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The “free speech debate” isn’t really about free speech

The debate over “cancel culture” is about something real. But it’s not about free speech.

Andrew Sullivan, who recently left New York magazine, is a frequent critic of the modern left’s position on identity issues.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

For weeks now, the American intellectual elite has seemed to be engaged in a bitter war over free speech. I say “seems” because the conflict is not really about free speech — at least not when you take a closer look.

The most recent flashpoints in this conflict are two high-profile departures from big publications, Bari Weiss from the New York Times and Andrew Sullivan from New York magazine (owned by Vox Media). Both Weiss and Sullivan are frequent critics of the modern left’s position on identity issues; in their departure letters, they both describe their publications as in thrall to a rising tide of left-wing censorship sweeping the country’s media.

“A critical mass of the staff and management at New York magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me,” Sullivan wrote on Friday. “They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.”

Sullivan and Weiss are hardly the only ones concerned about this problem. Before them, there was the now-infamous letter in Harper’s defending free speech, signed by figures ranging from Salman Rushdie to Margaret Atwood to Noam Chomsky (Weiss was also a signatory, as was Vox’s Matt Yglesias). Before the Harper’s letter, there was Hopkins professor Yascha Mounk’s creation of a new publication, called Persuasion, that stands against what Mounk sees as rising left-wing illiberalism.

These critics are, in general, very sloppy with their terms.

Abstract appeals to “free speech” and “liberal values” obscure the fact that what’s being debated is not anyone’s right to speech, but rather their right to air that speech in specific platforms like the New York Times without fear of social backlash. Yet virtually everyone agrees that certain speakers — neo-Nazis, for example — do not deserve a column in the paper of record.

The real debate here is not about the principle of free speech, but the much grayer question of how we draw its boundaries. What kinds of speech should be morally out of bounds? What sorts of speakers should be excluded from major platforms? When can giving a platform to one kind of person actually make it harder for other people to speak their minds freely? And what kinds of social sanctions, like public shaming or firing, are justified responses to violations of these social norms?

Once we see that these are the issues we’re actually discussing, it becomes clear that “cancel culture” is not the existential threat to free expression it’s made out to be. Questions about the limits of what we should discuss in major publications are important, to be sure — and I do think the anti-cancelers have marshaled some decent arguments for their approach. But debates over speech’s boundaries are the kinds of difficult conversations that every liberal society (maybe even every society) grapples with all the time. Canada criminalizes hate speech, Germany bans Holocaust denial, and the United States permits both — yet no one seriously believes that America is a free society while the other two have somehow collapsed into illiberalism.

The cancel culture conversation is the same debate around free speech’s limits that we’ve been having over offensive speech for decades, playing out in newsrooms and faculty lounges rather than legislatures.

What’s happening now seems novel because we are currently seeing a wave of social justice activism that seeks to redefine how we understand appropriate debate over these topics, sometimes even pushing to consign to the margins views that may have seemed tolerable in the past. These advocates can and have overreached, and should be criticized when they do. But on the whole, their work is aimed not at restricting freedom but at expanding it — making historically marginalized voices feel comfortable enough in the public square to be their authentic selves, to exist honestly and speak their own truths.

This is not a debate over the value of liberalism and free speech. Liberalism requires placing some boundaries on acceptable speech to function; there is a reason out-and-out racists like Richard Spencer weren’t asked to be signatories on the Harper’s letter.

Instead, this is a debate within liberalism over who gets to define the boundaries of speech — and where these boundaries ought to be set if American society is to follow through on its liberal promise.

What we talk about when we talk about “free speech”

In traditional debates about free speech and censorship, the argument is typically centered on some kind of authority or power structure doing the censoring. In this case, there’s no government entity repressing anyone’s speech. But even in classical treatments of free speech, the state isn’t always the villain.

In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill’s canonical defense of liberalism and free expression, he warns of “a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression,” a collectively enforced conformity that “leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”

Thomas Chatterton Williams, the Harper’s columnist who organized the letter, tells me that the initial idea for it arose during conversations among a small group of writers and thinkers who shared this sort of Millian concern. While Mill was reacting to the stifling conservatism of Victorian England, his would-be heirs believe it is progressivism — and specifically left-wing views on social justice — that is to blame for “enslaving the soul” of the American intellectual elite.

“We were all stunned and disturbed by the intolerant and censorious mood setting in at cultural and media institutions,” Williams says. “If you are worried about that chilling force sweeping through your institution but feel incapable of sticking your own neck out, this letter is there to show you that many other people are sticking their necks out too.”

The problem with Williams’s mode of argument, and the “free speech” case more broadly, is that it assumes social justice advocates disagree with them in principle — that they hate the idea of open debate rather than having different ideas about what makes our public debate truly open.

The self-identified free speech defenders catalog a few examples of what they see as egregious abuses by left-leaning “cancelers” — for example, data guru David Shor’s indefensible dismissal from Civis Analytics after tweeting a study on why riots in the 1960s were harmful to Democratic electoral fortunes — as proof that their opponents are growing opposed to the very idea of free speech (Civis denies this is why he was fired). Here’s Mounk:

At the very moment when it would be most important for those who oppose an emboldened far-right to speak with confidence and conviction, these same [liberal] values are losing their luster among significant parts of the left. Companies and cultural institutions fire innocent people for imaginary offenses; prominent voices alternate between defending cancel culture and denying its existence; and an astonishing number of academics and journalists proudly proclaim that it is time to abandon values like due process and free speech.

Some of these problems are real; it’s true, for example, that employers really can be too swift to fire people for allegedly offensive behavior. But some of the other examples of cancel culture run amok are unsubstantiated; I’ve seen precious few cases of academics and journalists “proudly” rejecting the value of free speech, and Mounk does not cite any.

Other examples are more complicated than they are made out to be. The Harper’s letter claims that “professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class,” but the actual incident it seems to be referring to is a white UCLA political science lecturer who repeatedly said the n-word while reading MLK’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” aloud. The professor’s response to students’ “distress and anger,” according to a letter by UCLA’s political science department chair, “escalated the situation rather than engaging in the thoughtful and open discourse that we expect from our faculty.”

And others still are non-controversial even among left-wing intellectuals. The Shor case is widely seen as an injustice; a counter-letter to the Harper’s piece circulated widely among journalists states that while “the facts of the situation are unclear ... if Shor was fired simply for posting an academic article, that is indefensible, and anomalous.”

Contrary to the original letter signers’ claims, what’s actually happening here is more subtle than a war between free speech’s defenders and its opponents. It is, as the University of Illinois’s Nicholas Grossman writes, an argument over “drawing the lines of socially acceptable expression and determining appropriate responses to transgressing those norms.” That’s not a conflict over the principles of a free society but the rules that govern its operation in practice.

This is something that would be familiar to Mill. “All that makes existence valuable to any one depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people,” he writes in On Liberty. “Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed, by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law.”

His proposed rule, widely known as “the harm principle,” seems very clear: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

The debate going on now isn’t over the harm principle, exactly. It’s over the definition of the word “harm” — and whether things like Mill’s gendered language and use of the phrase “civilised community” would qualify.

What we debate when we debate “cancel culture”

One of the major reasons this conversation is often so unproductive is that the concepts and targets are, generally speaking, very confused.

“Cancel culture,” the target in so many of the free speech jeremiads, is a notoriously fuzzy concept. It is often taken to refer to all of the following things at once: allegedly widespread self-censorship in elite intellectual institutions, a rise in vicious social media mobbing, and the firing of non-public figures for allegedly racist or bigoted behavior.

To clarify the real nature of the competing positions here, I spoke to Regina Rini, a philosopher at York University whose work focuses on the ethics of modern communication. Her most recent book is titled The Ethics of Microaggressions; she’s currently working on a new volume tentatively titled Democracy and Social Media Are Incompatible.

“No matter what, there are going to be social norms about what’s okay to talk about in society. Basic things like propriety, privacy, [and] politeness,” she tells me. “There’s nothing new or distinctive about social justice ideology that generates that.”

What’s new in the modern era, according to Rini, is that the mass public has gained an unprecedented ability to influence and reshape those rules — a process that used to be the province of the elite.

This began with the rise of mass literacy but has dramatically accelerated in recent years. The decline in overt racism and moves toward formal inclusion of marginalized groups — people of color, women, LGBTQ people — have brought a slew of new perspectives and experiences into the public square. And the rise of social media has given individual citizens powerful new tools for challenging elite opinion and holding them accountable.

These developments have led to two things that “free speech” defenders — Rini calls them “status quo warriors,” or SQWs for short — find particularly troubling.

The first is substantive. Our new wave of social justice activism contends that arguments from minority groups deserve a special kind of deference; that white people should “listen to Black voices” on racism and grant authority to their lived experiences in conversations about oppression. Further, they argue that elite publications should refuse to air pernicious ideas — for example, that white people have higher IQs than Black people on average for genetic reasons, “junk science” that’s been used to justify racial inequality — that got respectful hearings in the not-so-distant past, on grounds that they contribute to discrimination and make minority employees feel unsafe in the workplace.

The SQWs have reasonable arguments for why this approach could have dangerously stifling consequences. They argue that appeals to identity are indeterminate — what happens when two Black people disagree about racism? — and serve to shut down legitimate debate over topics like the wisdom of police abolition or how to handle rioting during the George Floyd protests. The idea that publishing an op-ed could make someone feel “unsafe,” a sort of “harm” that might qualify under Mill’s principle, strikes them as absurd.

The second argument is not about the rules of debate, exactly, but who gets to decide them. They believe that social media, and Twitter in particular, is starting to exercise a kind of veto over editorial judgment — running roughshod over editors and forcing journalists to be subject to the new activist rules of political discourse. The objection here is not just that activist speech norms are bad, but that those speech norms are being imposed on the intellectual elite by the loudest voices on social media — that a silent majority of conventionally liberal journalists are being silenced by radicals.

You see both of these arguments on display in Weiss’s resignation letter. “Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor,” she writes:

As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.

These two axes of conflict — what rules we should follow when talking about identity, and who should get to set those rules — are at the heart of the current controversies. But for some, this isn’t just an abstract debate over “liberalism,” but rather a question of whether their identities, and even their very lives, are taken seriously.

Deflating the “cancel culture” debate

Self-styled free speech advocates often describe their opponents using historical analogies, likening them to Mao’s cultural revolutionaries or the French Revolution’s Jacobins. But in reality, social justice advocates see themselves as vindicating the rights to free expression for marginalized people who have traditionally been limited in their ability to express themselves.

It helps to think of this debate as taking place on a spectrum. Social justice advocates think the bands of acceptable opinion and arguments shouldn’t be narrowed, precisely, but rather pushed to the left — shifted to include formerly excluded voices from oppressed communities and to sideline voices that seek to continue their exclusion. Their critics think the traditional bands of debate are, broadly speaking, correct, and that we’d all be worse off if the social justice advocates succeed in moving speech norms in their direction.

In the view of social justice advocates, the influence of Twitter is helping liberate them by bringing the perspectives of marginalized groups into the public sphere, forcing the (white, straight, cisgender male) establishment to take views seriously that they had otherwise ignored.

Kate Manne and Jason Stanley, philosophers at Cornell and Yale, respectively, put the point nicely in an essay on the free speech debate in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“When oppressed people speak out — and up, toward those in power — their right to speak may be granted, yet their capacity to know of what they speak doubted as the result of ingrained prejudice. And the way in which they express themselves is often then made the focus of the discussion,” they write. “So it is not just that these people have to raise their voices in order to be audible; it’s also that, when their tone becomes the issue, their speech is essentially being heard as mere noise, disruption, commotion. Their freedom of speech is radically undercut by what is aptly known as ‘tone policing.’”

We saw this at work in the backlash to the Harper’s letter. Much of the controversy surrounded the decision to include a signature from J.K. Rowling, who has emerged as one of the most visible anti-trans figures in our culture. Rowling sees the backlash to her statements about trans people as a threat to her right to free expression; “as a much-banned author, I’m interested in freedom of speech,” as she put it.

But for a lot of trans writers and thinkers, having to constantly debate Rowling’s position— that the movement for trans equality is a threat to the safety and status of cisgender women — is a mechanism for excluding them from public discourse.

It is so hurtful to be told you aren’t “really” a woman or a man, to subject yourself to the public abuse and threats that inevitably follow when debating anti-trans voices, that the psychological cost effectively forces trans thinkers to self-censor. Contrary to the notion that worries about safety are absurd, LGBTQ writers and writers of color commonly do experience threats of violence for participating in public debate. Allowing Rowling to speculate about which women should really “count,” in their view, contributes to crowding them out of the public sphere.

“Fostering an environment in academia or newsrooms that is hostile to people’s given identities is not pro-free speech,” Gillian Branstetter, a founding member of the Transgender Journalists Association, tells me. “When you see Twitter institute a ban on misgendering or deadnaming in its policies ... that actually expands free speech, because it [fosters] free communication.”

This view isn’t universally shared among trans writers. Deirdre McCloskey, a professor at the University of Illinois Chicago and a Harper’s letter signatory, told me she thinks the best solution to Rowling’s harmful views is to straightforwardly debate them on the merits.

“Debate is good, as any true liberal believes,” McCloskey tells me. “If she is telling fairy tales or worse — [Rowling] being the premier example — then call her out.”

Judging by the reaction to the letter among trans advocates, McCloskey’s view seems to be in the minority. It’s easy to see why: It assumes that trans people are debating with Rowling on a level playing field, that it’s possible to have fair and open debates given the current distribution of power.

But there are precious few trans people in positions of power and influence, and treating Rowling’s view as an odious-but-worth-debating view makes it less likely that trans people feel comfortable existing in the public eye. Why should trans people have to treat anti-trans voices as legitimate argumentative partners when no one would, for instance, expect a Jewish writer (like me) to debate a neo-Nazi?

You can already see the response here: that the definition of “anti-trans” or “racist” can be stretched to the point where views that really should be seen as legitimate, like skepticism of the use of the term “Latinx,” get shouted down rather than debated. I think this is a serious argument, one of several anti-cancelers have marshaled for their view.

The “free speech” advocates are correct that some of the other discourse norms surrounding who gets to speak on what topic have real problems; claims about the need to defer to the opinions of minority group members, for example, can have contradictory and even self-undermining consequences. They are also correct that institutions have become way too swift to fire people, a dire and serious consequence, over perceived identity-based offenses — the Shor case being a particularly egregious example.

But by casting this debate in terms of threats to democracy and free speech itself, members of this camp do their own arguments a disservice.

The essentials of a free society are not under assault in any meaningful sense by trans advocates like Branstetter. They are not hegemonic censors with the power or intention to shut down debate over issues of public concern. Instead, they are trying to shift the terms under which a free debate is taking place in a direction that, in their view, is necessary to correct for the silencing effects of centuries of unfreedom.

They may be wrong on certain particulars, or they may not. Hashing that out seems like an important task for American society — which is what it is has been doing, freely and openly, for some time now.

Since Trump won the 2016 election, and especially since the George Floyd protests, things have been in flux. Ideas on both the left and the right that were previously unthinkable are becoming mainstream with striking speed. New information environments have empowered some social groups and weakened others.

Navigating this type of change is difficult. People and institutions are going to make mistakes, even when acting with the best of intentions; journalists and academics will be cruelly mobbed on social media and fired for bad reasons.

Such incidents do not, however, mean that the very idea of free expression is under assault. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we’ll be able to start taking on the actually important questions — about whether improving our society requires real revision to our speech norms, beyond the non-controversial exclusions of neo-Nazis and overt racists from elite intellectual life into new territory by more fully incorporating new ideas about race and gender into public life.


Correction: Thomas Chatterton Williams is a columnist at Harper’s, not an editor as originally identified.

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