I’ve gotten a lot of good responses to my post on free speech and the social justice left. I appreciate both the praise and the criticism. I would like to take a moment and respond to one line of criticism, which is part of a particular frustration of mine: when I am told that attitudes and opinions I encounter myself don’t exist. It’s an interesting dynamic right now– some of the people I’m talking to about this are arguing that there in fact should be no right to express what they see as hate speech; some people claim that no one opposes free expression. I wish I could introduce the latter to the former. When I point out that I am actually encountering this attitude in my day-to-day life, the goal posts are moved, and the implied message is that nobody who matters thinks that way. Which is a different objection altogether.
Please believe me when I say: it is not at all unusual, for me, to encounter liberals and leftists who speak out about issues of social justice like feminism and racism and similar who do not believe that controversial speech (what they call hate speech) should be legally expressible. You are free to question how prevalent that view is. But I encounter it all the time, and not just online. Being in a PhD program in the humanities, I have regular exposure to people who feel that the right to free expression does not or should not include racist, sexist, or homophobic ideas. And their definition of racism, sexism, and homophobia tends to be expansive. Indeed, I was motivated to write in large part because I just came from a large, national conference. I met lots of cool people, like I always do, and came away inspired, as I always do. But I was also disturbed, because of the casual way in which some people asserted their belief that people who express beliefs they abhor– that I abhor, that I hope all good people abhor– should be shouted down, should be coerced into silence, should be barred from entry into public forums, should be legally or otherwise prevented from expressing those beliefs. I cannot tell you how small their relative number is. I can only tell you that they exist, in my communities, and they are not alone.
Academic left-wing culture frequently is a leading indicator of the broader social justice left. I am not at all saying that left-wing ideas only come from college campuses, but there is little doubt that academics help to popularize and spread fashionable political ideas. They were talking about intersectionality on college campuses long before there existed the social media spaces where such talk is now ubiquitous. Sometimes, this tendency of campus politics to lead to broader discussion is an unmitigated good, such as in the nascent movement for trans rights, which again was not started on campus but which has benefited from discussion and advocacy on college campuses. Sometimes, this tendency leaves me ambivalent. I am happy that talk of privilege has become widespread, because it’s essential that we understand the ways in which systematic inequalities shape our world; at the same time, as privilege talk has become unavoidable, it has lost much of its meaning and descended into a signalling mechanism of a certain strata of our postcollegiate professionals. Sometimes, this tendency is flat out bad, as I believe the spread of anti-hate speech attitudes are, if indeed those ideas are spreading.
I should not have conveyed the impression that this is all about one bad moment from one professor. My assumption was that people reading here would be aware of the evidence of these problems, but I should have been more careful. I would cite, for example, the rise of “free speech zones” on college campuses; of protesters shouting down invited speakers and preventing them from speaking, rather than of protesting those speakers while allowing them to speak, offering a rebuttal, or inviting a counter-speaker; increasingly heavy-handed trigger warning policies for college instructors and similar efforts to regulate course content; and harsh crackdowns on student activists, such as the pro-Palestinian activists at Northeastern University. You might well say that pro-Palestinian activists are the kind of people who would be working alongside those who push to regulate speech on campus, but that’s just the trouble. Are Jewish students who claim to be unfairly affronted by pro-Palestinian demonstrations that different from students who claim that Things Fall Apart triggers them? When you let the genie out of the bottle, there is little telling who and what it may harm.
Academics are my people. Leftists are my people. I have been around both my whole life. I am unapologetically a member of both tribes. I have no desire to slander or misrepresent them. I would love to tell you that the notion of a declining commitment to free speech in their quarters is a conservative fever dream. And like all people, I am constrained by my own personal experience, which is necessarily limited and biased. But I can only honestly represent to you both my personal experience and my read of the current journalism and literature on this subject, and both tell me that there is a distressing current of antagonism towards free expression within the social justice left. If I’m wrong, I’ll apologize, and there will be little harm done. But if I am going to err I’d rather err on the side of defense of free expression, which I truly believe is not an impediment to the fight against systemic inequality and injustice, but the most important tool we have for winning it.