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Free speech…free expression generally…is under attack in America and throughout the Western world to a degree not seen in a long time. I think there are specific phenomena and (partially-overlapping) categories of people which are largely driving this attack, to wit:
The Thugs. As I pointed out in my post The United States of Weimar?, illegal actions against political opponents, ranging from theft of newspapers to direct assault and battery, have in recent decades become increasingly common on university campuses, and now are well on track to being normalized as aspects of American politics. Incidents of political thuggery are reported almost daily: just the other day, pro-Trump women at an upscale DC hotel were verbally attacked and apparently physically assaulted by members of a wedding party that was heavy on Democrat attendees; including, reportedly, some top officials from the DNC. A pro-free-speech film was reportedly interrupted by two men wearing masks. Interruption of movies they didn’t like was a tactic used by the Nazis prior to their obtaining official censorship powers. The film “All Quiet on the Western Front” was plagued by Nazi disruptions when released in Germany in 1930. And attempts to shut down dissident speakers on college campuses, such as this, have become so common as to now be almost the default expectation.
The Assassins. These individuals go beyond the level of violence practiced by the Thugs, and make credible death threats they attempt to carry out against those whose actions or believe they view as unacceptable. The majority of threats and attacks falling in this category have certainly been the doing of radical Muslims; however, some of the more extreme ‘environmentalist’ and ‘animal rights’ groups have also demonstrated Assassin tendencies. At present, however, it is those Assassins who are radical Muslims who have been most successful in inhibiting free expression. Four years in hiding for an American cartoonist. But see also Ecofascism: The Climate Debate Turns Violent, how long until this justification and practice of violence reaches the level of justifying and carrying out actual murders?
The Enclosure of the Speech Commons. Whereas the Internet and especially the blogosphere offered the prospect of political expression and discussion unfiltered by the traditional media, the primary social-media providers have taken various levels of controlling attitudes toward free speech; Twitter, in my opinion, is especially bad. Partly this is ideological; partly, it probably reflects their ideas about protecting their brands. Yes, there are plenty of ways to communicate online outside of the social media platforms, but their growth has been so rapid that a large proportion of the potential audience is not easily reached outside their domains. Note also that conversations that one would have been private friends talking at home, or over the telephone are now semi-public and sometimes made fully public. Plus, they become part of an individual’s Permanent Record, to use the phrase with which school officials once threatened students.
The Online Mobs. The concerns of the social media providers about providing online “safe spaces” does not seem to have in the least inhibited the formation of online mobs which can quickly make life unpleasant for their targeted individuals, and even destroy the careers of those individuals. Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan referred to the technology-enabled Global Village; unfortunately, it turns out that this virtual village, especially as mediated through the social media platforms, has some of the most toxic characteristics of the real, traditional village. See my post Freedom, the Village, and the Internet.
And the mobs do not limit themselves to attacks on the target individual: they frequently attack other individuals who fail to participate in the shunning of that target person. As an example:
A few weeks ago, shortly after I left my magazine gig, I had breakfast with a well-known Toronto man of letters. He told me his week had been rough, in part because it had been discovered that he was still connected on social media with a colleague who’d fallen into disfavour with Stupid Twitter-Land. “You know that we all can see that you are still friends with him,” read one of the emails my friend had received. “So. What are you going to do about that?”
“So I folded,” he told me with a sad, defeated air. “I know I’m supposed to stick to my principles. That’s what we tell ourselves. Free association and all that. It’s part of the romance of our profession. But I can’t afford to actually do that. These people control who gets jobs. I’m broke. So now I just go numb and say whatever they need me to say.”
Increasingly, it’s not just a matter of limiting what a person can say, it’s also a matter of edicting what they must say.
The Bureaucrats. Bureaucrats, especially in the universities but also increasingly in the private sector, are eager to provide the altars for the sacrifice of free speech, with Star Chamber proceedings and various forms of witch-burnings. Partly, this is due to personal cowardice of university administrators, in particular, have never given evidence of being a particularly courageous category of people, and part of it is due to actual repressive attitudes held by those bureaucrats. A professor joined the Trump administration–see her story of what happened after she returned to the campus. Local-government officials, also, have demonstrated hostility toward free expression by refusing to enforce laws properly and by demanding ridiculous ‘security fees’ (protection money) from politically-disfavored groups.
The Wimps. It seems that among the younger generations in America, there are a disproportionate number of people whose ‘self-esteem’ has been raised to such lofty but brittle levels that they cannot stand any challenge to their belief systems. Hence they are eager to sacrifice their own freedom of speech, as well as that of others, on the altar of ‘safety’ from disturbing words and thoughts. (But even among those who are ordinarily courageous people, the consequences of speaking out in many settings, especially academic settings but also some academic and other settings) can be so damaging that those who are not extraordinarily courageous tend to demur.)
This sort of fragility easily turns to violence. Increasingly, people whose beliefs are questioned claim that they feel “threatened” or “unsafe”. I imagine that their emotions are similar to those of an extremist Muslim faced with a denial of Muhammed as the Prophet, or perhaps a medieval Christian encountering an atheist.
The Regulatory State. The vast expansion of Federal regulatory activities and authority enables a wide range of adverse actions to be taken against individuals without the checks and balances of normal judicial proceedings. Witness, for example, the IRS persecution of conservative-leaning organizations (possibly extended to pro-Israel organizations as well). And the Bureaucrats in nominally-independent organizations are really often acting as agents and front men for the Regulatory State. (Consider the 2011 ‘Dear Colleague’ letter sent from the Department of Education to colleges and universities, regarding the handling of sexual assault allegations–which has had, the linked article argues, serious negative impact on free speech and due process.)
The Theoreticians. Various academics have developed the concept of ‘oppressive speech’ and have developed models that attempt to break down the distinction between speech and action. Since everyone agrees that actions must be regulated to some degree, this tends to pave the way for tightened regulation of speech. (I think the conflation of speech with action is particularly sellable to those who in their professional lives are Word People and/or Image People. To a farmer or a machinist or even an electrical engineer, the distinction between speech and action is pretty crisp. To a lawyer or an advertising person or to a professor (outside the hard sciences), maybe not so much. And the percentage of Word People and Image People in the overall population has grown greatly.
See also the attacks on the whole idea of free speech as crystallized in the First Amendment at this academic conference.
The Fragility Feminists. Actually, the word ‘Feminists’ should probably be in quotes, because the argument these people are making is in many ways the direct opposite of that made by the original feminists. There is a significant movement, again especially on college campuses, asserting that women are such fragile flowers that they must be endlessly protected from words that might upset them. See the controversy over the name of the athletic center at the Colorado School of Mines. Here I think we have the Bureaucrats and the Fragility Feminists making common cause, as they so often do. For another (and particularly bizarre) case, read about professor Laura Kipnis, whose essay decrying ‘sexual paranoia on campus’ resulted in a Title IX inquisition against her. In a particularly disturbing note, when Kipnis brought a ‘support person’ to her hearing, a Title IX complaint was filed against that person.
Any remark that has anything to do with sex may cause serious repercussions for the speaker…any remark that anyone could even interpret as having anything to do with sex may cause such repercussions. See what happened to this professor who made a joke in an elevator.
The Lords of Words and Images. Perhaps once upon a time, journalists and their employers were mainstays of free expression; if this is indeed true, it is true no longer. In addition to the often-blatant political bias, the media organizations have adopted the attitudes of a privileged, aristocratic caste, often apparently believing that “journalists” have more free-speech rights than ordinary people, and that any criticism of journalist amounts to an attack on free speech.
But many of them are sure eager to attack the free speech of others. See Journalists Against Free Speech, also How Journalists Became Fahrenheit-451 Style ‘Firemen’.
The Spies. Right after the 2016 election, Congressman Schumer warned Trump: “Let me tell you: You take on the intelligence community — they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.” To the extent this warning reflects reality, it would imply that the US has become an intelligence dictatorship, in the same sense that some countries are military dictatorships. We’re not there yet, by a long degree, but the movement has been in the wrong direction. And if intelligence agencies can get the President of the United States, or even think they have a real chance of doing so. What can they do to an ordinary citizen who says something they don’t like?
The Paymasters. The economic growth of China yields great influence in other countries, including the United States, and that influence is being used to manipulate and limit our domestic political conversations. See my post So, Really Want to Talk About Foreign Intervention?
More broadly, a globalized and “borderless” world tends to imply that speech restrictions in one country have an influence on speech in other countries. Why limit the audience for your movie or your computer game by saying something that will likely get you banned in Country X? See Coupling.
The Advertisers of the Apocalypse. The assertion that the cities will soon be underwater, that the world is burning, that we have only 12 years to solve the problem of “carbon pollution”…the climate-change story in its most extreme and strident form is being used in some quarters to argue for the suppression of dissenting voices. If climate change is the equivalent of war, why this obviously justifies the kind of interference with individual liberty that in a democratic country normally only occurs in a real war. Woodrow Wilson’s policy toward dissenters during the First World War seems to represent a model for what these people are advocating.
The Categorizers. There is today a great focus on the categorization of people into certain predefined slots, along the dimensions of race, gender, and sexual preference. If you are, say, a Black person or a woman who dissents from any aspect belief systems that you are supposed to hold, in the opinion of the progressives, then you will be denounced as a traitor to your own kind and it will be asserted that you are “not really Black” or “not really a woman.” If you think I’m exaggerating, see what a prominent “progressive” organizer said about Brigette Gabriel and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
It’s very important to note that every single one of the above 14 phenomena and categories of people is either closely associated with the Democratic Party or is covered for by the Democrats. Yes, there are some threats to free speech from the conservative side as well, but they are not nearly as powerful as those associated with the Democrats, nor are they growing and converging at the same alarming rate. These are not just trivial, fringe groups and factors; see Peter Robinson on The Existential Threat to Our Democracy.
As a reminder of what the Democratic Party has become, remember the filmmaker who was arrested in the wake of Benghazi…arrested, in essence, for blasphemy.
Free speech is overwhelmingly important: so long as speech is free, other problems are likely solvable. But when free speech is destroyed, the feedback loops of society are destroyed and all kinds of social phenomena will trend toward bad or disastrous levels. And the trends discussed tell us that the survival of a free-speech environment in America is by no means certain.
I do not want to come across as saying the situation is hopeless. American free speech has many protective factors: the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, a pro-free-speech tradition, the emergence of alternatives to media gatekeepers, and the federal structure of government. We also have the advantage that freedom-seeking people from other countries have tended to immigrate to this country and are doubtless still doing so, although this motivation for immigration has always been mixed with economic motives.
But the 2020 elections will be critical. Every increase in the power of the Democratic Party as currently constituted represents a reduction in the odds of preserving the United States as a truly free country, and this is true of state and local elections as well as national elections. A Democratic President combined with a Democratic Senate and a continuation of the Democratic House would not necessarily spell the end for free speech in America, but it would push the trends even more strongly in the wrong direction.
What are your thoughts on the state of free speech in America, the relevant trends, and what individuals can and should do in this connection?