Discover more from a fête worse than death
shut up about freedom of speech!!
Last week, a Harvard affiliate asked me to sign a petition that concerns the apparently dire condition of “free speech” on campus. Not only I did I decline to sign the petition, but I became exercised. I suppose I’m sort of scooping the people who wrote and plan to disseminate the document, for which, sorry, sort of—but, since thinkers on the right are perennially making the points that appear in it, and since we can be assured that a similar petition is pretty much always in the works, and since I don’t intend to go into too much detail about the specifics of this particular petition, and since petitions of this sort tend to be nigh identical in all important respects, the Harvard affiliate’s email seems like as good an occasion as any to reflect on “freedom of speech” and whether it has anything whatsoever to do with what is often called “cancel culture.” Besides, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently gave a lecture on freedom of speech in which she also made all of the same sort of maneuvers, and it also irritated me, so there is no shortage of reasons to jump into the fray. Also, I have a non-COVID but hellish cold that’s confining me to my bed and melting my brain, so this is the sort of topic I’m currently equipped to tackle. (I remind you once again that the best writing is the product of the best editing and is therefore to be found not on Substack but in magazines; at least, that’s where my best writing is to be found, and that’s really where you should direct whatever money you have to spend on such things, not here.)
With that said: Setting aside the question of whether the picture of reality sketched in both Adichie’s speech and the Harvard petition (disinvited speakers, self-censoring students, inquiry grinding to a halt, etc etc) has anything to recommend it, I do not think that the issue (whatever the issue actually is, of which more anon) is best squinted at through the lens of “free speech.”
Consider the supposed violations of free speech that are dutifully trotted out in some Frankensteinian mash-up of the Adichie speech and the petition: a speaker is disinvited from campus because of student/faculty outcry; a student with conservative leanings faces social sanctions among her peers; a novelist who wants to write a particular kind of book decides against it solely on the grounds that it would be professionally disadvantageous; a public intellectual writes a moderately stupid Tweet, then receives death threats from thousands of strangers online. I will consider each of these cases in turn; some of them strike me as real injustices, but none strikes me as a matter of freedom of speech.
First of all, what is freedom of speech, anyway? Obviously, there are reams of debate about what, exactly, a commitment to “freedom of speech” guarantees, and I’m not going to settle the matter on Subsack while I’m hopped up on Theraflu. For our purposes here, it’s enough to say that a demand for “freedom of speech” is a demand that speech be restricted only under very limited conditions. We enjoy “freedom of speech” when the default is that we can say what we want, and when speech is curtailed only with excellent justification. Few people are free speech absolutists, so most people think that there is some adequate justification for restricting speech (when the speech is defamatory, when it incites violence, etc), but “freedom of speech” requires that restrictions be the exception rather than the rule.
Freedom of speech is a virtue of political institutions, but it is not always a virtue of private institutions, and the reasons why we might want to limit the speech a state penalizes do not generalize. A liberal or liberal-ish state is committed to allowing people to devise and realize their own conceptions of the good life—to fashioning communities with norms and expectations that reflect their own values. The more sorts of speech the state restricts, the more visions of the good life it rules out. If the state rules out religious speech, it rules out religious communities; if it rules out blasphemous speech, it rules out secular communities. But of course private institutions have no obligation to allow their denizens to realize as many visions of the good life as possible! Indeed, private institutions can and often should strive to bring a specific form of life about, and limiting certain kinds of speech is part and parcel of such a project. I am glad that it is not illegal to call your siblings obscene names, but I certainly think that a parent ought to be allowed to forbid her child from shrieking epithets at the dinner table. I am glad that it is not illegal to blaspheme, but I understand why that’s against the rules of various church groups. In other words: the point of state neutrality about speech is to allow self-determined communities to violate neutrality about speech.
Like families or organized religions, universities and magazines both have a prerogative to limit speech. In fact, that’s what they’re in the business of doing. Both are institutions with curatorial missions, and curation entails exclusion. Forget politically contentious speech: it’s the purpose of a university to proscribe stupid speech and the purpose of a magazine or publishing house to to proscribe aesthetically inert or unoriginal speech. Indeed, there are sometimes even reasons for a university or magazine or a publisher to restrict true but boring speech, e.g., it’s true enough that the earth is round, but I don’t think there is any call for a lecture series about how the earth is round at Harvard, since the fact is already amply established and scientific inquiry has since moved on. What is boring, what is beautiful—these are contentious questions without obvious or uncontroversial answers. Nonetheless, it’s the mandate of a university, publisher, or magazine to make value judgments with which many people will inevitably disagree. That’s why we don’t teach astrology but do teach astronomy; that’s why we only assign certain books; and finally, that’s why there are a number of magazines and universities with different political orientations.
Given that there is no general right to say whatever you want at Harvard, what exactly is the problem when a speaker is disinvited? What general principle has thereby been violated? Surely not the principle that Harvard must invite everyone, even cranks and quacks, to give talks. And surely not the principle that we can never disinvite a speaker that we have invited, for presumably there are plenty of good reasons to do such a thing (for instance, if it comes to light that the speaker has plagiarized or fabricated data). And surely the relevant principle is not that we can never disinvite a speaker or change other matters of university policy in response to collective action from students and other community members, for the authors of the petition are writing in hopes that their collective action will affect university policy. None of this means that Harvard should have disinvited the speaker. What it means is that, if indeed Harvard should not have disinvited the speaker, it is not because doing so was a violation of the speaker’s right to freedom of speech.
Maybe the idea is that it’s not the speaker’s right to freedom of speech that’s been violated, but that that of the conservative students who see conservative speakers getting disinvited from campus and therefore feel pressure to self-censor—which brings us to the second case, that of right-wing students facing social sanctions. Now, I don’t follow the right in thinking that social opprobrium is no big deal and that anyone who complains about it is a “snowflake.” On the contrary, I believe that ostracization visits serious psychic harms, which is why I think many of the provisions conservatives tend to oppose in the name of “freedom of speech” (e.g., using an addressee’s preferred pronouns) are morally obligatory. I even go the extra mile of believing that conservative students at most major universities (or writers with impolitic ideas) are in fact ostracized and that this is non-trivially wounding to them. But first of all, even if this is bad or unpleasant or harmful, is it best understood as a curtailment of freedom of speech? Is your freedom of speech really violated whenever you face pressures to say something in particular? Don’t we always face pressures to say particular things? Isn’t social pressure an ineliminable part of nature of existing in a community with other people who have opinions? And moreover, how do the petitioners propose that institutions address the problem of interpersonal hostility? Surely not by suppressing the speech of those who disagree with or dislike conservatives (an obvious violation of this latter group’s freedom of speech), or by mandating that students who dislike conservatives nonetheless invite them to parties (an obvious violation of the hostile students’ rights to freedom of association).
If there is a problem at all, what is it? This final question brings me to the two cases that I do think are troubling: the case of a novelist who wants to write something s/he believes is artistically valuable but refrains out of fear of social censure, and the case of a public intellectual who writes a silly Tweet and subsequently receives a barrage of death threats from strangers. I think there are two causes for complaint here, neither related to “freedom of speech.”
The first pertains to substantive questions about the bounds of what we are permitted to say. Even in situations in which we all acknowledge that “freedom of speech” is not a desirable goal and that much speech should be restricted, we can have substantive disagreement about which speech should make the grade. Instead of complaining about freedom of speech, the petitioners would have done better to make actual arguments about why the disinvited speaker deserved to speak at Harvard, if in fact she did. In the case of a novelist who wants, e.g., to write a novel about an incel but worries that people will respond by thinking s/he is an incel apologist, the problem is not that novelists have a general right to write about whatever they want and get published by nice imprints, but that the imagined critics are substantively incorrect about the value and function of art about unsavory people (a case in point: an op ed columnist at the paper of record recently complained about an amoral or at least not explicitly didactic television show, in which, alas, “no moral framework determined who won and who lost.”) I happen to agree that some subsection of art about or by unsavory people is restricted on grounds that don’t hold water, and I don’t happen to agree that the disinvited speaker the petitioners are so gung-ho about deserved to speak, but the point is—these are all agreements about substance, not procedure. At the end of the day, I think a lot of disputes that are nominally about freedom of speech are just punting on the real issue—which is the issue of why the particular sort of speech that’s been excluded should be allowed. In a domain in which freedom of speech is not the default, such as a university or a magazine, it’s never enough to just gesture at a general entitlement to “freedom,” because no such thing exists!!! I’m not sure there is any institutional fix for disputes over which speech should be allowed or embraced, both because many disputes over value are probably irresolvable and because what we value hinges on nebulous social norms, and I have no idea how to change those, and I don’t really think anyone else does either.
The second cause for complaint is not about what we are allowed to say, but about how we are allowed to punish people who say things that they shouldn’t say. It’s true that anyone in a community of any kind faces pressure to voice certain opinions and keep quiet about others, but there are still certain kinds of pressures that are uniquely impermissible. One of these is harassment. The problem in the case of the professor deluged with death threats is that death threats are not an appropriate sort of sanction, even for people who voice genuinely objectionable views. Perhaps some of the people who don’t like conservative students actually harass or bully them, and harassment and bullying should not be allowed. The solution here is not more speech, but less; specifically, it’s restrictions on harassment. A similar sort of problem is that people sometimes get fired for certain sorts of speech. The problem is not that people should never be fired for saying objectionable things—the workplace is not a domain in which freedom of speech is valuable—but that employees are rarely informed in advance about which sorts of speech will result in termination. Because America has an at-will employment regime, people are often fired for speech they have no way of predicting will get them fired, often because of social media outcry. The solution to this problem is not free speech in the workplace but stronger unions, workplace democracy, and just-cause provisions in contracts.
In sum, the issue is not ‘freedom of speech,’ it is either that the particular speech that isn’t allowed in some context should be, that people are too cruelly punished for bad speech (or for speech that isn’t really bad), and that job contracts aren’t clear about what is a fireable offense. The problem is almost never that we should restrict speech as little as possible in the institution in question, which is what freedom of speech is about!!