From Inside Higher Ed: a group of Harvard students is going to raise awareness of free speech by inviting controversial speakers like Charles Murray and Jordan Peterson to their school.
I believe that if somebody wants to hear Charles Murray or Jordan Peterson speak, then they should have that right. But I’m not sure these students have thought things through very carefully.
Suppose some generally popular person like the Dalai Lama endorsed some very unpopular person like Kim Jong-Un. On the one hand, insofar as we respect the Dalai Lama, we might be willing to be a little more tolerant of Kim Jong Un. On the other hand, insofar as we hate Kim Jong-Un, we might be a little less tolerant of the Dalai Lama.
In the same way, every time we invoke free speech to justify some unpopular idea, the unpopular idea becomes a little more tolerated, and free speech becomes a little less popular.
The more often people hear about free speech being used to defend NAMBLA, the less that anti-paedophiles are going to like free speech. The more often people hear about free speech being used to defend the KKK, the less anti-racists are going to like free speech. The more often people hear about free speech being used to defend radical Islamist mosques, the less anti-Muslims are going to like free speech, and so on.
The extremely predictable consequences of anti-political-correctness activists marching under the banner of free speech are that a large part of the social justice movement now thinks of free speech itself as the enemy, that Twitter personalities make mocking references to “freeze peach”, that increasing numbers of people say the First Amendment “goes too far”. Meanwhile, pundits have perfected the argument that since the First Amendment only applies to the government it’s great and praiseworthy for everyone else to restrict speech as much as they want, leaving a pro-free-speech side whose arguments too often come down to “well, it’s in the First Amendment, so you’ve got to respect us” kind of flat-footed.
I think of respect for free speech as a commons. Every time some group invokes free speech to say something controversial, they’re drawing from the commons – which is fine, that’s what the commons is there for. Presumably the commons self-replenishes at some slow rate as people learn philosophy or get into situations where free speech protects them and their allies.
But if you draw from the commons too quickly, then the commons disappears. When trolls say the most outrageous things possible, then retreat to “oh, but free speech”, they’re burning the commons for no reason, to the detriment of everybody else who needs it.
(this is how I feel about everything Milo Yiannopoulos has ever done or said.)
If Charles Murray sincerely believes what he says, thinks it’s important, and thinks that saying it makes the world a better place, then he is exactly the sort of person whom free speech exists to defend. And if someone in a college reads The Bell Curve, likes it, and wants to learn more, then free speech exists to defend them too. But if your thought process is “Who’s the most offensive person I can think of? Charles Murray? Okay, let’s invite him to give a big talk, put up flyers everywhere, and when people get angry we’ll just say FREE SPEECH”, I worry that you are drawing from the commons for no reason. And that sometime later, when people need to use the commons for things they actually believe, there won’t be any left. People will have gotten so reflexively hostile to the idea of “free speech” that they’ll reject even the barest amount of tolerance for even slightly divergent views.
This is even more pressing in the context of growing partisanship and tribalism. Because the debate centers on mostly-leftist areas like universities, conservatives are turning free speech into a conservative principle. This is a disaster, because something being a conservative principle pretty automatically means that liberals will be tempted to conspicuously desecrate it. If people actually care about free speech, the number one thing they can do right now is very loudly invoke it every time a liberal is silenced. We should be having giant free speech parades supporting everyone who’s punished for supporting Palestine, just to make sure liberals don’t get the impression that free speech is a weapon pointed at them.
The nightmare scenario is that “free speech” goes the way of “family values” – a seemingly uncontroversial concept gets so tarnished by its association with unpopular/conservative ideas that it becomes impossible to mention or invoke in polite company without outing yourself as some kind of far-right weirdo. Right now I think we’re on that path.
And this is a more general principle: associating X with Y won’t just make supporters of X like Y more, it will also make opponents of Y hate X. I even sort of worry about this in terms of things like the Scientists’ March Against Trump. The hope is that people who like Science will stop liking Trump. But the other possibility is that people who like Trump will stop liking Science.
If principles are stronger than partisanship, then invoking principles is a great idea to rally people to your cause. If partisanship has grown stronger than principles, then even an incontrovertible proof that a certain principle supports your own tribe is going to turn out to be a gigantic booby prize. It won’t make the other side reconsider what errors have led them to contradict such hallowed ideals. It’s just going make half the population start hating the sacred principles necessary for society to function.
[EDIT: Please read this post very carefully if you believe I am attacking Charles Murray, or if you believe I am saying we should refuse to use free speech to defend sufficiently unpopular views. I’m not intending to say either of those things and I would disagree with both.]
[EDIT 2: Further clarifications]