But there’s also a third group, one that may be quieter than the other two. These are American liberals who have, indeed, witnessed events or exchanges that made them feel uneasy — online debates in which a speaker’s character is inferred from one or a handful of tweets out of 16,000; episodes in which authors agree to withdraw upcoming books after accusations of insensitivity. This third group of liberals recognizes that some of what troubles the Harper’s letter-writers is happening. Simultaneously, though, they think that the problems identified by the first group are real: Whole groups of people have been underrepresented in American life and should, at this juncture, be listened to more attentively.
What’s more, these liberals — I’m one of them — often have the frustrating sense that they’re being bullied by the very people who claim that their motivation is to uphold free speech. It’s inescapable, the observation that the pro-free-speech activists exhibit the behavior they ostensibly claim to be fighting: invoking blinding moral certainty, belittling people who disagree with them or threatening them with lawsuits. They claim to celebrate debate but don’t countenance any disagreement about the degree of threat to free speech. If you wonder how widespread or materially damaging this “cancel culture” really is, you reveal yourself, as the political scientist Yascha Mounk has written, to be an immoral person “more invested in parroting [propaganda] than in acknowledging the truth.” In the arguments of people like Matt Lutz, Wesley Yang and Matt Taibbi, I encounter sweeping, dark presumptions about my motives and the motives of any other liberal who hasn’t yet sworn fealty. If you haven’t spoken out against a supposedly unhinged leftist fringe, you don’t “care about truth or justice,” you’re driven by “tremendous personal envy,” or you’re terrified of losing your salary and living in “fear.”
A robust defense of free speech sounds impossible to dislike. But if you interrogate it, you somehow end up proving the absolutists’ point: that they cannot voice “anodyne” opinions, as they’ve characterized them, without attracting accusations of bad faith. When a journalist, Ezra Klein, noted that “a lot of debates that sell themselves as being about free speech are actually about power” — historically, a true statement — left-wing free-speech advocates said Klein had made a veiled threat against one of his colleagues who’d signed the Harper’s letter. Klein apologized publicly, the exact kind of episode they lament. And so, liberals in this final category tend to fall quiet, unwilling to engage the free-speech defenders lest we end up making their arguments for them — and unwilling to identify ourselves as an opponent of the “lifeblood of democracy.” Ironic.
The idea that free speech is the virtue from which democracy’s other benefits spring would have taken the American founders aback. They understood laws that shut down newspapers to be illiberal, but not insults or nasty arguments within institutions over ideas. Serious conversations about what “freedom of speech” meant emerged in the 20th century, as railroads, urbanization and the emergence of national media houses put new groups of people into conflict and growing economic inequality made urgent the question of how workers could argue against powerful employers.
But the way people invoked “freedom of speech” as a motive was critiqued from the beginning, and often by liberals. Left-wing legal scholars like Columbia’s Robert Hale and David Riesman — a clerk for Supreme Justice Louis Brandeis and then a Harvard professor — wondered whether some free-speech advocates weren’t using an incontrovertible-sounding principle to paper over a more specific desire for powerful people to remain the arbiters of America’s “marketplace of ideas.” They noticed that companies began to invoke “free speech” rights to prevent workers from criticizing them. Free-speech defenders, it seemed to Riesman, were sometimes hiding behind the phrase to deny their critics “the opportunity to urge an alteration of policy, simply because that policy would thereby be endangered.” Not to press free-speech defenders to clarify their motives, he wrote, was “to give away one’s liberalism.”
By the mid-20th century, though, “free speech” had acquired a hopeful reputation as the warp that could hold the ragged weave of America together. Alabama Gov. George Wallace said in a 1964 address that “freedom of speech” was one of the most important things civil rights advocates were trying to take away from the South. All he wanted, he claimed, was for “truth” to be put to “free and open encounter.” In Masai culture in Kenya, a colorful stick is used to impose order on village debates. If you hold the stick, nobody is allowed to interrupt you. By the end of the 20th century, “freedom of speech” had become that stick in America. If you waved it — or so some people hoped — you could not be talked over. You could not be displaced.
I grew up in a right-wing family, and we regularly listened to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Limbaugh always insisted that he stood not mainly for a particular ideology but for the value of free speech. It used to be “okay to express [your] true thoughts,” he told a TV host in 1990. But “there’s a new fascism out there. . . . If you don’t say the right things about an issue, it’s not enough that they just turn you off. They want to try to get you banned.” He often claimed that fascists were trying to kick him off the air; principled liberals rushed to his defense.
I remember the confusing sense of disempowerment I felt upon hearing this. Limbaugh bracketed his rhetoric with the assertion that free speech was his objective. But inside these brackets were many more specific claims, such as that refugees tend to have HIV or that Haitians were overrunning America. If I contested those claims, though, I was told by friends and family that I was a politically correct prig who couldn’t bear to listen to ideas that offended me.
That counter-silencing characterized the conservatism I came to know as a young adult. If I developed an interest in left-wing ideas, it was because I was susceptible to “groupthink” or wanted to secure a future job in some New York elite. I was told the only reason black people identified as liberal was because they were paid to do so, and the only reason women identified as liberal was because they wanted to have sex with Bill Clinton. I wanted to be an “independent thinker.” But why did that mean I had to nod my head, unthinkingly, to the idea that refugees have HIV?
I came to feel that the speech argument was often wielded by people who worried that their points may be weak. I’ve felt that way about its use on the left, too. Think about its equivalent, rhetorically, in a marital fight: “I can’t believe you’re upset about this.” Such a statement positions the speaker as the rational one and burdens the other party to hedge himself so as not to sound hysterical. It also deflects the argument from its true subject to a dispute over its form — the other person’s way of presenting their complaint. In the Harper’s letter, and in other recent exhortations to the left to protect free speech, there’s a striking absence of any ideas. What propositions do these writers wish they were able to offer? But naming those ideas would open them up again to scrutiny and discussion.
The “free speech” argument can be a useful tactic. But it’s not necessarily a successful one in the long term. Overusing it can turn real debates into insoluble meta-arguments with no room for compromise, driving a self-perpetuating dynamic in which one party exudes a feigned and slyly provocative equilibrium while the other becomes increasingly bitter and confrontational. That’s what happened when Jesse Singal, a science journalist and free-speech advocate, exulted that a critical response to the Harper’s letter penned by more than 150 other writers and academics was hysterical and “insanely ignorant.” Singal then suggested that provoking his opponents was “everything I dreamed.”
Who’s responsible for stopping this dynamic? I’m not sure, morally, but I believe the free-speech defenders have more options than they recognize. For 10 years, I’ve lived part time in South Africa. In 1994, people who had been legally excluded from discussion forums, universities and publishing jobs were admitted to those spaces. Two decades later, those people began to argue that unspoken attitudes and prejudices still barred them from exerting influence — that tastemakers with long-standing power had refused to cede authority. South Africa has had its own massive anti-racism uprisings on campuses, its own debates over what academics ought to publish or teach, its own conflicts over whether “deplatforming” somebody is okay, its own free-speech defenders and critics who attacked those defenders in heated, even alarming language. Many of these conflicts happened a few years before their analogues in the United States, because South Africa’s demographic shift is ahead of ours. I felt I was watching our future.
As in America, South Africans who resisted the firing of a columnist or the renaming of a building expressed the most alarm not for the present but for a putative future. They treated these events as harbingers of much more extreme reprisals to come: Give the people who want to “cancel” things a hand, they said, and they’ll take the whole arm, and eventually we’ll be living in a “1984”-like dystopia. You have to push back hard and early.
I believe that many who made this fearful argument really did harbor this concern. The discrimination against South Africans of color was so great over such a long time that — if they truly were liberated from social norms to be cordial — the assumption was that they would seek a comprehensive revenge. But they didn’t. Their demands to rename buildings or exclude offensive rhetoric were not mere bitter performances. Once some buildings were renamed and some academics’ reputations downgraded, they, and the country, mostly moved on.
In other words, recalibrating public debate achieved something real. When the people who had been so angry were given power, often they tempered their arguments, because a real need had been satisfied. New black judges offered clemency to college students prosecuted for hate speech and expanded rights to freedom of expression. Black media personalities consulted white experts and engaged with white authors who’d written controversial works. And most of the people who’d feared being canceled still hold their positions, still speak.