Muddling Free Speech

Free speech is in the news. What is being debated is whether it is a good thing. I believe it is.

The reason for the debate is because of something referred to as “cancel culture,” instances were a social media outcry bubbles up over current or past transgression or a problematic stance, followed by the demand that a person, show, movie, book, any artifact, individual, or institution, be tossed to the curb. Someone said the wrong thing, took the wrong position, liked the wrong person’s tweet, or expressed something that someone somewhere found unsavory, and now that because that position or idea is repudiated according to contemporary moral standards of propriety, out they must go. Cancel culture is often explained by way of example. You’re probably thinking of one now. I’m thinking of this controversy.

Last week, the left-leaning intellectual magazine Harper’s issued “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The letter begins:

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.

The letter further states, “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” The signatories claim that this is taking place on the left and the right, that both extremes in American political discourse are eliminating anything that might resemble what has classically been described as the public square, a space designated for open and free debate. The letter concludes with the following appeal:

The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

What has followed has been controversy. Some have asked about the subtext of this statement. The New York Times wrote about the publication of the letter and the varied reactions to it. The letter, signed by Margaret Atwood, David Brooks, David Frum, Steven Pinker, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Haidt, Atul Gawande, and Malcolm Gladwell, among others, should not be controversial. Some found it to be so not because of the substance of the ideas themselves, but because of associations with select individuals who signed. The timing of the letter was questioned by Mary McNamara, but I wonder when would have been a good time for such a statement.

McNamara makes other, more significant points, including the fact that cancel culture isn’t new and that public debate is always messy. If you think cancel culture is new, just replace the concept with the word boycott, and think of instances when you thought boycotts were good and helpful vehicles for social change, and when you found them to be just downright silly.

But there is a difference between messy public debate and healthy public debate. While all public debates may be messy, not all public debates are healthy. Some discourses are reasoned, others are fanatical. To simply say, “cancel culture is fine because it isn’t new” does not preclude that this current iteration we are now seeing in our discourse isn’t somehow insidious or particularly destructive toward the free exchange of thought. Kevin Williamson, writing for the conservative opinion journal National Review, states:

Cancel culture is not discourse but antidiscourse, a genre of speech intended not to facilitate the exchange of views and ideas but to prevent such an exchange. It is free speech in the sense that shouting down a speaker is free speech.

One obvious response to the defenders of cancel culture as simply more speech is that criticism of cancel culture is speech, too, as is criticism of criticism of cancel culture, as is criticism of criticism of criticism of cancel culture — you can follow that recursive loop as far out as you like, traveling a great distance without going anywhere.

But the more important thing to understand is that critics of cancel culture oppose the sanctions that are being advocated and imposed for political and social nonconformism, not the ability of rage-addled morons to engage in such advocacy as a matter of formal rights.

Williamson simply suggests that advocates of cancel culture who are driving our discourse aren’t being honest. And I agree. There are those who are saying they are in favor of free speech while simultaneously claiming that we are in need of censoring, and the plain fact is that those two claims are mutually exclusive. Alan Jacobs cites Freddie deBoer, who says it well:

So how can someone object to an endorsement of free speech and open debate without being opposed to those things in and of themselves? You can’t. And people are objecting to it because social justice politics are plainly opposed to free speech. That is the most obvious political fact imaginable today. Of course Yelling Woke Twitter hates free speech! Of course social justice liberals would prevent expression they disagree with if they could! How could any honest person observe out political discourse for any length of time and come to any other conclusion?

You want to argue that free speech is bad, fine. You want to adopt a dominance politics that (you imagine) will result in you being the censor, fine. But just do that. Own that. Can we stop with this charade? Can we stop pretending? Can we just proceed by acknowledging what literally everyone quietly knows, which is that the dominant majority of progressive people simply don’t believe in the value of free speech anymore? Please. Let’s grow up and speak plainly, please. Let’s just grow up.

Count me among those who believe we need more speech, not less. People should be free to think and say things I find offensive and wrongheaded, to express those views publicly and in print, and to make arguments for their position.

Likewise, I should be free to disagree with any position I believe to be wrong, to do so publicly and in print, and to make counterarguments not only in seeking to demonstrate those positions are false, but to persuade others concerning what I believe to be right.

My commitment to these values is not only guided by my admiration for the United States Constitution. These commitments are also rooted in my Baptist convictions, reflective of bedrock principles of my religious faith. I believe in free inquiry, free thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and freedom from it, free association and free expression first because of my Christian convictions, and second as an American.

You may recall that the Bible includes an extensive and well developed wisdom tradition, texts that offer examples and sayings that can guide and uphold a healthy, well-ordered, and functioning society. You also will recall that the Bible also includes a prophetic tradition, a record of those within those societies who spoke with boldness and clarity concerning injustices and oppression that took place. Healthy discourses make space for both the sage and the prophet, and healthy societies seek to preserve the past while also discerning when and where to break from it.

For free speech to be possible, we will need to cultivate and uphold a constellation of the virtues and values that make such a discourse possible. We need values like freedom, liberty, dignity, love, mercy, justice, humility…I could go on. It is not easy being free. We need a larger story within which to frame free speech, one that allows free expression, but also imparts a way of understanding the world by which speech can be judged good or bad and a means of reasoning together that allows for such evaluations to be established politically, as part of a way of life.

The establishment of a healthy public discourse has never been easy, and even when conditions have been at their best, there have always been instances of injustice and oppression that have been ignored, suppressed, and marginalized in favor of preferences and privileges of the powerful. A healthy society has the humility and the wisdom to acknowledge that power differentials always result from politics, and that the work of justice is ongoing.

America has experienced fractious moments in the past, and our present moment is another instance where we are divided. There are those among us who are determined to widen that divide.

Who among us will seek to heal it?

The Key to Freedom

If nations are to be understood by what they love supremely, then freedom is and always has been the key to America. But the question facing America is, what is the key to freedom? The present clash is not between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, rich and poor, urban and rural, heartlanders and coastals, or even globalists and nationalists, important though those differences are. The deepest division crosscuts these other differences at several points. At the core, the deepest division is rooted in the differences between two world-changing and opposing revolutions, the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, and their rival views of freedom and the nature of the American experiment.

[ . . . ]

There is no escaping the coming showdown, for Americans are fast approaching their Rubicon. Is 1776 to be restored (with its flaws acknowledged and remedied) or is it to be replaced by 1789 (and its current progressive heirs)? The outcome will favor one view of freedom or the other, or perhaps the abolition of freedom altogether. For the two main rival views are far more contradictory than many realize, and with their scorched-earth attitudes and policies, they cannot live with each other forever. The middle ground is disappearing. A clean sweep of the cultural landscape is what each wants, and neither will talk of compromise or allow anything to stand in its way. Either the classical liberalism of the republic will prevail and 1776 will defeat 1789, or the Left/liberalism o f 1789 will defeat 1776, and the republic will fail and become a republic in name only. The American republic divided in this way cannot stand. The United States can no more continue half committed to one view of freedom and half committed to the other than it could live half slave and half free in the 1860s.

[ . . . ]

Needless to say, the issues between the different sides are for Americans to debate and resolve. But such are the stakes for all humanity, particularly when the debate turns to the future, that perhaps an outsider may raise some questions. What is freedom, and what are the terms of the American experiment? Which of the two rival views of freedom best serves the interests of human flourishing? Which of the two grounds the vision of a free and just society for all citizens, based on the dignity of every human person and allowing for disagreement and opposition? Which view allows a free people to sustain their freedom under the challenging conditions of the advanced modern world and the global era? How will the American experiment survive in the world of posthumanism? Statements about freedom are often deceptively simple, though profoundly consequential, yet they are the issues at the crux of the American crisis. The outcome of the struggle will determine the future of the American republic. It may also determine the future of humanity itself.

Os Guinness, Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become its Greatest Threat, p. 3-5

Is Os Guinness right?

Last Call for Liberty was published in 2018, and at that time I thought his rhetoric was provocative and bombastic, exaggerated to make a point. I agreed with Guinness about the nature of freedom, how difficult freedom is to sustain, how a constellation of commonly held ideas about freedom are absolutely critical for the overall well being of a nation, and how institutions must be healthy and well-functioning if a people are to flourish and thrive. I agreed with him about the uniqueness of the American experiment and the importance of knowing America’s history. I also agreed that America contained within her Constitution and her history mechanisms and systems for reform and refinement toward “a more perfect union,” and while flawed, that America was and is a good place to live.

The debate that Guinness foresaw is now here. Now is a time of testing, not only for individuals, but for communities. Guinness writes, “The personal and the interpersonal precede the political.” While most of us think of America firstly as a democracy, Guinness argues for its standing as a covenantal or constitutional republic whose well being depends on the health of our formal ties in marriages, families, schools, churches, and other voluntary associations. While many of us look to the national debates and the news media as a barometer for our societal health, that might just be the wrong place to look. We might be wiser to look to our city governments, churches, neighborhood associations, and civic life as a means of determining where we’re getting it right and where change needs to be enacted.

And as we engage, we need to do so as informed citizens, as people who are familiar with both our national triumphs and our national sins. To deny either would be naive. But we must also be clear on the ideas about freedom and liberty by which we would like to shaped, where they come from, and where they may lead us. As Guinness clearly states, no less than the future is at stake.