Free speech suffocates when a requirement to parrot slogans constricts the free exchange of ideas and thoughts in the public square.
We must be aware of the insidious way in which slogans are weaponized. They are often used in an attempt to diminish the rights of hearer and speaker, and to stifle the critical inquiry necessary to keep the beacon of liberalism alight. A slogan is a cleverly crafted, pithy word or phrase, which evokes an emotional response in listener and reader. They are often so specious and anodyne sounding that anyone who objects to them can be portrayed as lacking compassion and empathy. Why would anyone oppose the phrases power to the people, black lives matter or no justice no peace? Reminding people to check their privilege seems reasonable, since every individual can find some way in which she is privileged. Let a thousand flowers bloom sounded like a wonderful slogan promoting free speech—until those who accepted the invitation were denounced and persecuted. Those who create slogans are deliberate in their machinations. Slogans are not the consequence of a search for meaning. Slogans are the intentional creations of those who seek power.
So, when one reads in the New York Times 1619 Project of the need to reframe American history, what does this mean? No reasonable person would dismiss black history. It is an integral part of American history: rich with a myriad of stories, both of tragedy and triumph. But the 1619 Project is a wonderful work of literature that creates, to quote John Gardner, “a vivid and continuous dream in the reader’s mind,” a dream of the horrors of America’s chequered past. But are we letting the horrors of the past distort our judgment in the present for political profit? The 1619 Project functions like a macroslogan. But is this all there is to American history? Is black American life only a living embodiment of past slavery?
Each individual black American has her own unique life story, experience, perspective and personality. Those who shout slogans about power, oppression and racism distort the reality of lived life on the ground. For them, blackness is oppression and nothing else matters.
Slogans leave us only able to talk about events using preapproved jargon. They lead to a misalignment between words and reality. A sloganeering writer with an ideological agenda seeks to use catchy lingo to manipulate the reader. Anyone who can only see the world via slogans and propaganda is complicit in narrowing our range of thought.
Slogans involve the overuse of words, leaving them drained of meaning. The words they contain lend themselves to different political and ideological definitions, depending upon the whim of the enforcer. None of these slogans are nuanced, complex or narrowly tailored so as to capture the richness of reality. The proponents of these slogans do not care much about the nuance and complexity of life. The idea is to bully others into using approved slogans as a way of understanding the world.
This bullying simply will not do. Not for anyone who cares about freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas.
Each individual should have the core freedom to choose the words through which she communicates and understands her place in the world. The world is complex; life is messy. There are over seven billion sentient souls on this planet, who see the world through their own individual eyes each and every day. How could one slogan describe reality for all of them? Everyone has the right to decide how to see the world.
Slogans seek to suffocate the individual’s ability to breathe freely. Can there be genuine free speech when slogans suffocate the airways of truth?
Slogans reward limited thought. And limited thought has never led to greater freedom and prosperity. Limited thought is the father of repression and the assassin of creativity. We should beware those who would impose the mental stranglehold of slogans.
One study suggests that the number of words children hear between birth and the age of three may make a difference to their lifetime academic success. While the validity of this tiny, underpowered study has been widely questioned, the principle seems not only reasonable but might also apply to a country. The more words that are exchanged in the public square, the richer that country’s intellectual development. It is far better to describe the world using 300,000 English words than 30 slogans. A country weighed down by a suffocating blanket of slogans will regress in its ability to think and reason, to comprehend the complexity of life and the truths in between.
Is there any upside to the widespread adoption of slogans?
For the conformist, there is much to be said for a set menu of acceptable words. Say privilege and white supremacy and one is in the club. The slogan card will be accepted at the faculty lounge and the diversity training session. Life is easier when experience can be boiled down to thirty slogan words.
For the resentful, this is a golden age. Resources and positions are there for the taking. Want that corner office? Describe a colleague as a racist and the colleague will be out the door—a way of securing advancement familiar to the denizens of the Soviet Union of yore and the faithful adherents to Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book.
For the lover of power and dominance, slogans on behalf of the powerless offer the garb of benevolence. The fruits of sloganeering can be multimillion dollar homes. The powerless remain powerless—but for many this has never been about the powerless, but about the power grab.
The widespread adoption of slogans rewards the inauthentic over the authentic, the ill-fitting word over the truthful word and the lust for dominance over the search for meaning.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s words should inspire us: “Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”
Words matter. Choose wisely.