovers.

Nietzsche was a psychological philosopher, using philosophy to understand our collective psyche, even its darker parts. When analyzing a writing, Nietzsche was less concerned with the message being conveyed but more interested in what the message said about the author. “What kind of person would write such a thing as this?”

Applying this to moral writings, he found two modes of moralizing through history: one coming from whomever is in power (dubbed master morality) and the other from those who are not (servile morality). He used the Israelites of the Old Testament to illustrate both, as they are one of the unique peoples to have a well documented history as both a conquering culture and an oppressed culture.

Master Moralities

In the case of master morality, he observes the moral codes are a reflection of what the power-group values. In the case of the ancient Israelites, at the start of their history the stories celebrate their exercise of power over others as moral goods: defeating Pharaoh, violently slaughtering other tribes to steal their land, imposing their cultural and religious practices on others, etc. These were all described as moral goods! These victories were presented as proof of their tribes being special in the eyes of their god.

David slays Goliath.

David & Goliath: blessed are the strong conquerers.

It is the same mode of morality later European Christian kings invoked to justify their power to crush others, including the “divine right of kings” and manifest destiny colonialism, and also Homeric poetry celebrating the strength, beauty, and mightiness of the conquering Greeks, both additional examples of master moralities.

Servile Moralities

As the story of ancient Israel progresses, their kingdom fractures and loses power, culminating in the obliteration of the northern tribes with the remnants of the southern half being subjugated by various foreign powers, from Babylon to Rome.

No longer a conquering people, the moral tone of the Old Testament shifts: power is denounced as a moral evil, weakness and humility are celebrated as virtues, the exact opposite tone of the earlier stories. This culminates with the Christian New Testament that exalts poverty, meekness, mercy, and the persecuted as morally good and denounces wealth and power as morally evil.

Christian martyrs being slain in the Roman Colosseum.

Christian martyrs: blessed are the weak and powerless.

This is servile morality. It is, according to Nietzsche, designed to guilt the powerful into giving the powerless concessions, because guilt is the only means the powerless have to get their way over the powerful.

Why would the ancient Israelite authors write such contrasting stories? What changed was who was in power, and the mode of morality they voiced changed to reflect what was most advantageous for themselves in their changing situations.

Leftist Master and Servile Moralities

Let’s apply this to what we’ve seen from the left.

Up to the 1950s, the cultural left had been very much out of power. Conservative white Protestant identity was ascendant, and the master morality imposed on society reflected the values and identity of conservative white Protestants: racism, heterosexual puritanism, traditional gender roles, etc.

The 1960s marked the beginning of a transition for the cultural left to take power. Their message was that of fairness, equality, and free speech. While many on the left believed that rhetoric, not all did. Imagine a 1950s leftist arguing that white Protestant values should be censored or shouted down for being immoral and having no place in American discourse. That would have had no sway on the dominant power structure of America. On the other hand, guilt-tripping his opponents into supporting free speech was the only path open to reach a point where they could advocate their ideas without fear of persecution, not because they had any sympathy for letting their opponents speak. 1960s cultural leftism was still a servile morality.

Trigglypuff throws a tantrum.

Trigglypuff: the left’s Übermensch.

Fast forward to today and cultural leftism has completely taken over all our social institutions, most especially universities, media, and also the executive teams of many powerful corporations. The opposition to free speech and the rise of racism on the left reflect its transition to power as a master morality.

Many of the free speech advocates of the 1960s would have advocated censoring their opponents if they had the power to do so. Lacking that power, they settled on advocating for free speech as means to an end. And in this sense the left is totally consistent as the champion free speech in the 1960s while being its chief opponent today.

Looping back to the other example of racial segregation, one has to wonder how many 1960s social justice activists would have turned out to oppose Jim Crow if its racism had been reversed and reserved the higher quality facilities to blacks instead of to whites. Probably not many. This explains why the left enthusiastically embraces Jim Crow university “safe spaces” today and why this, again, is not inconsistent: it just reflects the transition of leftist morality from servile to master modes.

In sum, the Trigglypuff phenomenon is the natural and wholly expected culmination of the 1960s leftist morality’s ascent into power.

Libertarian Cautions

This provides a caution for libertarians. As opponents to power, no matter what the prevailing power structure of our culture or time may be, we will always attract people who are not really on our side. A distinguishing difference Nietzsche found between the two is that the servile modes tend to mask real motives. Their intention is to trick or shame the powerful into doing something against their own interests, which means someone claiming to support your libertarian opposition to the prevailing power of the day might not be entirely trustworthy.

Pick any issue. Some who pay lip service to small government only do so because they oppose the current government but would be more than happy to have a large overbearing government for some other issue. Think “small government conservatives” who want to escalate the war on drugs and militarize the police.

Libertarians oppose war, but many who will claim to oppose war would be more than happy to support a war if the missiles were used for advancing communism instead of advancing American imperialism.

Libertarians oppose the use of state violence as a means to integrate communities. Unfortunately, many who will claim to support that cause would be more than happy to use state violence to segregate communities.

Finally, a clarification: my picking on the left here is no meant to single them out. It’s because the left is currently the dominant force in American culture that they provide a good example. The above behaviors can be found in people of all stripes.