One of the traditional, fundamental political divides between the left and the right has been the question of rights and ability, the question of positive rights. Conservatives have tended to endorse only negative rights, while liberals have endorsed a more expansive vision of positive rights. Healthcare is a prime example. Conservatives have long reacted to liberal claims of a right to healthcare by saying that people have a right to healthcare, but no reasonable expectation that government or any other entity will secure people access to healthcare. Society’s only responsibility is to prevent some from obstructing access to healthcare by force. Liberals have always argued that to speak of rights in this way is meaningless, that rights have no meaning without the ability to use them. That’s what I’ve argued, my entire adult life, and I have long been able to assume broad liberal support for that stance.
But when it comes to free speech rights, American liberals seem to have sprinted in the opposite direction. The congealing conventional wisdom among progressives now is that the right to free expression has only been abridged if government literally physically prevents you from speaking. Absolutely every other way in which your right to express yourself is fair game. So when I wrote about a University of California Santa Barbara professor who physically ripped a sign from the hands of another person in an attempt to silence that sign’s message– her quote was literally, “I’m stronger so I was able to take the poster”– it was patiently explained to me by patiently explaining liberals that there was no actual abridgment to free speech, because the government hadn’t sent tanks to silence those protesters. What that professor did was “direct action” and was thus permissible. Why that person using her physical advantage to silence someone amounts to direct action, and a crowd beating up antiwar protesters would not, I have no idea.
Or take the Brandon Eich situation. I have been told by liberals lately, again and again, that Brandon Eich has no right to unpopular political beliefs in the workplace, that he entered into a contract with his employer and that part of that contract means giving up his right to hold and express unpopular opinions. If that sounds like straightforward Cato Institution-style libertarian argument, that’s because it is, and to see so many self-identified progressives aping it would be shocking, if not for the fact that this kind of argument by convenience is so common in today’s liberalism. That there are fundamental issues of principle at stake here, or that the long-term consequences of all this could be profound, goes largely unsaid. In a piece typical of the current progressive style, Alex Pareene mocks concerns like mine without even really attempting to grapple with them at all, content in the idea that because the people who are complaining about this stuff are on the wrong side, their complaints are necessarily ridiculous.
Personally? I don’t know how you can possibly say that we have free speech in principle if you’re enthusiastically supportive of efforts to restrict free speech in practice. It’s just like saying that Bill Gates and a homeless man have the same right to own a Ferrari. Of course free speech doesn’t mean you have a right to not be criticized or a right to occupy every forum. But the way in which contempt for the very term “free speech” has become one of those cultural signals that are the glue of today’s bourgie elite progressivism can and will lead to actual, no bullshit suppression of speech. A liberalism that claims that rights are only denied if tanks are rolling through the streets is a pathetic liberalism and one that stands in direct and stark contrast to the history of the principled left.
It seems superficially, straightforwardly true to me: people like the anti-abortion protester and Brandon Eich are presumed by progressives to have no right to free expression because progressives don’t like what they have to say. It’s pure tribalism, which more and more often is the only organizing principle of liberal America that has any valence whatsoever. Take #CancelColbert, which seemed to me to be a straightforward case of people misunderstanding satire. The opinion of the crowd seems to have become that only effect matters– that intention is irrelevant, and if someone is offended by satire, that satire is offensive even if the intent was not. I find this an interesting attitude, not least of which because progressives don’t even pretend to apply it equally. After all, who is most likely, in American life, to misunderstand satire and be offended by it? Not liberals, but rather conservatives, particularly conservative Christians. How many times have progressives mocked conservatives for mistaking The Onion for real news? There are entire websites devoted to this purpose. How often has Colbert been defended by the self-same progressives because he offended the conservative rubes? It turns out that the principle of “that which offends is offensive” only applies when it’s the right sort of people taking offense.
If it all is just tribes– if there’s no principle that matters except for Yooks vs Zooks– then fight, OK. I won’t be on board, but I’ve never been much of a joiner. But please: just come out and say so. Just own up to it. If you think that a feminist woman should have the right to hold unpopular political beliefs without being fired for it, but someone who opposes gay marriage doesn’t, because you agree with the former and not the latter, just say so. If you think a counter-protester has the right to physically rip a sign from the hands of an anti-abortion protester but not from a pro-choice protester, just say so. If you think satirists have the right to offend conservatives but not liberals, just say so. It would make all of this so much easier and more honest.
Me, I am absolutely chilled by the idea that companies should have the right to fire people because they hold unpopular political beliefs, even when those beliefs are not being expressed in the workplace. And I find the notion that progressives can safely endorse that bit of crude libertarianism so immensely short-sighted I can’t quite believe it. I also don’t want to live in a world where anyone, no matter how much I agree with them on the issue of substance, feels free to say “I’m stronger so I could stop speech I didn’t like.” If your average progressive disagrees with me, out of a desire to root for the ol’ home team, that’s fine. But let’s be open and honest about what’s happening.
Update: In a system where you have to work to live, if employers have unfettered ability to force your expulsion because you hold political beliefs that the company or your fellow employees find unpalatable, then there is no right to hold unpopular political beliefs at all. There’s no protection, not only for opponents of gay marriage, but for radical feminists, communists, black nationalists…. And the long-term consequence of a world where employees lack the right to political expression is a world where that right becomes solely held by the idle rich.