In the festival of non-sequiturs that was the reaction to the Harper’s letter, two equally specious rebuttals rose to the fore: the first, that freedom of expression has become a kind of prop, used by elites with platforms to impose their opinions on others; the second, that holding people accountable for those opinions is not tantamount to censorship. Both points were synthesized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when she tweeted:
The term “cancel culture” comes from entitlement – as though the person complaining has the right to a large, captive audience,& one is a victim if people choose to tune them out.
Odds are you’re not actually cancelled, you’re just being challenged, held accountable, or unliked.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 10, 2020
This was echoed by Hannah Giorgis in The Atlantic: “In recent years, defenses of ‘free speech’ have often been wielded by people in positions of power in response to critics who want to hold them accountable for the real-life harm their words might cause.” And by Zack Beauchamp in Vox: “Abstract appeals to ‘free speech’ and ‘liberal values’ obscure the fact that what’s being debated is not anyone’s right to speech, but rather their right to air that speech in specific platforms like the New York Times without fear of social backlash.”
This is a bit like objecting to the microphone rather than the speaker: it changes the first principle, taking the emphasis off speech and placing it on its amplitude. It should alarm us all that the words free speech so often float in scare quotes now. Still more alarming is the frequency of the phrase held accountable, which fails a clear definition and carries the dry menace of euphemism and bureaucracy.
The argument foregrounded by the Harper’s letter is not about platforms, or about whether journalists can handle criticism, but about the current posture that many have taken towards the notion of tolerance and what is considered tolerable speech.
Tolerance is the load-bearing pillar of free expression, and thus it has to pass a stress test if it is going to count for anything. It requires acceptance of opinions—at any volume—that may be odious, offensive, disagreeable, discredited or simply wrong. The burden to uphold tolerance, therefore, is less on the speaker than on the listener. And the moment you waive this responsibility, you make yourself a hostage to fortune and your own ignorance.
This forms the foundation of a classically liberal view of tolerance, first sketched by John Milton in his magnificent pamphlet against censorship, Areopagitica (from which this magazine takes its name), and then by Thomas Paine in his dedication to The Age of Reason. The argument was symphonized by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty:
But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, [people] are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, [people] lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
“Collision with error” is the process by which societies achieve negotiated truths. Underlying it is the assumption that no group may have a monopoly on capital-T Truth. The founders of the United States knew, for instance, that in order to maintain civility and peaceful disagreement in a diverse and religiously pluralistic society, religion had to be demoted from the realm of Truth to the province of opinion, and the first amendment, with its non-endorsement clause, establishes exactly this. The founders also understood that, in this new arena, the value of tolerance would be dictated not by rival claims to knowledge, but by moral passions. The current debate about free expression—of which the reaction to the Harper’s letter represents a new nadir—is a drama of such passions, and it has revealed how little a certain wing of people, who nonetheless identify as liberals, value the collision with error.
In an attempt to use Mill’s own argument against him, critics often cite the frequently misunderstood harm principle. This principle, which states that liberty should be restricted only to the extent that it prevents one person from causing harm to another (e.g. the right to raise my fist stops just short of your face) does not unambiguously apply to speech, and nowhere in On Liberty does Mill articulate which kinds of speech would fall under this category, if any.
The idea that speech can cause or lead to harm is the basis of constraints on freedom of expression in many democratic societies. Hate speech laws, which exist in over thirty countries, are based on the notion that speech could incite violence in potentia. In the United States, legal concepts like fighting words and clear and present danger both recognize this and give it even greater urgency.
Those who are fond of saying, if you think you’re a free speech absolutist, you’re not, often cite the above examples as widely accepted restrictions. I am opposed to all such laws, since I believe that civility is an aspect of human solidarity and incivility cannot be legislated out of existence. Major newspapers don’t print racial epithets in their pages not because they would sincerely like to, but fear legal action––but because they have no desire to do so in the first place.
It’s also often said that there is nothing new about the current debate over free speech. The corollary is that the reasons for it are not new either. Since the execution of Socrates, attempts to censor speech have always been variations on blasphemy and its supposed harms. The language may change, but the ethos remains the same. Terms like deplatform now stand in for excommunicate, hold accountable for pronounce anathema, and problematic for heretical. The restriction on inquiry furnished by this new vocabulary does the greatest harm not to the heretic—or even to those whom the heretic offends—but, as Mill points out, to those “whose whole mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy.”
In an internal letter to Vox’s editors––which was then posted on Twitter––Emily VanDerWerff wrote that the inclusion of Matthew Yglesias’ name on the Harper’s letter, alongside J. K. Rowling and other “anti-trans” voices, made her feel “less safe” at work––a feeling that Zack Beauchamp describes as “a sort of ‘harm’” of the type that could very well qualify under Mill’s principle.
This tacitly opens up a new frontier, wherein speech itself is considered a kind of violence. In his book The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt talks about how speech is now deemed harmful because it can violate people’s sensibilities, or invalidate their experiences, thus necessitating trigger warnings and safe spaces. In turn, social justice advocates make the argument that they are not attempting to narrow the discourse, but open it to those who have been excluded. But the inclusion of new voices ought to reinforce the principle of tolerance, not weaken it, since the collision with error is valuable precisely because of the plurality of opinion. Instead, this new openness becomes the pretext for certain conversations remaining closed, as new participants make it clear that there are things that will not be discussed.
Mill was less concerned with threats posed to free expression by an unchecked monarchy and more with whatever pressures might remain in a democratic republic, and On Liberty addresses exactly this. Threats to free speech vary depending on the type of society. In a dictatorship, the chief threat to speech is the state. In a democratic society, it is other people, also known as public opinion—a concept that Alexis de Tocqueville rightly regarded as insidious.
Both Mill and de Tocqueville agreed that the tyranny of opinion and of feeling were potentially even more dangerous than that of a censorious state because they enslave the soul, whereas a brutal sovereign can only command obedience. The leader might order you to kneel, but only the collective weight of a society’s conscience can convince you that kneeling is the right thing to do. Not even the most ferrous regimes can hope to so effectively eliminate dissent––and even the urge toward it. The power to convince someone that belonging to a consensus is virtuous is multiplied exponentially in democracies, which “immaterialize despotism” (in de Tocqueville’s phrase). A circle of acceptable opinion is drawn around the discourse, and woe betide the person who dares stray beyond it. De Tocqueville writes:
It isn’t that he has to fear an auto-da-fe, ́but he is exposed to all types of distasteful things and to everyday persecutions … Everything is denied him … those who censure him speak openly, and those who think as he does, without having his courage, keep quiet and distance themselves. He gives in; finally, under the daily effort, he yields and returns to silence, as though he felt remorse for having told the truth.
When critics of the Harper’s letter wrote that the debate was not about free speech, but about where to draw the boundaries, how to temper the discussion or how to hold people accountable, this is what that looks like. Bari Weiss’s account of how she was treated by her colleagues at the New York Times fits this description to a tee. One doesn’t have to be censored, one can simply be made a pariah, and suffer the shame of thinking differently in a society where the collision with error has been exchanged for the safety of the pack.
The concept of harm can be reconstituted to include hurt feelings. We’ve witnessed how institutions will bend––to the point of abandoning first principles––to placate the hurt. And we’ve seen how both these frailties can be harnessed en masse to vindictive ends. What we have then, in effect, is a soft mob, a group that can always appeal to vague feelings of unease to tighten the circle around what is considered acceptable speech.
How did we get here? Social media, with its critical mass of broadcastable anguish, bears much of the responsibility. It paradoxically democratizes speech, while eliminating the need for real-life contests, which promotes digital incivility. Maximizing the visibility of opinion has also maximized the potential for controversy. This has granted leverage to smaller groups, who have discovered that amplitude, not numbers, is what counts in this new space. What we are seeing now might represent the tyranny of a minority. The most vengeful members of Twitter’s odium theologicum are certainly a minority, but they exist within a much larger group (including the media that represents their outrage as harmonious) that is perfectly happy to let them act as the clean-up crew.
If working at the same company as someone who signed his name to a letter alongside someone else with whom you disagree makes you feel unsafe––which is a new kind of harm––then we are in deep trouble indeed. The bar can only go lower, and there will be no end to the lachrymal storms that will ensue. If we choose to follow this new standard, what is the acceptable level of hurt, and who is going to decide how hurt one needs to feel in order to justify holding someone accountable?
In this new world, sentiment, not reason, will be the regent. Appeals will be made to our fragility, rather than our strength; to the ease with which we can be offended, rather than our capacity to handle being offended. And then we will achieve something like the nightmare Mill and de Tocqueville hoped that enlightened democracies could avoid: a soggy consensus, the mass falsification of preference and a misty-eyed culture of endless ingratiation—and we will suffer the added indignity of having imposed it on ourselves.