The Criticisms of Free Speech

This has been an incredible time for free speech debate in the United States.  Like all true free speech advocates, I love it when people air divergent views — even about the importance of free speech itself.  I say this because, deep down, I continue to feel optimistic about our ability to arrive at truth through reason and argumentation.  I really do believe in the notion that through a clash of viewpoints in the marketplace of ideas comes the closest thing we can get to truth and consensus.

Jonathan Rauch explains this system of liberalism — which he calls “liberal science” — in his book, Kindly Inquisitors.  Important to remember is that liberal science is not a system that’s free of bias — it’s exploding with bias.  Individual participants carry their own personal biases, as well as their strong professional biases.  There are factions, too.  It’s rife with bias.  

But what keeps it in check is the egalitarian nature of the game.  For Rauch there are only two rules:  1) no one has any special authority, and 2) there are no final answers.  If your position is unjustifiably biased toward a particular conclusion, others who don’t share your bias will critique you for it, your ideas will clash, others will wade in, and a deeper level of truth will be arrived at.  This is not the same as might making right.  There is no aristocracy, no powerful central government with the final say, no indisputable divine heterodoxy — just a roiling, egalitarian debate about everything.  It is reason and logic making right.  How very American.

But of course, in such a system, even the system of liberal science must be up for debate.  And right now some ferocious criticisms are being made.  It seems to me there are two important ones in particular.

1)  First, this system only reinforces the voices of the powerful.

This is an important argument.  It basically says that liberal science is a powerful way of peacefully producing clarity and consensus, but it does not necessarily produce more just outcomes.  After all, we’ve had this system informally in place for a long time, and look at the injustice in the U.S.  It’s really the same criticism of capitalism: yes, channeling competition and self-interest produces some great things, but it also produces losers and we need to balance this system with safety nets and common-sense regulations to level the playing field for anyone who wants to play (compete).

As a result, what you will hear these days is what I think of as the Speech Equity argument.  Advocates say that, unlike Rauch’s system, the ideal system should purposely try to push forward more marginalized voices and then discourage dominant groups from making criticisms of those voices.

Leaving aside the question of who should do the “pushing forward,” there’s a fundamental problem here: the voices pushed forward wouldn’t be marginalized ones at all. Think of it this way: Would such a system of powerful protectors watching out for minority voices really help “minority” voices?  Of course not.  It would only protect voices that are already culturally powerful.  The thing Rauch reminds us is that there’s a difference between political powerful voices (traditionally the Right) and culturally powerful voices (traditionally the Left).  If the most powerful newspaper in the United States, the New York Times, is trying to amplify certain long-marginalized voices, I would say that those voices are — right now at least — classifiable as powerful and influential if they have the NYT behind them.  They have already attained a measure of stature — not as a result of any authority combing through the stacks and amplifying them, but as a result of their cultural power.

Rauch argues that the truly minority voices (he cites the gay rights movement for much of the 20th Century) are the ones that are not culturally powerful and are in fact seen as disreputable.  These voices are not helped by a system of conscious equity or favoring (such as a hate speech code that only allows certain sorts of speech) . . .  because they are simply not politically or culturally powerful.  The only thing that helps those voices, for Rauch, is open access and a chance to make their case.  

Now this pushing forward in a macro sense is not to be confused with individual groups or organizations that push forward certain voices in a micro-sense. Any newspaper or publishing company or media conglomerate that gives traditionally marginalized voices a shot is doing valuable service. But typically the instinct to do this does not come as a result of the system of liberal science giving specific favor. In fact, it comes more as a result of specific gatekeepers coming to understand that diverse hiring is important — which is itself a result of the marketplace of ideas.

Here is the other argument against liberal science that is being made right now:

2.  You can’t say unpleasant ideas because they will take hold.

This is the classic argument against free speech, and over the years it has taken many shapes and forms.  On the right, it’s usually about promoting correct morality.  Think of the religious right trying to censor books with graphic content.  On the left, it’s usually the attempt to promote ideological purity.  Think of “cancel culture.”

There are two important sub-arguments that we’re hearing right now for why censorship is important:

A  You can’t “normalize” bad ideas.  

Maintaining societal norms is important, and so this is something the left is particularly afraid of in the Donald Trump era, and I agree with that fear.  It’s almost impossible to keep up with all of the immoral, borderline- or openly-criminal activities that our president does every day.  I worry that he’s eroding our norms so deeply that we won’t get them back for many years.  It seems to me that much of the left’s anxiety about policing norms has to do with the fact that they cannot put Donald Trump away, so they train their energies on what they can control — policing their own.

B  You have a right to speak, but not the right to a platform.  

This is actually what argument A is driving at.  It is the vaunted “deplatforming” argument, tremendously influential today in our debates about speech.  It is seen in calls for disinvitations on college campuses, in classic calls for newspapers not to publish certain stories (the Tom Cotton editorial, for instance), and in calls for disfavored speakers (or their publishers) to be fired from their jobs.

This argument’s response to last week’s Harper’s free speech letter essentially said: Free speech is fine, but we also have the right to call for your megaphone to be taken away (or your livelihood).  That in itself is free speech.

While this is absolutely true, and while it is true that no one is owed a platform, let me make a brief argument in favor of platforming.

First, giving a platform to those who we disagree with shows us better who these people are and sometimes who we are as well.  Open debate shows us where we stand.  I read this great article yesterday about how local newspapers have been deliberating about the free speech / platforming question for decades.  Their answer?  They believe it’s important to give dissenting voices a platform because they wish to reflect back to the communities who many among them really are.  This can be extended during the Trump era to the belief that Trump is in some sense merely reflecting back to us who we really are, at our worst, as a people.  I know many Americans would argue that Trump is not who we are — he is an opportunist, fanning the flames of racism and bigotry — and I do agree with that, but ultimately that he won election as the president shows that there is much of him already in many of us.

And here is what I truly believe:  the Trump era is purgative.  Following Obama, I think we all knew deep down that there would be a reaction;  I was certainly surprised that Americans would flock to such an extreme, but I do believe that careful historians were hardly surprised that the dark forces of racism would respond to the Obama years with something like we have now.  It has truly been an exposure of who we are as a people, the deep, dark soul of America, the underbelly of our lowest impulses suddenly writ large in garish, Atlantic City lettering across the night.

But I believe this exposure is having the effect of forcing all of us to talk openly about a lot of things that haven’t been talked about much nationally since the Civil Rights Era.  If you had a Romney or a Jed Bush, perhaps we would have skated along keeping things below the surface, but Trump in all his coarseness has put it all front and center and squarely in the mirror.  Time will tell how we respond to it, but ultimately I think it will be deeply productive for us, a way of reckoning with our past.

Let us hope.