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?