Progressives Against Free Speech
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 forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. 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.
Overall it’s a good letter. As I said, the people who signed it range from the center to various reaches of the Left. It’s exactly the kind of thing that people of the Right ought to welcome from men and women of good faith to our Left. It’s not the place for us to “whatabout” the letter, but rather to be grateful that these prominent intellectuals took a public stand.
The Harper’s letter is smoking out some bad actors. Take a look at this tweet by a Vox critic-at-large, complaining about a fellow Vox writer who signed the letter:
This person “feels less safe” at the office of the online magazine because one of its prominent writers put his name on a letter defending free speech! And VanDerWerff doesn’t want Yglesias fired, but is nonetheless siccing the social media mob on him for having the gall to question cancel culture.
You see now the importance of the Harper’s letter. If I were running Vox, I would fire VanDerWerff over this and make no apology. If this VanDerWerff person critic has a problem with Yglesias’s signature, then take it up privately with the editors. But no: VanDerWerff shared it on social media for the sake of ginning up the woke mob against Yglesias for creating a hostile work environment. There’s no other possible explanation. VanDerWerff looks like a toxic person.
Look at this: a fellow transwoman, a columnist for The New York Times, is now regrets having signed up:
Ah yes, here it is — the first official apology for signing a statement condemning the climate of conformity, fear, and mutual surveillance that has descended upon public intellectual life: pic.twitter.com/Pc5HJFvv70
— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) July 7, 2020
This is like Salma Hayek endorsing the novel American Dirt until the woke mob came for it, frightening her into retracting her remarks. Boylan’s retraction is precisely a testimony to the power of the woke mob to intimidate people into obedience. Boylan supported the statement as a matter of principle — but then saw that it meant standing alongside such icky people as J.K. Rowling.
Since I started writing this post, we have another retraction, this one from a historian:
I do not endorse this@Harpers letter. I am in contact with Harper’s about a retraction
— Kerri Greenidge (@GreenidgeKerri) July 7, 2020
Why did she sign it if she didn’t agree with the statement? Seems like Prof. Greenidge only believes in free speech when all the cool kids do.
Please, think for a minute and consider: what does it say when a completely generic endorsement of free speech and open debate is in and of itself immediately diagnosed as anti-progressive, as anti-left? There is literally no specific instance discussed in that open letter, no real-world incident about which there might be specific and tangible controversy. 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.
When I first read it, I thought that the Harper’s letter was a worthy but anodyne defense of liberal values of free speech and open-minded discussion. I was wrong. This tweet from one of the organizers of the letter:
Afraid to sign a letter defending free speech.
A reader wrote me last week to tell me that cancel culture had come to his family. I can’t give details, because he asked me not to post it, but the gist of it is that he made an extremely mild joke about cancel culture — and they all turned on him, bigtime. These are white conservative Christians. Some of them have written him to formally disfellowship him. He told me that he had long thought I was exaggerating about the totalitarian nature of this phenomenon, but he believes it now.
And, in the past week, I’ve had two different people reach out to me to say that they’ve come to realize that certain friends of theirs would have no hesitation denouncing them to a tribunal for being a thought criminal. This is real. I’m grateful for the Harper’s signatories for directly and indirectly helping to demonstrate this.
From my upcoming book Live Not By Lies:
The US-born doctor said he had heard his immigrant parents warn him about the dangers of totalitarianism all his life. He hadn’t worried—after all, this is America, the land of liberty, of individual rights, one nation under God and the rule of law. America was born out of a quest for religious liberty, and had always been proud of the First Amendment to the US Constitution that guaranteed it. But now there was something about what was happening in Indiana that made him think: What if they were right?
It’s easy to laugh this kind of thing off. Many of us with aging parents are accustomed to having to talk them down from the ledge, so to speak, after a cable news program stoked their fear and anxiety about the world outside their front door. I assumed that this was probably the case with the elderly Czech woman.
But there was something about the tension in the doctor’s voice, and the fact that he felt compelled to reach out to a journalist he didn’t even know, telling me that it would be too dangerous for me to use his name if I wrote about him, that rattled me. His question became my question: What if the old Czech woman sees something the rest of us do not? What if we really are witnessing a turn toward totalitarianism in the Western liberal democracies, and can’t see it because it takes a form different from the old kind?
During the next few years, I spoke with many men and women who had once lived under communism. I asked them what they thought of the old woman’s declaration. Did they also think that life in America is drifting toward some sort of totalitarianism?
They all said yes — often emphatically. They were usually surprised by my question because they consider Americans to be hopelessly naive on the subject. In talking at length to some of the emigrants who found refuge in America, I discovered that they are genuinely angry that their fellow Americans don’t recognize what is happening.
What makes the emerging situation in the West similar to what they fled? After all, every society has rules and taboos and mechanisms to enforce them. What unnerves those who lived under Soviet communism is this similarity: Elites and elite institutions are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism, based in defending the rights of the individual, and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups. It encourages people to identify with groups—ethnic, sexual, and otherwise—and to think of Good and Evil as a matter of power dynamics among the groups. A utopian vision drives these progressives, one that compels them to seek to rewrite history and reinvent language to reflect their ideals of social justice.
Further, these utopian progressives are constantly changing the standards of thought, speech, and behavior. You can never be sure when those in power will come after you as a villain for having said or done something that was perfectly fine the day before. And the consequences for violating the new taboos are extreme, including losing your livelihood and having your reputation ruined forever.
People are becoming instant pariahs for having expressed a politically incorrect opinion, or in some other way provoking a progressive mob, which amplifies its scapegoating through social and conventional media. Under the guise of “diversity,” “inclusivity,” “equity,” and other egalitarian jargon, the Left creates powerful mechanisms for controlling thought and discourse and marginalizes dissenters as evil.
It is very hard for Americans who have never lived through this kind of ideological fog to recognize what is happening. To be sure, whatever this is, it is not a carbon copy of life in the Soviet Bloc nations, with their secret police, their gulags, their strict censorship, and their material deprivation. That is precisely the problem, these people warn. The fact that relative to Soviet Bloc conditions, life in the West remains so free and so prosperous is what blinds Americans to the mounting threat to our liberty. That, and the way those who take away freedom couch it in the language of liberating victims from oppression.
“I was born and raised in the Soviet Union, and I’m frankly stunned by how similar some of these developments are to the way Soviet propaganda operated,” says one professor, now living in the Midwest.
Another émigré professor, this one from Czechoslovakia, was equally blunt. He told me that he began noticing a shift a decade or so ago: friends would lower their voices and look over their shoulders when expressing conservative views. When he expressed his conservative beliefs in a normal tone of voice, the Americans would start to fidget and constantly scan the room to see who might be listening.
“I grew up like this,” he tells me, “but it was not supposed to be happening here.”
It is happening here. Those Americans who grew up under communism know totalitarianism when they see it. Listen to them!
UPDATE: A friend tells me that he hears from people who have opposite experiences to the familiar narrative on this blog about cancel culture, and they think I’m distorting the true picture by only publishing one side of the narrative. I told my friend that I literally never get any letters from readers who offer a counternarrative. He said that they won’t write me because they’re convinced I won’t publish them. That’s a circular argument and a self-fulfilling prophecy, obviously. But look, let me invite you whose experiences run counter to the usual narrative I publish from readers to write me to offer your testimony. If it’s a thoughtful letter, I’ll publish it.