The left, in its drive to impose its agenda on the nation, has become censor-at-large. (See, for example, this, this, this, this, this, and this. Also, this, which addresses Google’s slanting of search results about climate research. YouTube is at it, too.)
If you have followed this blog for many years, you will know that I am not a free-speech absolutist. (See this, this, and this, for example.) Nor do I subscribe to the conceit that the “best” ideas will emerge triumphant in the so-called marketplace of ideas. (See this and this.) The “marketplace of ideas” ensures only that the most popular ideas or those with the strongest political backing will prevail. Nor is science immune to persistent error.
Regarding freedom of speech, I draw on James Burnham‘s The Struggle for the World:
Democracy in practice has never, and could never, interpret the right of free speech in an absolute and unrestricted sense. No one, for example, is allowed to advocate, and organize for, mass murder, rape, and arson. No one feels that such prohibitions are anti-democratic….
We may generalize as follows. The principles of an organized society cannot be interpreted in practice in such a way as to make organized society impossible. The special principles of a special form of government, in this case democratic government, cannot be interpreted in practice in such a way as to make that form of government impossible.
Here is Burnham again, in Suicide of the West:
Liberalism [of the kind that prevailed in the early 1960s] defines free speech and the related freedoms of assembly and association, as it does “peace” and “disarmament,” in abstraction, without tying them to specific persons and circumstance. For liberalism, these freedoms are the procedural rules sustaining a democratic society that rests on the will of the majority and solves its internal conflicts of interest and opinion through continuous discussion, negotiation and compromise. But this meaning of free speech and the related freedoms is significant and operable only for those who share the wish or at least willingness to have and preserve some sort of free and constitutional society. For those others— and they are not few among us— whose aim is to subvert, overthrow and replace free and constitutional society, these freedoms of speech, assembly and the rest are merely convenient levers to use in accomplishing their purpose.
The liberal ideologue is thus caught in the inescapable dilemma of his own making that we have previously examined. If he extends the freedoms to the subverters, they will use them, as they have done in one nation after another, to throw the free society into turmoil and in the end to destroy it. But if he denies the freedoms to anyone, he will feel, does feel, that he has betrayed his own principles, “imitated the methods of the enemy,” and thus joined the company of subverters. So, when a showdown with the subverters comes, as it comes from time to time to all nations, the liberals are demoralized in advance, if they do finally forget ideology and decide to resist, by the guilt generated from this feeling of self-betrayal. Let us note that this is a purely ideological trap. Common sense, unlike ideology, understands that you can play a game only with those who accept the rules; and that the rules’ protection does not cover anyone who does not admit their restrictions and penalties.
Bear in mind that Burnham was writing when “liberals” actually subscribed to the notion of unfettered speech — in principle, at least. The ACLU, a leading “liberal” institution, had consistently defended the speech rights of so-called hate groups and political figures deemed unpalatable by the left. I say “had” because the ACLU has joined the ban-wagon against “hate” speech, that is, speech which offends the sensitivities of “liberals”.
If there is one idea that today’s “liberals” (leftists) share with conservatives, it is that absolute freedom of speech can undermine liberty. The rub is that leftists mean something other than liberty when they use the word. Their idea of liberty includes, among many anti-libertarian things (e.g., coerced redistribution of income), the rejection and suppression of facts and opinions just because they are disagreeable to the left. (In addition to the items linked to in the first paragraph, see this item about the reaction to the mayor of Chicago’s statement about the cause of the high homicide rate in his city, and this small sample of relevant posts: here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
In sum, the left’s stance on freedom of speech has nothing to do with the preservation of liberty and everything to do with the advancement of an anti-libertarian agenda.
Here’s the game plan:
- Define opposition to illegal immigration, Islamic terrorism, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and other kinds violent and anti-social behavior as “hate“.
- Associate “hate” with conservatism.
- Watch as normally conservative politicians, business people, and voters swing left rather than look “mean” and put up a principled fight for conservative values.
- Watch as Democrats play the “hate” card to retake the White House and Congress.
With the White House in the hands of a left-wing Democrat (is there any other kind now?) and an aggressive left-wing majority in Congress, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and property rights will become not-so-distant memories. “Affirmative action” (a.k.a. “diversity”) will be enforced on an unprecedented scale of ferocity. The nation will become vulnerable to foreign enemies while billions of dollars are wasted on the hoax of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming and “social services” for the indolent. The economy, already buckling under the weight of statism, will teeter on the brink of collapse as the regulatory regime goes into high gear and entrepreneurship is all but extinguished by taxation and regulation.
All of that will be secured by courts dominated by left-wing judges — from here to eternity.
The left’s game plan is threatened by those who speak against illegal immigration, Islamic terrorism, etc.; for freedom of association, property rights, etc.; and for the right to speak about such things. Thus the left’s virulent, often violent, and increasingly conspiratorial attacks on conservatives and the suppression of conservative discourse.
This all came to pass because of free-speech absolutism. Unfettered speech isn’t necessary to liberty. In fact, it can undermine it, given that liberty, properly understood, is not a spiritual state of bliss. It is, as I have written,
a modus vivendi, not the result of a rational political scheme. Though a rational political scheme, such as the one laid out in the Constitution of the United States, could promote liberty.
The key to a libertarian modus vivendi is the evolutionary development and widespread observance of social norms that foster peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation.
Unfettered speech, obviously, can undermine the modus vivendi. It can do so directly, by shredding social norms — the bonds of mutual trust, respect, and forbearance that underlie the modus vivendi that is liberty. And it can do so indirectly by subverting the institutions that preserve the modus vivendi. One of those institutions, in the United States, is the rule of law under a Constitution that was meant to limit the power of government, leaving people free to govern themselves in accordance with the norms of civil society. The steady rise of governmental power has in fact shredded social norms and subverted civil society. Which is precisely what the left wants, so that it can remake “society” to its liking.
It follows, therefore, that liberty can be rescued only by suppressing the left’s anti-libertarian actions. If that seems anti-libertarian, I refer you back to James Burnham.
Winning and preserving liberty is not for the faint of heart, or for free-speech absolutists whose rationalism clouds their judgment. They are morally equivalent to pacifists who declare that preemptive war is always wrong, and who would wait until the enemy has struck a mortal blow before acting against the enemy — if then.
The left is at war against liberty, and has been for a long time. Preemptive war against the left is therefore long overdue. If the left wins, will there be freedom of speech and a “marketplace of ideas” (however flawed)? Of course not.
Ironically, leftists subscribe to the view that “extremist ideas” should be suppressed. This is from a piece at The Verge by Laura Hudson (writing before Twitter joined the ban-wagon against Alex Jones):
While many, including [Jack] Dorsey [co-founder of Twitter] seem to fear that striking Jones down from media platforms will only make him more powerful, media manipulation research lead Joan Donovan at the research institute Data & Society tells The Verge that throughout her work, she has observed the opposite: once you remove the biggest megaphones from bad actors, their power diminishes and their ability to attract larger audiences and sow disinformation decreases. Instead of promoting no-holds-barred speech, he might instead embrace the principle suggested by Boyd and Donovan in their case for quarantining extremist ideas: “all Americans have the right to speak their minds, but not every person deserves to have their opinions amplified, particularly when their goals are to sow violence, hatred and chaos.”
The second link in that quotation leads to an article at The Guardian by Arwa Mahdawi. She begins with the American Nazi Party of George Lincoln Rockwell:
Campus by campus, from Harvard to Brown to Columbia, [Rockwell] would use the violence of his ideas and brawn of his followers to become headline news. To compel media coverage….
Contemporary Jewish community groups challenged journalists to consider not covering white supremacists’ ideas. They called this strategy “quarantine”….
In regions where quarantine was deployed successfully, violence remained minimal and Rockwell was unable to recruit new party members….
Strategic silence is not a new idea. The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s considered media coverage their most effective recruitment tactic and accordingly cultivated friendly journalists. According to Felix Harcourt, thousands of readers joined the KKK after the New York World ran a three-week chronicle of the group in 1921. Catholic, Jewish and black presses of the 1920s consciously differed from Protestant-owned mainstream papers in their coverage of the Klan, conspicuously avoiding giving the group unnecessary attention. The black press called this use of editorial discretion in the public interest “dignified silence”, and limited their reporting to KKK follies, such as canceled parades, rejected donations and resignations. Some mainstream journalists also grew suspicious of the KKK’s attempts to bait them with camera-ready spectacles. Eventually coverage declined….
The emphasis of strategic silence must be placed on the strategic over the silencing. Every story requires a choice and the recent turn toward providing equal coverage to dangerous, antisocial opinions requires acknowledging the suffering that such reporting causes. Even attempts to cover extremism critically can result in the media disseminating the methods that hate groups aim to spread, such as when Virginia’s Westmoreland News reproduced in full a local KKK recruitment flier on its front page. Media outlets who cannot argue that their reporting benefits the goal of a just and ethical society must opt for silence.
Newsrooms must understand that even with the best of intentions, they can find themselves being used by extremists. By contrast, they must also understand they have the power to defy the goals of hate groups by optimizing for core American values of equality, respect and civil discourse. All Americans have the right to speak their minds, but not every person deserves to have their opinions amplified, particularly when their goals are to sow violence, hatred and chaos [emphasis added].
I agree completely with the italicized passage. Leftists are violent and hateful toward those who disagree with them. Their return to power and the success of their agenda, which may not be far away, will result in the complete destruction of the social norms and civilizing institutions that held this country more or less together between the end of the Civil War and the 1960s. The left’s return to power will result in the suppression and criminalization of anything and anyone standing in the way of its destructive agenda.
Will a new (shooting) civil war result if (when) the left takes full control of the central government? There is much talk about the possibility, accompanied by inflated rhetoric about the people with guns (mainly conservatives) “kicking ass” of the people without guns (mainly leftists). But that is wishful and possibly suicidal thinking. If a new (shooting) civil war comes it will come only after the left has assumed control of the central government and begun its reign of terror. It will then control surveillance systems, troops, and weapons for which a mostly untrained “army” of rifle-toting patriots will be no match. Terrorist acts by the patriots, unless carefully aimed at government installations and troops actually engaged in suppressive operations, will only backfire and cause the silent majority to scurry into the protective arms of the central government.
I counsel a step back from the brink of civil war. But it’s a step that can be taken only while there is a Republican president in the White House. The left is right about strategic silence. And it works both ways. The left’s censorious ways must be , for liberty’s sake. Here is how to do it, constitutionally.
One thought on “Freedom of Speech, to What End?”
Thank you! I have long opposed “free speech” literalism or fundamentalism. The 18th century advocacy of purely political free speech (which, by the way, said nothing about “freedom of expression”) was relatively narrow in its application and also rested on many unstated assumptions — yet these were considerations that anyone back then would have taken for granted. Just as liberty is not a self-defining concept, neither is speech. It serves some end. Unfortunately that end can sometimes be individual or societal selfishness and destructiveness. If, as you note, basic liberties and moral structures (which make the former possible) are subverted by speech then the latter may justly be limited. Talk of censorship is overly simplistic. Every culture imposes some restrictions on communication. The more meaningful question is, what is censored and to what end. The fact that the left is openly proposing limits on speech has a certain positive consequence. It allows us to approach the topic more candidly and objectively, especially since the left is shown to be completely hypocritical in its championing of “free speech” since the sixties.
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