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I just passed a sign in a store window that says, “No Vacancy for Hate.” Well, I thought, that’s a little less righteous than similar messages in front lawns and restaurant portals: “Hate Is Not Welcome Here,” “Hate Is Not a Family Value,” and other censures of the number one sin in America at the present time.

By “hate,” of course, the posters don’t mean anything as general as that. They don’t even target the actual feeling of hate. They have in mind a less visceral trait, certain religious and social beliefs that cross the progressive line. Organizations that purport to monitor hate in America—Southern Poverty Law Center, Human Rights Campaign, and others—regularly set hate on the starboard side of the spectrum. Last December, in testimony before Congress, SPLC president Richard Cohen refused to include the far-left Antifa among hate groups. We condemn their strong-arm tactics, Cohen maintained, but “Antifa is not a group that vilifies people on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion and the like.” You don’t have to do anything to earn the “hate” designation. You just have to believe the wrong things about people. Those who adhere to a ­biblical conception of marriage are haters. If you’re ­willing to consider that income and education gaps ­between blacks and whites have causes other than systemic ­racism, you’re edging toward hate. If you’re skeptical that a man can occupy a woman’s body, you’re definitely a hater.

No doubt, every individual in the United States has at least one opinion that throws him into the party of odium. With the number of long-standing assumptions that give offense growing all the time, if you question anybody long enough, he will eventually breach a taboo. He may let slip the suspicion that the wage gap follows mainly from women’s choices, or that the incarceration rates of black males begin with fatherless households, or merely that transgender people are troubled. Few Americans wish to act cruelly to women, Muslims, Jews, gays, blacks, or any other historically disadvantaged group, but one opinion or another they avow nonetheless convicts them. I am sure that many liberals don’t approve of hauling a religious working-class baker before the state because he didn’t want to put two men on a wedding cake, but they don’t want to be called hateful, either. The signs remind them who is cast out of society these days.

To be on the receiving end of the charge is exasperating. With no preparation, you discover that what you thought was your informed or commonplace view has been translated into a bare animus. It’s a rhetorical switch, gathering traditional tenets into a single loathsome trait. I loaded “conservative hate” into Google Alerts a few weeks ago and every day receive a dozen stories and op-eds that cite it without clarifying it. Apparently, the authors don’t think they have to explain how the Alliance Defending Freedom’s jurisprudence and Charles Murray’s social science amount to hate. They just do.

How can you react when you are accused of hate except sputter, “No, I don’t hate anyone”? In the accuser’s eyes, this is no exculpation. He’s got you like Prufrock “pinned and wriggling on the wall,” and he doesn’t want to let go. If you ignore the charge, you come off as guilty or cowardly. If you laugh, you appear to make light of others’ suffering. If you get mad and respond, “Take that back or it’s fighting words!” then you confirm the charge. Only haters get violent!

Be aware, conservatives. You have no answer to the sign in the restaurant window. You’re in the barred ranks and should move on. Or you can ignore the ban, play it cool, and ask for a table. But you’ve been put on notice. The people here don’t like you, no matter how decorous your conduct.

This isn’t how liberalism was supposed to be. From the very start, citizens were to have more space than that, to feel less pressure from their neighbors when it came to fundamental beliefs. “There is room for everybody in America,” J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote in Letters from an American Farmer (1782), a book the founders loved. With land in Europe limited and controlled, he said, “where every place is overstocked,” differences get magnified, tensions percolate, and life is a “perpetual collision of parties.” The locales people inhabit bear the traces of war and sectarian strife, but they can’t leave because everywhere else makes them feel like a “stranger.”

In America, though, people move around and spread out. The pressures don’t build. The places where they settle remind them of nothing discordant. The French and English will soon be at war again, but here they intermarry, Crèvecoeur notes approvingly. In the Old World, they fight over the liturgy, but in America a Catholic “prays to God as he has been taught,” and “his belief, his prayers offend nobody.” Down the road is a German Lutheran whose contrasting worship proceeds, and “by so doing he scandalizes nobody.” The Low Dutchman who lives around the bend obeys the Synod of Dort, but his ministers in no way disrupt the “religious indifference” of the neighborhood. No one takes umbrage at others’ rites.

The smart money in Europe bet that the American experiment wouldn’t last a generation. Crèvecoeur’s model of pluralism gave the founders hope. George Washington rated it alongside Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia as the best description of life in the New World, while Ben Franklin wrote to Crèvecoeur thanking him for “un présent des plus agréables, votre excellent ouvrage.” How would this, already the most diverse nation in world history, absorb so many languages, religions, and nationalities? Only by retaining a personal distinction, Crèvecoeur asserted. In public, Americans have a “visible character,” the crops they grow, the look of their dwellings and churches, their demeanor at the market. They are to be judged on them accordingly. They also have an “invisible” character, however, their profoundest beliefs and loves, and it is “nobody’s business.”

Crèvecoeur’s formula might sound overly libertarian to First Things readers, but it has a corrective worth in the face of liberal intolerance. The old etiquette that asked people not to discuss religion and politics in social settings is a legacy of the world he described. It kept individuals free from interrogation. American pluralism worked because people could mix in shops and restaurants, on trains and in stadiums, without having to ID themselves. We had a wise “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. It allowed Catholics and Jews, Democrats and Republicans, Italians and Germans to socialize on other grounds.

Certainly, the sign-posters insist that they want a polity free of discrimination, which means a harmonious, inclusive society. Dividing people up into haters and anti-haters, though, isn’t the way to do it. The warnings they issue annul respect for “invisible character.” Are you a hater? Do you want tighter borders, did Obergefell dismay you . . .?

A kinder social unity doesn’t emerge when you examine the conscience of people who merely want to have lunch. When you set a placard on your lawn that announces “Hate Has No Home Here,” it doesn’t make residents along the street more comfortable. “Am I supposed to put up a sign, too?” they wonder. Peaceful coexistence happens when you do not probe people’s minds, at least not during the ordinary activities of the day.

I don’t want to debate sex politics and racial inequality and immigration with the sign-posters. They need to ask a deeper question: Can we remove hate from the human heart? That’s quite an ambition for business owners and the people next door to pursue. It is more appropriate to the Committee of Public Safety and the reeducation programs of the twentieth century than to bourgeois ­society. If the anti-haters believe that customers and neighbors can expel their baser impulses, that a public proclamation against hate will actually make people alter their inner being, we recognize the mark of utopian thinking.

The old-school liberal stops well short of that ideal. What people think and feel doesn’t harm others, he presumes, only actions that infringe on others’ rights. You can believe what you want—we won’t ask questions—just don’t make a nuisance of yourself.

For anti-haters, that’s not good enough. In his 1995 book Dictatorship of Virtue, Richard Bernstein begins with dérapage, the French scholarly term for the moment when the Declaration of the Rights of Man collapsed into the Terror. How did dérapage happen to American liberalism?

Certainly, social media have hastened the process. Crèvecoeur argued that constant migration and expansion kept social relations relaxed in America. Social media have reversed the habit. People in Los Angeles and Boston are just as close in many ways as are people who live a block apart on the Upper East Side. What happens in Ferguson, Missouri, is known within hours from Maine to Florida. A misdeed on the street can inspire a digital mob of people whose zeal ramps up with every Facebook update.

The first casualty is the “general decency of manners,” which Crèvecoeur observed on his travels and attributed to decentralization. The anti-hate signs are bad manners. The posters regard themselves as benevolent stewards of a better society, but in truth they ruin the fellowship that citizens feel for one another as Americans. 

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

Photo by Ron Cogswell via Creative Commons. Image cropped.