Elon Musk and the Free Speech Lie
Elon Musk’s recent suspension of leftist journalists on Twitter demonstrates that the liberal ideal of “free speech” might not be all it is cracked up to be.
On December 15, 2022, Elon Musk incited the greatest outrage from leftists yet when he banned a slew of progressive journalists from Twitter, including prominent figures such as CNN’s Donnie O’Sullivan, the New York Times’s Ryan Mac, and Vox’s Aaron Rupar. Though their accounts were later reinstated, insults had already been hurled by the left-wing media, Musk labeled an oppressive right-wing tyrant. The incident even has its own Wikipedia page.
For his part, Musk was always clear that the suspensions were a response to the Twitter account “ElonJet,” which tracked the location and movements of his private plane. Musk tweeted that the leaks presented a “physical safety violation” and broke Twitter’s new anti-doxxing terms of service.
Indeed, Musk’s claim that the leaks presented a legitimate threat were quickly validated. Just half an hour after the first tweet was posted, he detailed how a stalker was able to intercept, stop, and harass a car carrying his son.
In a normal world, people would call a father’s desire to protect himself and his family noble. Leftists, however, have decried Musk’s actions as extremist and dictatorial. And true to form, they have largely skirted criticizing the doxxing policy itself, instead targeting Musk personally. Case in point, Vox’s Peter Kafka recently described Musk as someone of “erratic and destructive behavior,” and further, a monumental hypocrite—particularly regarding free speech.
“[Musk is] contradicting himself,” Kafka stated. “Last night, we all noted, again, that he says he’s in favor of free speech, but he doesn’t support it when it comes to the things he owns — but that won’t matter. The only thing that matters is what Musk does in the moment. That’s the consistent part.”
Of course, the irony should not be missed here. It is quite amusing to watch the same people who thrived on suspending and censoring conservative voices now lose their minds when the same is done to them. Their hypocrisy verges on the absurd, and conservatives are right to be entertained by the distress that Musk’s antics cause their opponents.
Still, at a deeper level, there is a lesson here for the right as well. After all, when looking at the left’s reaction, we hear a shocking parallel to conventional conservative “free speech” talking points. In fact, they basically echo a standard right-wing mantra: individual liberty should not be threatened or repressed by a powerful, unchecked authority.
So, what gives? Is the left finally accepting a truth that conservatives have long understood?
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Not exactly. There is truth in the left’s account of Musk’s actions. He is an authority figure exercising his will to promote what he likes and silence what he does not. And certainly, Musk appears to be contradicting himself. When he took over Twitter, he marketed the shift as a dramatic victory for free speech—something that recent suspensions appear to disprove. Musk’s Twitter was supposed to be a genuine open forum, a place where people could say and do as they please; Musk even said in November he would not ban ElonJet, citing his devotion to free speech.
Things have obviously changed. But within Musk’s evolution from libertine free speech advocate to America’s most infamous censor, the uncomfortable truth regarding free speech is revealed: free speech, at least how it is conventionally understood, does not exist.
This is not to say that people are destined to be gagged and beaten Soviet-style when they speak out. Rather, it is that “free speech” as conceptualized within the liberal framework—the ability to say whatever one wants, whenever one wants, unaffected by others—is a facade, a myth of Enlightenment liberalism that has no grounding in reality.
The issues with the liberal notion of free speech can be condensed into two key errors: the idea that freedom resides in individual choice, and the notion that man’s actions are independent and autonomous from a greater whole.
The first error resides in liberalism’s false notion of freedom, sometimes called the “freedom of indifference.” It argues that freedom is found in one’s ability to choose and do as one pleases, uncoerced by the influence and restrictions of outside forces. Yet as I have previously written in The American Conservative, the freedom of indifference is no freedom at all, and is rather a gateway to vice and enslavement. This is seen most clearly in cases of addiction: while the heroin addict does choose to inject himself with another dose, he is not actually free when doing so, instead beholden to his addiction and unable to think rationally about it. License is not synonymous with liberty.
The second error stems from the lie that man acts independently and without affecting others. In fact, the opposite is true. Man finds himself in relationship with others even from the moment of birth, first with his parents and siblings, and later with members of the community and nation. These relationships not only help him learn and grow but also provide an identity. He is dependent on those in his family and community, and they are in turn dependent on him. Therefore, every action he takes, good or bad, impacts others. He does not exist in a vacuum.
So how does this relate to Elon Musk and free speech? The assumption of many right-wingers was that Musk’s purchase of Twitter would usher in an unprecedented age of libertine freedom on social media, where censorship was a thing of the past and one could finally say and do whatever they wanted. Yet, like all human actions, speech is never launched insignificantly into the void. Words have meaning. They hold moral weight and can thus change minds, promulgate ideas, and cause real harm. There is no utopian world in which people can say whatever they want without consequences. And because speech holds this moral component, the question is not if it will impact others, but how.
This is not some outlandish totalitarian view. Nobody truly believes in a completely anarchical and unrestricted public forum. If that was the case, sexual perverts, ideological extremists, and deviant pseudo-religious zealots would be allowed to proselytize in the public square. Such a civilization would quickly devolve into chaos. The Founding Fathers understood this point: blasphemy laws were standard practice in early America. Constraints on speech are necessary in functioning societies, and therefore, anybody who genuinely believes in “free speech absolutism” is blowing smoke.
Interestingly, nobody understands this reality better than the left. Deranged as their objectives may be, everything they do bears in mind the coercive power of speech. That is why they view tolerance of conservative speech as dangerous; it risks leading people down a path they deem incorrect. As such, leftists silence the right’s “harmful” speech and are consequently able to better shape and orient society toward their ends.
Thus, the real conservative mission with free speech is not constructing an unrestricted, libertine-esque public forum, but rather promoting speech that supports our morals and values and preventing speech that harms them. And uncomfortable as it may sound, Musk’s suspensions provide a model for how to begin.
Rewiring our understanding of free speech will no doubt make the right-liberals uncomfortable—liberalism’s "brain worms" are very hard to kill, after all. But they do raise an important question: why is restricting speech bad when they do it, and somehow good when we do it?
Here, conservatives should find solace in the truth. Despite what our relativistic culture says, there is an objective good. And as the left continues normalizing gender reassignment surgery, promoting abortion on demand, and recommending physician-assisted suicide, it is perfectly reasonable to say that we are wielding power for good and that the other side should not be afforded the same. It is not only acceptable but just to restrict the promulgation of leftist ideas — whether in the home, in the classroom, or in the public square.
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Musk’s Twitter suspensions expose the liberal free speech narrative for the lie that it is. Limitations on speech are not only inevitable but necessary for any society to flourish, and dreams of unrestricted speech in the public square are just that. As such, the real task ahead is not ensuring an absolute free speech utopia, but rather leveraging limitations on speech for the sake of the good. Conservatives would do well to become more comfortable with this reality.
And we should remember that, should we exercise these limits well, we actually open the door to a much grander understanding of freedom, the “freedom for excellence,” and a greater liberty that comes through participation in those ideas and institutions that are objectively good and edifying to human nature: the Church, the family, the community. Indeed, only when freedom is grounded in the good can virtue be strengthened, vice weakened, and society fully and authentically flourish.
And tough as it may seem, suspending the whining leftists on Twitter is part of making it so.