from the freedom-from-consequences-is-not-free-speech dept
There’s a slightly bizarre Letter on Justice and Open Debate that Harper’s Magazine is publishing, signed by a long list of famous people (many of whom I respect, and plenty of whom I think are terribly entitled wannabe “controversial” intellectuals who are really just assholes). The framing of the letter is one I’ve heard quite a lot of late: concerns that there is some sort of “illiberal attack on free speech,” in which certain individuals and their ideas are no longer even allowed. It’s the more intellectual argument against so-called “cancel culture.” And, yes, there are examples of people being shut down for expressing their ideas, but it is much less common than people would have you believe. In many cases, what people are complaining about is not that their speech is being shut down, but that they are facing consequences for their speech being ridiculous.
There are few things more misunderstood than the distinction between speech and consequences. Indeed, all too frequently people argue that consequences from speech are attempts to stamp out free speech, and just as common is the idea that actual attempts to silence free speech (e.g., SLAPP defamation lawsuits) are just “consequences” of speech. Neither is accurate. Attempts to stop free speech are attempts to use state power (such as the courts) to stop people from being able to express themselves. But people saying your ideas are bad and venerable institutions shouldn’t amplify them is not an attack on free speech or open inquiry. It’s a recognition that not all ideas are equal, and not all ideas deserve the kind of escalation and promotion that some speakers wish they had.
This goes back to two recent discussions we’ve had here on Techdirt. First, a discussion about the differences between moderation, discretion, and censorship along with a followup on editorial discretion, and the debate over the NY Times publishing Tom Cotton’s op-ed about sending in the military in response to the possibility of violence at mostly-peaceful protests. There were a bunch of people who responded to criticism of the Times by claiming it was an attack on speech, which was utter nonsense. If the NY Times chooses not to publish something (as it does every damn day) that’s not censorship and it’s not shutting down debate of difficult ideas. It’s just editorial discretion. The fact that the NY Times eventually forced out the editor who made the bad decision to publish Cotton’s piece was not an attack on free speech but consequences for doing a bad job. That’s consequences for speech, and not censorship.
Back to the open letter at hand. It seems to confuse these concepts greatly. I agree that we should be vigilant and concerned about attacks on free speech, but almost nothing described in the letter is an actual attack on free speech.
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.
First off, hogwash. There are more places and ways to speak your mind than ever before, and the free exchange of information and ideas is more available and accessible to all sorts of voices than ever before in history. The idea that it’s “more constricted” has no basis in reality. There are so many different ways to get ideas out there today, and that has actually enabled tons of previously suppressed voices to speak out loudly and clearly — even if sometimes it’s to point out that the supposed wisdom of others is anything but. There is no real evidence of any “constriction.” There is evidence that many people are utilizing their newfound voices and ability to express themselves to show that the emperor has no clothes when it comes to some of the ideas presented by the old guard.
While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.
With so many famous and serious authors signing onto this letter, I have to call out the use of the word “censoriousness”. This word is commonly misused and misunderstood. It does not mean, as many assume, prone to censorship. That word is “censorial.” Censorious actually means hypercritical of others, not trying to force them into silence. Given the literary nature and stature of the signatories of this letter, I would assume that those who wrote this (1) know this and are actually using the word correctly, but know full well that (2) most readers will assume the other, mistaken, interpretation of the word.
As to the larger point of this sentence, it is still, itself, quite problematic. First off, “public shaming” and “ostracism” are literally examples of counterspeech and open debate. In other words, this sentence appears to be complaining about the very thing the authors claim to be supporting: counterspeech. Public shaming and ostracism are the consequences of speech that a group feels is ridiculous, problematic, dangerous or otherwise not worth spreading widely. That’s the opposite of being censorial. It is the opposite of shutting down speech. It is literally people speaking up to explain why those who hold odious views should be shamed for those views. It is a form of counterspeech and consequences from that counterspeech. On top of that it is an attempt to encourage bodies that host, promote, and elevate speech to think carefully about which speech deserves it.
That is quite different than actually censoring such speech and suggesting that no one should ever be allowed to say what they want anywhere. It is saying if you have dumb ideas, people may think you’re dumb, and may ask why others are elevating those dumb ideas. The protests are not to say you can’t speak, but rather to ask “why is this speech being held up as insightful or praiseworthy?”
It is only on the very final point of this sentence that I agree with the authors. It is, indeed, a problem when we try to dissolve complex policy issues “in a blinding moral certainty,” and yet… that also seems to be exactly what the authors of this very letter are doing. They are saying that it is morally unconscionable that some of them and their friends have been censured (not censored) for their non-serious ideas. And that is fundamentally a refusal to recognize the complexity of how speech, counterspeech, and consequences work with a “moral certainty” that their own august voices being shunned and shamed must be bad.
We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters.
Unless it includes public shaming or consequences for your in-group speech, apparently. Indeed, this is the most frustrating thing about this letter. It seeks to do to others exactly what it, itself is complaining about.
But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.
Yes, via counterspeech. And, again, the complaint is not that one is allowed to speak wacky ideas, but rather that those ideas are being hosted, elevated, or held up as special when they are in fact trash.
More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.
This is a complaint about consequences of speech, not speech. It is a complaint about how people react to the counterspeech the authors falsely claim to be so supportive of.
Then comes the list of examples — none linked, none with details.
Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.
With the possible exception of public schools (which have more restrictions as government entities), all of these appear to be about the actions of private organizations making decisions based on counterspeech, and presenting speakers with the consequences of speech that many have deemed (often for very good reasons, though not always) unworthy of praise, promotion or elevation.
Read that sentence again carefully. What the signatories here seem to be requesting is not more free speech. Nor is it more counterspeech (indeed, it’s an attack on counterspeech). They appear to be asking for freedom from consequences for their own speech. Please don’t publicly shame us or make our bosses rethink our employment for our speech, no matter how bad it is. That is not a pro-free speech stance. It is a anti-consequences stance, and it’s truly disappointing to see many of the signatories endorse this.
Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.
The first clause of this sentence is doing a lot of heavy lifting. The arguments matter. The arguments are the counterspeech. The arguments are the speech that the signatories of this letter seem so uncomfortable with. The arguments have been persuasive. That’s why these signatories are so upset. The counterspeech has been effective. It has resulted in consequences as institutions have recognized that maybe they shouldn’t be employing people with bad ideas, or promoting and elevating those ideas.
And, again, it is fundamentally ridiculous and ahistorical to argue that the boundaries of what can be said have narrowed. Honestly, you do not have to go back very far to find examples of topics of conversation that were fundamentally taboo and are now widespread and common. And many of those new ideas have resulted in massive, important social change: civil rights and civil liberties now exist in more meaningful forms than they ever did before because of people speaking out. The ability of LGBTQ+ people to marry whom they love coming just decades after it was literally illegal to do so is a result of more people being able to speak out. The ability of the Black Lives Matter movement to rally so many people in support of their cause and pull the curtains back on centuries of institutional, systemic racism is a result of more people being able to speak out.
The idea that there’s been some narrowing of ideas is nonsense. These people are getting criticized for their bad ideas and their response is to play victim and pretend that the space in which they can speak has narrowed. They’re full of shit.
We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
Oh, come on. Spare me the sob story. Go down the list of signatories. Many are incredibly famous, are regularly published in the top publications, and often appear on TV. They have no fear for their livelihoods. And trust me, whatever “contrarian” ideas they claim they’re not able to share are, in fact, still being shared widely. There are all sorts of ways in which they get to express their viewpoints, and they do. Getting criticized for those ideas is counterspeech — the the thing they claim to be supporting. They’re just playing the victim.
This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.
If the problem was a repressive government actually engaged in censorship, I would agree wholeheartedly. Yet, note that in their list of examples they do not provide a single one that involves a repressive government. Rather they only present examples of private entities making decisions (consequences) based on counterspeech. Counterspeech which these cowards pretend they support.
The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.
We agree. And yet, the only ones trying to silence anyone here are those in this letter, saying that public shaming is somehow beyond the pale. It’s almost as if they don’t really want “argument and persuasion” while pretending that’s exactly what they do want. If they believe that the public shaming (counterspeech) is bad, then they should go right ahead and use argument and persuasion to show why it’s actually bad, without claiming it’s an unfair attack on their speech. Inasmuch as this letter attempts to do so, it fails. They should recognize that if their arguments suck — as they often do — people nowadays are less afraid to call that out.
We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.
A meaningless, empty sentence.
As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.
Indeed. On this I agree. But if you look around, there are so many wonderful experiments and plenty of risk taking going on. More than ever before. That’s not the problem. The problem is this privileged bunch of elites are upset that people are now actually willing to call out their bad ideas as bad.
We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.
And that gives away the ballgame: “we want to present bad ideas without losing our readers or our jobs.” That’s just not how it works. These people have spent their lives protected in ivory towers, and are now facing real free speech from people who are outside of their privileged bubble, and are freaking the fuck out about it.
If we won?t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn?t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.
Sure, but stop pretending consequences and counterspeech are anti-speech. You’re not actually the brave truth tellers you want to be. You’re coming off as privileged elitists who are being challenged on ideas for the first time. The signatories are so quick to clutch pearls about people actually calling out bad ideas as bad, and saying that maybe institutions who have editorial discretion should be a bit more discretionary, that they seem to think facing consequences for speech is somehow anti-free speech. It’s not.
Filed Under: cancel culture, debate, discretion, free speech, justice, moderation, open debate, promotion