These are dangerous times for free speech in the Western world. In Europe and Canada, one can be fined or jailed for expressing views that those in power find odious or “oppressive.” Here in the United States, we see such authoritarian speech suppression increasingly embraced on college campuses. But in the New York Times?
Alas, yes. The paper, which rarely publishes positions that materially diverge from its own editorial positions, has published a vigorous defense of speech suppression. The idea is that speech deemed antithetical to the “public good” can be squelched. From, “What Snowflakes Get Right About Free Speech,” by New York University professor Ulrich Baer (my emphasis):
The great value and importance of freedom of expression, for higher education and for democracy, is hard to underestimate. But it has been regrettably easy for commentators to create a simple dichotomy between a younger generation’s oversensitivity and free speech as an absolute good that leads to the truth.
We would do better to focus on a more sophisticated understanding, such as the one provided by [Jean-François] Lyotard, of the necessary conditions for speech to be a common, public good. This requires the realization that in politics, the parameters of public speech must be continually redrawn to accommodate those who previously had no standing.
Thus, speech that supposedly demeans those whom the speech suppressors deem to have been marginalized should be squelched. Hence, those refusing to accept that, say, Caitlyn Jenner is now a “she,” not only can be — but should be — forcibly shut up.
But Ulrich advocates an even broader suppression of speech:
The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community.
The tremendous peril here can’t be missed. Who gets to decide which view has what “inherent value?” Those in power. This means, as we see on college campuses today, that minority views are not only suppressed, but suppressed by violence or threats of it — as we have seen at UC Berkeley and Middlebury College.
I am especially attuned to the next generation’s demands to revise existing definitions of free speech to accommodate previously delegitimized experiences.
Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute. When its proponents forget that it requires the vigilant and continuing examination of its parameters, and instead invoke a pure model of free speech that has never existed, the dangers to our democracy are clear and present.
So, First Amendment-protected political speech is a clear and present threat to democracy? No, Ulrich is.
Moreover, he misses the obvious point that the power to squelch speech that conflicts with social advocacy by progressives could be turned right around on them, if the government ever attained the power to punish disfavored views.
I have been thinking for some time that on issues of speech, we are watching a contest between the American Revolution — that guarantees the right to express unpopular social and political views — and the French Revolution that unleashes Jacobins to suppress heterodoxy.
But after reading Ulrich, I think we face something even more dangerous to liberty: A full-blown Mao-style Cultural Revolution is gestating on college campuses. If we don’t restore American ideals of speech freedom to those “snowflake” enclaves, we could well see a violent avalanche materialize that threatens the peaceability of our broader social discourse.
Cross-posted at The Corner.