Free Speech is an Absolute

by Benjamin Schwarz

spiked 22 July

In one of those synergistic ironies in which the age of Twitter abounds, on the very day that the New York Times columnist Bari Weiss conspicuously quit the paper over what she characterised as its culture of woke bullying, intolerance and groupthink, her fellow Times columnist, Ross Douthat, published a widely praised piece that attempted to delineate and assess the very ‘cancel culture’ that Weiss excoriated.

Douthat is by far the most penetrating, learned and honest of the Grey Lady’s columnists (true, not a vast field, but I don’t mean that as faint praise; he’s the only person I’ve seen best Hitchens in debate), but he’s also the most conservative. As a minority taste among the paper’s increasingly partisan readership, his column rarely wins general accolades. But with his on-the-one-hand-on-the-other ‘Ten Theses About Cancel Culture,’ Douthat managed, uncharacteristically, to create a broad and mushy middle ground, one composed of both cautious critics and those who at least partially champion cancel culture. You should smell a rat.

Douthat first offers a definition of ‘cancellation’ that’s so precise and succinct that I’ll adopt it wholesale: ‘an attack on someone’s employment and reputation by a determined collective of critics, based on an opinion or an action that is alleged to be disgraceful and disqualifying.’ Nine theses follow, as Douthat strives for a consensus-building moderation and deploys a posture of mollifying, seemingly bracing realism. Two interrelated theses define his argument, and both have been lauded by the woke and quasi-woke as important concessions to their way of thinking – as indeed they are:

‘All cultures cancel; the question is for what, how widely and through what means. There is no human society where you can say or do anything you like and expect to keep your reputation and your job… Today, almost all critics of cancel culture have some line they draw, some figure – usually a racist or anti-Semite – that they would cancel, too. And [those] who criticise cancel culture, especially, have to acknowledge that we’re partly just disagreeing with today’s list of cancellation-worthy sins.

‘If you oppose left-wing cancel culture, appeals to liberalism and free speech aren’t enough… debates about cancellations are also inevitably debates about liberalism and its limits. But to defend a liberal position in these arguments you need more than just a defence of free speech in the abstract; you need to defend free speech for the sake of some important, true idea. General principles are well and good, but if you can’t champion controversial ideas on their own merits, no merely procedural argument for granting them a platform will sustain itself against a passionate, morally confident attack. So liberals or centrists who fear the left-wing zeal for cancellation need a counter argument that doesn’t rest on right-to-be-wrong principles alone. They need to identify the places where they think the new left-wing norms aren’t merely too censorious but simply wrong, and fight the battle there, on substance as well as liberal principle.’

As one wokeish Twitterer nicely summarised Douthat’s position: ‘I didn’t think it’d be Ross Fucking Douthat who’d be the one at the NYT to articulate how “cancel culture” isn’t new per se, it’s just a shifting of moral expectations for public behaviour, and maybe centrists need an actual argument.’ The tweeter’s approval is justified. Taken together, Douthat’s conciliatory arguments demolish the effective defence against illiberal witch-hunts, a defence that can only be made along absolutist and abstract lines.

The faux-realism that insists that, come off it, everyone draws a line somewhere when it comes to opinions that deserve to be barred and punished is wrong. It conflates those who favour licensed speech with those committed to free speech. The latter know that a liberal society and true freedom of thought can only survive if, within the law, no lines are drawn. They know that such a stance requires not the defence of those who avow opinions deemed ‘important’ and ‘true’ (who, by the very nature of their opinions, will be safe). Rather, it requires the defence of those who avow opinions known by all who matter to be reprehensible and dangerous – a category that emphatically includes the champions of racist or anti-Semitic opinions. And those really committed to free speech know that such a defence can only be mounted not, as Douthat would have it, according to the ‘substance’ of the opinion but as an assertion of general principle. Finally, they know that such an assertion is indeed (pace Douthat) a ‘passionate, morally confident’ defence.

To indulge in the idea that those who decry today’s cancel culture do so merely because they don’t agree with ‘today’s list of cancellation-worthy sins’, and to acquiesce in ad hoc judgements about what views deserve to be defended from cancellation, is to succumb to historical myopia. It is to forget, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, put it, ‘that time has upset many fighting faiths’. After all, the witch-hunts of the past weren’t led by those intent on doing bad (as the current comic-book version of history insists) but by those fervently committed to morality, not a few of whom incidentally believed that they were serving a politically progressive cause. Today, people who would cancel those they deem racist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc, know that they are merely seeking to exclude from polite society and to drive from employment those who advocate morally repugnant ideas. People who campaigned successfully to cancel (to use an anachronistic term) pacificists, Communists, socialists, atheists, supporters of the ACLU and the NAACP, advocates of abolishing miscegenation laws, champions of labour unions, proponents of gay rights and of women’s access to contraception possessed the same moral clarity. A liberal and self-critical society can only function as such if it eschews the universal temptation to persecute people for their opinions, which means – as much as Douthat’s thoughtful social conservatism may shrink from the injunction – that it must accept a morally laissez-faire proposition: ‘there is no such thing as a false idea’ (to quote Supreme Court justice, Lewis Powell).

Douthat’s own assertions demonstrate that no other approach can work. On the one hand, he’s apparently comfortable with what he sees as the consensus that a ‘racist or anti-Semite’ can be hounded from his or her job. Opponents of cancellation, Douthat argues, shouldn’t defend those who hold such bad opinions; they ought to limit their efforts to defending ‘some important, true idea’. But of course, there’s no fixed understanding of what constitutes racism or anti-Semitism. Where precisely is the line to be drawn between anti-Semitism and criticism, even dislike, of Israel? A particularly pernicious feature of wokeness is its sweeping ambit for what counts as ‘racism’, ‘sexism’, ‘transphobia’, ‘Islamophobia’, ‘white supremacy’, and ‘xenophobia’ – a development exacerbated by the equally vague, all-embracing notions of ‘dog whistle’ and ‘harmful’ speech (a point Douthat notes, even as he bafflingly fails to grasp its implications). Which people judged ‘racist’ and ‘white supremacist’ is it okay to defenestrate? For instance, earlier this month staff members of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art drove out the senior curator of painting and sculpture, Gary Garrels, for saying that ‘it is important that we do not exclude consideration of the art of white men’, because to do so would amount to ‘reverse discrimination’. They deemed his statement to be ‘white supremacist and racist’. To me, though, Garrels expressed an ‘important, true idea’. The logic of Douthat’s position would be to sanction Garrel’s expulsion because, after all, as he sees it, most of us draw the line at racism. But who’s to define that particular taboo? Although Douthat dismisses ‘general principles’ as ‘all well and good’, in fact the only way out of the conundrum that the Garrels case poses is to defend the principle, not the specific idea that has roused the witch-hunters.

No, this doesn’t mean that ideas and opinions ought not to be vigorously challenged. It simply means that a mature, liberal and tolerant people should insist that their society and culture draw a distinction between contesting the idea and hounding the promulgator of that idea from the public square and from his or her job, regardless of how repellant a few people or even most people find that idea. To Douthat, the repression and punishment of ideas by public opinion is largely just a matter of shifts in public opinion: we all do it. It’s relative and contextual. In fact, however, the defence of free speech is an absolute or it is nothing. The protection a society affords to unpopular and despised ideas cannot be applied according to the degree of distastefulness of those ideas. Any other approach perforce chills expression, engenders intolerance and thereby assures a dangerous, or at best stultifying, conformity to mass or vociferous opinion. To Douthat, the proposition that people should be free to express unpopular thoughts without risking their livelihoods seems merely an abstract and bloodless notion. Surely it is. But to civilised and tolerant people (a group that assuredly includes Douthat), the ideas in AreopagiticaOn Liberty, and the (mostly) glorious tradition of American free-speech jurisprudence – all based solely on abstract principle, on what Holmes acknowledged to be merely ‘a theory’ – are eminently worthy of battle in their defence.

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