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What the 2020 debate over free speech missed

Our fights over free speech have gotten more heated precisely because speech has never been freer.

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2020 was an especially rancorous year, and among the many things we fought about was the state of free speech in America. There’s a rising contingent of heterodox thinkers — on the left and right — who argue that a culture of censoriousness has enveloped intellectual life and curtailed free speech.

Back in July, there was the infamous “letter” published in Harper’s Magazine defending free speech, signed by a wide range of writers and intellectuals. Before that, there was a revolt at the New York Times after the opinion section published a piece by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) calling for the deployment of American soldiers to protest hot spots around the country. Columnist Bari Weiss quit the paper and posted a letter condemning what she called its increasingly “illiberal environment.” A few days after that, another prominent writer, Andrew Sullivan, launched The Weekly Dish to escape what he deemed were leftist orthodoxies in mainstream media.

More recently, Glenn Greenwald cut ties with the left-leaning outlet that he co-founded, The Intercept, claiming it has succumbed to “the same trends of repression, censorship and ideological homogeneity plaguing the national press.” And last month, Vox’s Matt Yglesias followed other writers (like Greenwald and Sullivan) in joining the independent digital platform Substack to, in his words, tell “everyone what’s on my mind to an even greater extent than I do now.”

None of these cases are exactly alike, and the claims of censoriousness aren’t equally valid. But they’re all part of a wave of “cancel culture” stories this year. And the common complaint, if there is one, is that public discourse is being stifled. As Greenwald lamented, “how imperiled, across all societal sectors, this indispensable value of free discourse has become.”

Greenwald’s critique of cancel culture is right and wrong at the same time. The boundaries of speech are being contested, on different fronts and for various reasons. But that has always been the case. What’s genuinely new about this moment is the number of voices in the discourse. We’re living in what is unquestionably the freest and most open information space in human history. So all of the challenges to speech are occurring alongside an explosion of ... speech.

Cancel culture, whatever you think of it, is a problem within free speech, not a problem of free speech. This is a paradox that stretches all the way back to the invention of democracy and rhetoric in Ancient Greece. The Greeks even created dueling conceptions of free speech — isegoria (the right of everyone to participate in public debate) and parrhesia (the right to speak without limits) to highlight the conflicts that emerge within open societies. It’s worth noting that the Athenians could never manage these tensions and that’s partly why their democracy had the same familiar fights over ostracism and tribalism. (Socrates was canceled by the mob!)

Our discourse is as free as it’s ever been and as democratic as it’s ever been. And that’s a challenge we’ve never truly navigated before — not on this scale. The turbulence we’re experiencing now, viewed from 30,000 feet, is the latest example of a society wrestling with a contradiction at the heart of every democratic culture: It can’t function without an open communication environment, but that environment, because of its openness, is vulnerable to all sorts of internal pressures that can undermine the system from within.

Demonstrators calling for an end of censorship by social media companies participate in a “Demand Free Speech” rally in Washington, DC.
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Protesters demonstrate against the appointment of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in front of New York Sen. Chuck Schumer’s home.
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We’re actually drowning in speech

Before the internet and social media, most people got their news from gatekeeping institutions like major newspapers and TV networks. These institutions functioned like referees, calling out lies, fact-checking claims, and generally deciding what’s worth arguing about. They had the ability to control the flow of information and set the terms of the conversation. The style of discourse that dominated during the gatekeeping age was liberal in spirit but also tightly circumscribed because of the insularity of the participants (mostly white, mostly upper and upper middle class).

The gatekeepers still exist, but they don’t have anything like the power they once had. Whereas public discourse used to be a controlled, curated conversation among the political class, it’s now a complete free-for-all.

The ecosystem looks very different. Digital technologies — social media in particular — have unleashed more voices and platforms and essentially removed any barriers to entry in the public conversation. And that means a broader range of voices and arguments and perspectives. It also means more misinformation, more contestation, more tumult.

The complaints of writers like Yascha Mounk, who launched the online magazine Persuasion earlier this year to counter illiberal excesses, are justified but also misleading. They’re justified because there are efforts to not only suppress speech but punish violations of emergent orthodoxies. At the same time, it’s also true that we’re drowning in a free speech culture that has fostered the very tribalistic discourse people like Mounk want to transcend.

The issue here isn’t whether we have free speech or not. It’s about what kind of free speech culture we want to preserve. It’s the same fight the Greeks had. Do we want isegoria or parrhesia? Does the right to free speech mean the right to say absolutely anything, regardless of the consequences? If I’m an absolutist about anything, it’s free speech, but even I would acknowledge there are boundaries. I suspect most of the anti-cancel culture folks feel the same way. But consensus will always be elusive and we’ll rarely agree about where to mark those boundaries.

As the public sphere opens up to more people, we should expect more collisions over the limits and meaning of tolerance. We should also expect a little anarchy. Plato hated democracy for exactly this reason. Free speech, he argued, degenerated into sophistry because public discourse, if it’s truly open, is never reliably rational or free of coercion. Plato’s response was to scrap democracy altogether. If we reject that (and most do), we still have to grapple with the fundamental problem.

There isn’t a satisfying solution at hand. Part of the issue is a media environment that foregrounds our worst impulses. Social media, to take the obvious example, is basically engineered for bullying and groupthink. Meanwhile, the competition for clicks and audiences is incredibly intense and all the incentives push in the direction of outrage and division.

But in a truly free society, everything is up for grabs. The left, at this moment, is exerting a lot of cultural power and forcing mainstream media institutions to bend to new and shifting ideological standards. Whether that is, ultimately, good for leftist political movements is a separate conversation. What’s clear is that the digital media environment doesn’t privilege the same voices and attitudes that prevailed in the pre-digital world. It’s too competitive and fragmented now. That’s a major shift in how we think and communicate and it’s producing massive conflict.

A Trump rally in Lansing, Michigan, brought people together to show their opposition to President-elect Biden winning the election.
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Pro-democracy demonstrators march in Washington, DC, on November 13.
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Free speech has always devoured itself

My main beef with anti-cancel crusaders is that they often don’t acknowledge that free speech only ensures a contest of persuasion. It doesn’t ensure that any particular style of discourse will prevail.

I keep returning to these Greek notions of isegoria and parrhesia because they underscore the tension between equality and liberty, between the right to speak and the license to offend. You might say that isegoria created the political environment of democracy, while parrhesia actualized it. Or to put that a little differently, the right to speak made democracy possible; the ability to speak freely made it worthwhile.

But philosophers like Socrates and Plato quickly realized that the right to say anything opened the door to all manners of subversion. And as every first-year philosophy undergrad knows, the right to say anything in Athens led to joint rituals of ostracism and tribalism. Indeed, Socrates was canceled by the same democratic forces that made his speech possible. He refused ostracism and chose death, but his plight is a reminder that free speech has always devoured itself.

We can’t have a free society without all the hazards that freedom implies. That’s the paradox. The gatekeeping age is over and that means liberalism is but one of many modes of discourse competing for dominance in a wide-open ecosystem. Thoughtful writers like The New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu and my Vox colleague Zack Beauchamp have argued that the “woke” debates we’re having now are, far from illiberal, happening squarely within the confines of liberalism that some of the excesses of the left are efforts to force liberalism to realize its own ambitions. I’m not convinced of that, but perhaps there’s some truth in it.

The hazards of openness extend beyond the cancel culture debates. The fight over speech, important as it is, seems small in comparison to a problem like misinformation about vaccines and elections and the collapse of trust in the institutions charged with informing the public. And the epistemic crisis, as my colleague Dave Roberts dubbed it, springs from the same wide-open information space that produced the free speech drama. It’s a manifestation of the same inescapable paradox.

What is true, and what’s always been true, is that the essential liberal democratic freedom — the freedom of expression — is occasionally a casualty of the very conditions that liberalism helps to establish in the first place. A system built on free speech isn’t self-securing — it can and always has undermined the conditions of its own existence.

The freedom to speak has historically been limited to elites and people with power. As more voices enter the public sphere, rhetorical boundaries will be pushed and erased. The terms of the debates will shift. The line between discomfort and censorship will blur. What was previously unthinkable or unsayable will become commonplace, and what was previously acceptable will be challenged and sometimes suppressed, almost always in defense of the culture that makes freedom practically possible.

Donald Trump supporters gather in front of the Indiana Statehouse protesting the election results in favor of President-elect Joe Biden.
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So whatever debates we’re having are because the gates to speech have been thrown wide open and the public conversation is less bounded. What comes next is an open question. But the road there will be disputed and shaped by more voices than ever before — and that’s what it means to live in a free society, for better or worse.

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