Free Speech Crisis? Really???

Although I recently posted a blog about free speech a new line of thinking has crystallized my thoughts a little better on the subject.  There are numerous prominent intellectuals, like Sam Harris and Jonathan Haidt, who are expressing concerns about free speech.  This is a cause that many liberals are now concerned about.  To the point that they say it is fascism on the left chilling people’s free speech.  I am not fan of disinviting speakers who have views we disagree with, and I think it’s important to hear well researched and thought out points of view.  If we are unable to do that on a widespread basis, then I do agree we have a problem.  But are we are we really at that point and are we, at this current moment, experiencing a free speech crisis in countries like the U.S?  Is the PC crowd really destroying freedom of expression in our society?    Here is the view of one such person who disagreed with my assertion that I don’t think we have to worry about the first amendment being abolished.  Apparently I’ve missed the point:

perhaps through firings for ‘insensitivity’, public shaming based on accusations, grovelling apologies if offence is claimed, speakers being deplatformed and disinvited, ongoing vilification of those who break the ideological group taboo and dare to criticize a protected group, not being politically correct enough, daring to use facts and evidence contrary to an ideological assertion about victimhood and oppression, professional and personal sanctions for not being sensitive enough and so on, encountering a new ‘tree’ each and every time, so to speak, and not addressing the larger issue of the free speech principle. The sentiment raised by Swarn is wrong because this is in fact the rising danger… not because a totalitarian government is on the brink of being elected and canceling free speech by edict but because people by and large are self censoring now, not attending now, not supporting the right of those with whom we may disagree now, cancelling subscriptions now, showing up and disrupting events now, being dismissive free speech for those with whom we disagree now. It is already of such common practice that individuals are curtailing their right to free speech willingly and right now in response to the totalitarian ideology of those who champion social justice through GroupThink and PC, those who stand ready to vilify those blasphemers with the handy labels of bigotry, racism, sexism, ever-ready group smears to be liberally applied as alt Right, fake news, alternative facts, deplorables, and so on. We self censor because of this toxic atmosphere in which we live and the ubiquitous punishments implemented all around us when some people dare to defy it

Besides the fact that obviously any of the people who we are concerned about being “de-platformed” or abused on twitter, or have lost their job still have plenty of platforms to air their views, I’d like to approach the narrative from a different direction.  In a recent interview with Sam Harris, journalist Rebecca Traister addressed the following concern by Sam Harris of what he felt were innocuous comments by Matt Damon on Twitter about the #metoo movement.  She said that every day in this country people are fired from jobs with no explanation given.  It could be their race, their sexuality, their gender, it could be legitimate.  The point is, why do we only get concerned when powerful people seem to be unfairly treated given they really don’t lose much of their wealth or their status.  Matt Damon seems just fine despite getting yelled at on Twitter.  When she said this, it resonated with me because I had thought something very similar in regards to this response to my blog comment above with regards to all of us having to self-censor in this PC culture.  And I thought about  how often women have had to self-censor when they experience sexual harassment?  How often have black people had to self-censor when they experienced discrimination? For those who are the bottom end of societal hierarchies, life is a constant stream of self-censoring.

Now that social media has helped give many people a voice should we be surprised that many are using it say, “you know what, we just aren’t buying what you’re selling”?  Now it’s not to say that there aren’t overreactions, but I would argue that saying “being homosexual isn’t natural” is a far larger overreaction that persisted for quite some time in society.  In an episode of the Guilty Feminist host Deborah Frances-White said that whenever she hears that the #MeToo movement has gone too far she just thinks “yeah but the previous Women-Have-To-Put-Up-With-Any-Shit movement really had a good run.  That went long.  For millennia”.  She goes on to say, in regards to the #MeToo movement, maybe all this PC culture is doing is giving all of us an opportunity (or at least should be) to increase our public empathy.  We are at the very least thinking about the fact that what we do and say could be hurtful to other people, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

You may think that I am making a two wrongs make it right sort of argument, and I guess in a way I am, but let me clarify.  It’s interesting to me how when power structures are questioned the reaction is always far more knee-jerk.  And why does it largely seemed to be white males concerned about this? I mean has anybody who is worried about threats to free speech even presented data that this is an increasing problem, that there are more concerns today than ever before?  When you approach the narrative from the other side, at the lower end of the hierarchy, the fact that more secular people are free to express doubts about religion, more black people are allowed to express their equality to whites, more homosexuals are able to be openly gay, more women are allowed to be in jobs previously only held by men…I’d say that things are actually far more open.  Again is it possible that the pendulum might swing too far in the other direction at times? Sure. But to say that we are in some sort of free speech crisis, I think, is a ludicrous claim.  Even Jonathan Haidt who was the first to take note of this issue of de-platforming speakers on campus has done a lot of nice work in really trying to understand what’s going on here and by no means think that college students are more against free speech today than in the past.  In an article by Jeffrey Adam Sachs in the Washington Post, he argues:

“In fact, our speech is often much more restricted off campus than on. Consider the workplace, where most non-students spend the bulk of their time when not at home. Once you’re on the job, most First Amendment rights disappear. The things you say, the clothing you wear, even the bumper stickers on the car you parked in the company lot — all can be restricted by private-sector employers. Perhaps the reason campus free speech controversies can sound so strange is because few of us are aware of how much we are already shielded from hateful or offensive speech.”

Just because I don’t think we are in a free speech crisis doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with silencing people who have disagreeable views.  I think that we have to always be careful to think whether our actions will enhance or diminish the number of people who hold such views.  Not engaging with people we disagree with can run counter to our goals towards social justice.  That doesn’t mean we should be publicly debating a racist every week either.  Just like I don’t think I need to invite a ‘Flat Earther’ to my class to hash it out in a physics debate, I think a white supremacist is just as fundamentally wrong about the nature of humanity as a ‘Flat Earther’ is about the nature of the universe and I think it’s okay to be somewhat dismissive to such views.  But perhaps punching them isn’t exactly the most helpful thing to do either.   They are all still human, and just like the ‘Flat Earther’ somehow they’ve become misguided and it’s possible to both oppose their views with strength and recognize their humanity.  As writer and journalist Johann Hari said in an interview:

 “It is right to challenge racism, but it has to be challenged in an intelligent way that doesn’t produce more racism, and that’s a fine balance. And I understand why a lot of people say, why should I have to pussyfoot around this?”

And one of my favorite moments in listening to Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast was in interview with Fareed Zakaria, when Harris was going on about the dangers of Islamic ideology, Fareed coolly said, “Yeah, you’re right, but you’re not helping.”

And I think those few words are extremely important to remember.  We need to better at the helping part than being right.  I think it’s possible to do both, but it’s not always the easiest way.  This is a topic perhaps for another post, but let’s not send people into alarmist mindsets about crises of free speech, when so many other problems are still widespread and harmful in the western world.  Let’s try to understand what’s underlying people’s fears and worries and see what we can do to help.  Let’s try to keep some perspective here.  The privilege of the powerful is still far greater than those in the society who have no voice.

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