We find ourselves living in an age where free speech is considered by many as a concept that only right-wingers care about. “You think free speech is important?” I’m asked. When I respond, “Yes,” eyebrows are raised, shoulders tilt away, and through the forehead of my interlocutors I envision some panicked calculations in their minds: Is he a bigot or a Dinesh D’Souza 2.0? Maybe he’s not hateful or right-wing, he just doesn’t know how it’s used to disempower minorities. And then I’m left thinking: How did it come to be that free speech is seen in the mainstream as only a concept conservatives, demagogues, and right-wingers champion — and one no sane liberal or even left-leaning person could defend?
To answer this question I’m going to theorize about something I’m calling moral contamination. Specifically, how it pertains to concepts and ideas which an ideological community might hold. An ideological community is just a group of people, from two to millions, who hold loosely the same values. Supporters of political parties are a good example of this. And so are the advocates of particular candidates or philosophies such as Socialists, Reaganites, Marxists, et cetera — you get the idea.
I lay no claim to the originality of this concept (of moral contamination). I’m also sure someone has hashed these ideas out, probably in studies and journals, in far more detail than I am about to do now. But nevertheless I believe they serve as a framework for understanding how free speech has come to be viewed as a right-wing issue.
Now let me explain. A moral contamination occurs when a differing group, tribe, or competitor co-opts and glorifies a concept or idea that was relatively neutral before its glorification (as a note, this glorification needn’t be due to malevolent intentions). This is different from a social taboo because the idea or concept, in recent history, has had a relatively neutral standing in the discourses of competing communities.
An example of this phenomenon in play is with the idea of due process and sexual assault on college campuses. Due process has always been a relatively neutral concept; it is something individuals from both sides of the aisle agreed a person has a right to. Until now. Since Betsy Devos and the Trump administration have decided to roll back some Title IX overreach — here I can also theorize that Devos and the Trump administration were the contaminants — due process has suffered a moral contamination in the eyes of the mainstream-left. Various hot takes from seemingly sensible personalities now assert absurdities with themes similar to: “Due process is just a conservative talking point,” or “Focusing on due process only empowers rape apologists.”
This is how a moral contamination occurs: Agents (Devos and the Trump administration in this case), usually those despised by an ideological community (the mainstream-left in this case) put their weight behind fighting for a cause or idea. The competing community, witnessing this, instead of assessing if there is any truth or merit in their oppositions’ actions, creates villainous motives for their competitors and any cause or concept they may be championing.
In this essay, I argue that the concept of free speech is now subject to a similar contamination through an analogous process. To further assess this phenomenon, I look at how certain groups are valorizing and thus contaminating the concept of free speech for the broader populace, why the resulting contamination is dangerous for minority groups and liberalism, and how the far-left/academic-left is contributing to this process with its own — separate — ideological justifications for rebuffing ideas related to free speech. Finally, I offer some potential solutions to this growing contamination.
That free speech is considered a right-wing issue is mostly because it seems only the right is most vociferous in its defense. Tucker Carlson on FOX is worshipped as a free speech defender. Websites like Daily Caller, Campus Reform, Daily Wire and so on make it a habit to highlight every mis-step or mistake that professors and universities commit. Of course, some or even most of the cases they illuminate are legitimate but that is not why I bring this to the fore. I do so to point out that in the media sphere, it would be very easy for a viewer to see “FREE SPEECH” emblazoned across a FOX News banner whilst flicking through and assume that it is only ideologically right-wing communities who valorize it. It would be very easy for a reader to note that only their conservative acquaintances are sharing articles and videos about free speech. It would be very easy for a news consumer to see that only right-wing groups organize and champion free speech — from university campuses all the way to political rallies. By these mechanisms, the contamination of free speech is occurring.
Here I want to offer a caveat for conservative readers: I don’t mean to target those to the right of the aisle by claiming that they are butchering discourse by their defense of free speech. I only wish to make the observation that to a large subset of the Ameri-centric population, it appears the concept of free expression is only guarded by those on the right of the political aisle. And with tribalism being what it is, free speech thus comes to be seen as a problematic idea by the mainstream-left.
Beyond the everyday and even sensible right-wing sources which promote the concept of free speech, there are those which are more ideologically extreme: the InfoWars crew of Alex Jones et al. promote it; conspiracy theorists and the alt-right often salivate over it as an excuse to say and do the most outlandish things; and websites like Gab — though not intended with the view of catering to the alt-right and extremists — are havens for it. Events like “The Triggering” which encompassed the posting of deliberately offensive material to “protect freedom of speech” also add to this phenomenon. That Milo Yiannopoulos organized a “Free Speech Week” at the University of California, Berkeley where various right-wing personalities were slated to appear, and wrote “It’s time to reclaim free speech at UC Berkeley and send shockwaves through the American education system to every other college under liberal tyranny” doesn’t help either.
All of this, to the lay-viewer or individual who interacts with media goes towards building the image that free speech is something that only “crazy right-wingers,” conservatives, populists, and “alt-right racists” care about. More partisan left-leaning commentators often use the term “freeze peach” to rebuke those who mention free speech and are even more polarized in their rebuttals. A poll by Pew Research in 2015 also found that 40% of Millennials were fine with limiting speech that was offensive to minorities. This 40% is compared to 27% of Gen-Xers and 24% of Boomers, and roughly 1 in 10 Silents. I’m going to omit the results from the much mentioned Brookings Institute poll on campus free speech attitudes because it does not hold up methodologically. It was conducted in an opt-in online format, and only had a sample size of 1500 students. Polling experts have even called it “junk science.” This does not, of course, mean that there is not an issue with the politicization of free speech or censorship on campus but it is no good using faulty data to further a position.
But I needn’t use the questionable results of that poll to highlight that the concept of free speech has become infected. Assessing the larger media landscape in the last few years — where right-wing sources battle for free expression and left-wing sources concoct elaborate appeals against it — will do just as well. Free speech has been morally contaminated to the mainstream and now to the broader younger populace. The view is that only extremists care about unfettered free expression. Even, perhaps, to moderates of all political leanings it seems that free speech is the purview of racists, bigots, and generally dubious figures and organizations.
This is a distressing development because free speech has historically been a friend of the oppressed.
In 1957, a man named Franklin Edward Kameny was fired from his job as an astronomer in the United States Army’s Map Service because of his sexual orientation. Frank Kameny, who completed his PhD in astronomy at Harvard and served in the military, was gay. After several unsuccessful appeals through the judicial system against his termination, and a turned down petition from the United States Supreme Court, Kameny decided to dedicate his life to gay rights activism. In 1965 he lead the first protest for gay rights in front of the White House. A long career of activism followed with one cumulation of his and his colleagues effort being the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders issued by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973. He was also instrumental in lobbying the federal government to remove its ban on gays in the civil service, which it did in 1975.
Though most people in Kameny’s situation — fired for their homosexuality — might have slunk away, Frank Kameny fought back. What made this possible? Certainly a gritty personality and a relentless persistence in the face of failure, but more so a set of laws and legal norms which allowed him to voice his displeasure publicly and combat negative attitudes towards homosexuals.
Writer Jonathan Rauch covers Frank Kameny’s story in an afterword to his book, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought and lays out the case, one which is often brought up by conscientious objectors, for what he calls a “humanitarian challenge” to free speech. The sentiment of which is: “This system of debating which ideas are best and trying to figure out who is correct (which Rauch calls “liberal science”) often allows people to get hurt through criticism. It is often used by all sorts of people to criticize and malign unfairly. Why should we allow racist rhetoric, or homophobic, transphobic rhetoric when it creates a hostile environment for minorities and marginalizes them? Can’t hate speech laws make it safer for minorities, then?”
The rebuttal is offered via Rauch by using Frank Kameny as an example. The reason Kameny was successful in his life-long campaign was precisely due to his willingness to challenge stale orthodoxies, such as the supposed degeneracy of homosexuals. Rauch comments that the impetus for individuals hating another group is not necessarily an intrinsic desire to harm them, but rather ideas which are incorrect and, when pressed, don’t stand up to scrutiny. What other way to implement those changes than to speak out against them? By using the methodology of “liberal science” Rauch lays out, minorities of all types can change, contest, and rebut opinions. But only as long as they are allowed to.
An objection here is that this is a teary-eyed, naive view. Instead of having minorities combat grating ideas with speech and activism, isn’t it better to ban them with hate speech laws or codes that dictate what can be dictated? This way free speech cannot be used as a guise to convey “harmful” sentiments against minorities and women. These types of arguments are often buttressed by theories from the academy, a point which I’ll address soon.
But here Rauch also points out what those seeking to implement hate speech laws miss: that these laws are often used by the majority to designate what is permissible. What is easier to imagine towards the beginning of the 20th century and through its procession? Hate speech laws which protected the homosexual community? Or hate speech laws which prohibited homosexuals from speaking because it was thought they would spread their supposed degeneracy and “gay sickness” to children and the populace?
Adding to this point, consider the opinion of Erwin Chemerinsky, a first amendment scholar at UC Berkeley, who rebuffs the idea of hate speech laws by referencing the results of speech codes which were implemented by The University of Michigan in the late 80s:
“There wasn’t a single instance of a white student being punished for racist speech, even though that was what had prompted the drafting of the Michigan speech code in the first place. That’s part of a much bigger historical pattern: As we saw in Michigan, when hate speech codes or laws are adopted, they are most often directed at the very groups they are meant to protect.”
And also, most importantly:
“It is hard to imagine social progress anywhere that wasn’t dependent on freedom of speech. The civil rights protests of the 1960s — the lunch counter sit-ins, the marches and demonstrations — were essential to federal civil rights acts and the end of Jim Crow laws that segregated every aspect of the South. The anti-Vietnam War protests were crucial for the end of that war. This has been true throughout American history. The 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote was the product of demonstrations and speech.”
From Fredrick Douglass’ writings on abolition, to anarchist Emma Goldman’s late 19th century fight for free expression, to Olympe de Gouges‘ pamphlets ( Gouges was the drafter of the “Declaration on the Rights of Women” who was eventually guillotined for her writings), free speech has always been used by the minority to voice opinions with hopes for safety from repercussion. That it is viewed today as something only white supremacists and the alt-right cares about is especially disturbing given its history.
The manifestation of the concept of free speech in America and Europe is also a rare phenomenon. Historically and even today, a lack of free speech has served — and serves — as the basis for continuing oppression and marginalization of disenfranchised groups. Across the world, religious minorities and minority groups are persecuted through ideas such as blasphemy laws. Cases such as Raif Badawi, the atheist blogger who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes by the Saudi Government for his writing, and Asia Bibi, a woman accused of desecrating the Koran, are only the most visible instances. From countries such as Myanmar, India, Nigeria, Pakistan to Iran, blasphemy laws or their equivalent are used by the state and majority communities to unfairly punish and malign minorities. What are blasphemy laws but versions of hate speech — where the government decrees what is hurtful or harmful?
Through this all a strange contrast has developed. Self proclaimed liberals in the Western world claim to want to temper the obsession with free speech in the West to protect minorities while minorities outside of this sphere beg for its existence. Asking for laws handing power to the state or institutions and trusting them to not quash dissenting views is optimistic bordering on imbecilic, but it is a view often advocated by those attempting to unburden minorities. But if history serves as any guide, it shows that this is not a viable option.
This does not mean that free speech being considered a right-wing concept is solely the result of this moral contamination. In other words, the extreme-right’s valorization of the idea is not the only engine powering why many think free speech is the domain of demagogues and populists. To posit that would be to neglect the breadth of “scholarship” in fields such as critical race theory, intersectionality, and post-colonial and ethnic studies that broadly claim that free speech has negative consequences for unjustly marginalized minorities. Many have argued that these views are being spread to the masses through university systems and “leftist media.” I don’t doubt parts of that thesis, I have even written in support of those parts. But I believe the glorification of free speech by extremists plays just as big or an even bigger part than academic theories in contaminating the concept. This is especially the case when it comes to those who matter most: Individuals who haven’t yet been swindled into intersectional and theory laced hypotheses that free speech is used to oppress.
I don’t intend to lay out all the arguments from these fields in-depth, but there is a spine which runs through them which is: Discourses construct social reality and can create harmful environments. Thus censorship is justified when the effects of speech denigrate marginalized communities. Here is my favorite comment on this type of thinking provided by American attorney Ken White (known as Popehat):
“There are many very stupid ideas about free speech in academia. Perhaps the stupidest is this: free speech is a legal norm used to protect the powerful at the expense of the powerless, but exceptions to free speech will benefit the powerless. Nobody with a passing knowledge of the history of free speech takes this seriously.”
Stupid ideas they are. But ones that have gained some traction nonetheless. Of note is that Ken White wrote those words in response to the firings of heavily left-leaning professors after their appearances on television networks where they said some, admittedly, off-center things. Four questions here for those who believe in hate speech laws and limits on speech: 1) Wouldn’t it have been better if we’d encouraged norms that would have protected the professors from the repercussions of voicing their opinions? 2) Do you think your government or legislature will always be in control of delineating who can say what? 3) What happens when your opposition rises to power and your side suddenly finds the limits of its expressions curtailed through “hate speech” laws you promoted? 4) Isn’t it better to just say no one can limit expression? (With some supremely strict restrictions such as libel, and calls to violence).
Denigrating free speech, then, is an especially disturbing view from progressives or those concerned with the feelings of marginalized groups because their position assumes that they will always be the ones in control of who can say what and when to whom. But what happens when that power is shifted to agents who are more malicious to their causes? Humanity is replete with examples of the moral majority designating what is allowed and what isn’t acceptable.
Steven Pinker, the famed cognitive scientist and linguist, when speaking about academics who show an intolerance towards differing ideas calls this view the “Left Pole: the mythical spot from which all directions are right [politically]. Any opinion that does not conform to this orthodoxy is branded right-wing.” Pinker notes before providing the previous definition, “it is a disappointing and sad commentary that free speech has gotten the brand of being a right-wing issue.” He concludes with: “It is to our shame as academic scholars and professors that free speech should itself be politicized when it should be prior to any political discussion.”
An important distinction is this: it is not as if all college professors and fields of study are banding together to rebuke free expression. There are specific operators. Last academic year, Phil Magness, a historian at George Mason University compiled analyses of campus disinvitation letters and found that it was MLA and English departments which overwhelmingly supported the idea of impinging on the academic freedom of students and colleagues. These departments are also usually a hive of intersectional thinking and where you might find Michel Foucault obsessed academics who view everything as an exchange in “power.”
So it is obviously clear that a large drive to view free speech as oppressive is coming from certain parts of the professoriate — isolated to the humanities. The challenge, then, is on two fronts. One is the contamination of the concept of free speech due to its hijacking from dubious figures and organizations, and the other is through some academics enthralled by their theories, believing that free speech is the cudgel of oppression.
What to do, then, for liberals, lefties, conservatives, righties and people of all political stripes who see the value of defending free speech? There are two prongs to consider: the moral contamination effect from the far-right and the resulting coverage, and the push from certain parts of academia and their related sources.
A simple start then might be to wrestle back the concept of free speech from the extremists who use it as a guise to act as shock-jocks, entertainers, and bigots. Stealing it back and disinfecting it will be difficult, no doubt. We might even risk becoming “infected” to the interlocutors whose minds we wish to change. But it is a worthy endeavor. We can take back free speech by speaking out; whenever someone mumbles or mentions free speech as “something only bigots” care about, you and me can offer a rebuttal, address their concerns, and provide historical contexts and examples. For this, we are sure to catch some flak, snark, and snickerings for being “free speech warriors” or overtly concerned with “freeze peach.” But if you’ve read this far you might think it’s important. History is filled with examples of what happens when the majority dictates what is acceptable.
Prominent liberals can and already are speaking out in favor of the concept. Coverage through media channels which highlight why individuals regardless of political affiliation are wishing to defend free expression can operate to impact who the Ameri-centric population connects with the concept. The goal here is to amplify that message and prove to the general populace that free speech is a concept worth defending regardless of political affiliation. These might be naive aspirations; I understand convincing someone who believes that words are the equivalence of violence is a daunting (though humorous if you approach it well enough) task. But if we don’t step into the ring, we risk losing by default, so to say. We can decontaminate the concept of free speech by showing that sensible groups and ideological communities value it.
Additionally, I’m loathe to say that a centrist approach to this problem is the solution. Mainly because that term “centrist” usually has some terrible connotations to it, specifically for the people whose minds we wish to change. However, this has to be a concerted effort from not just one political community. It has to be a bi-partisan push.
If it only seems that the center-right is defending free speech, I doubt the concept can be disinfected. The more balanced individuals we can recruit to enforce strong civic norms of protecting even your opponents right to speech, the better. This is the largest hurdle to an escalating problem. Censorious hordes on campus and beyond have dealt their fair share of defeats to free speech as have politically correct versions of conservative thought which cannot abide criticism of flag or country. See for example the adverse reaction caused amongst “patriots” by Americans (the athletes) applying their right to protest by kneeling during the national anthem. Donald Trump — backed by his braindead army of lemmings — has called for their firing or suspension because of this. Clearly, neither side can claim the title of angel in this regard.
While the hijacking of the concept of free speech by extremists (and its subsequent moral contamination) is a worry, there is also the push from the academy that must be contended with. This problem is much more perplexing as it has a plethora of “scholarship” — and ethos: actual professors! — backing its conclusions.
I don’t have the gall to swipe away entire fields of study but I will note that fields have always fought over who is the ultimate authority on what. Questions of science and who owns human nature have been and are issues of contention. Similarly, the question of free speech is now in contention. And in this case no one set of fields, however vociferous and vicious, can be allowed to dominate the discourse. As Jonathan Haidt, founder of Heterodox Academy, has noted, it is a smaller and sufficiently motivated collection of areas of study, beginning with the humanities and sliding into some of the social sciences, which are most vocal in pushing politically correct norms and against free expression. And we must combat these norms and ideas. The challenge then on university campuses becomes doubly important — especially because students are being tipped towards believing free speech operates to buttress the powerful’s positions and doom the oppressed. It is a view that must be challenged.
Yet there is a pushback which is mounting. Media initiatives such as the planned Unsafe Space 2017–18 tour which features figures such as Steven Pinker, Laura Kipnis, Brett Weinstein, Jonathan Haidt, Jonathan Rauch, Sarah Haider, and Mark Lilla are important milestones in wrangling back liberal ideas and the concept of free speech as a value everyone can and should defend. If college students and the wider public see that it is not only extremists and provocateurs who are intent on defending free expression but reasonable and respected intellectuals, surely this can only do good. Inevitably, some will inveigh that these speakers are “right-wing bigots” intent on creating hostile environments for women and people of color. But ideas such as the tour can go a long ways to show that it is not only extremists who defend free expression.
The aforementioned proposals — those of challenging views, rationalizing free speech due to its historical importance, media initiatives to change minds, and a bi-partisan coalition — are by no means high-brow contemplations. But they do present a potential start to combatting the moral contamination of the concept of free speech.
If you had asked me the question: “Is it ok to limit speech which is harmful to minorities” when I was 20, I would have probably answered in many of the same ways as the students on the polls which are referenced to exhibit the growing dysfunction in higher education. That is, I would have said, “Yes.” But a half a decade later, I think differently — and do so now mostly because of what I have learnt. Might this not be an area to explore; that this is a time where we can reinforce and encourage the respect of strong civic norms? As Jonathan Rauch has pointed out, it usually speaks good things about those who want to limit speech because they wish not to ostracize minorities. Unfortunately, emphasizing care and kindness do not a good policy make.
We live in a time where the concept of free speech has suffered a moral contamination because of who is most vocal in its defense and through ideas which are emerging through subsections of academia. Both these prongs must be countered. Free speech and the norms associated with it in their rare and nascent form are accomplishments we should not give up so easily. We need to take back the concept and disinfect it from this moral contamination.