We are poised at a pivotal juncture in history. The air around us is thrumming with tension, ideas are clashing from opposite ends of the political spectrum with no small amount of force. In the past couple of years, the topic of free speech has been galloping towards the frontlines of political discussion and has roused and inflamed many.
We’ve seen the advent of micoaggressions, the rise of university speech codes, a preoccupation with “hate speech”, and the notorious ascendancy of safe spaces. All of these things have claimed prominence fairly rapidly, at an almost disturbing pace. The modern appetite for censorship should be disconcerting. It’s anathema to our country’s philosophical origins, after all. To engage in the restriction of free speech is to be complicit in fraying the fabric of liberty that blankets our entire nation. More than chiefly a political phenomenon, the free speech debate is both cultural and psychological as well. A penchant for censorship will — and already is — radically altering our society.
First things first: It’s ironic that the Left is currently hankering after censorship while historically, they were the political persuasion that was “liberal” and “open-minded” and that championed free discussion. We don’t see much of that influence anymore. Interestingly, a lot of classically liberal sentiments that exist in our culture today have shifted to the Right. That the American Left has now become completely identified by its desire for — what else would you call it — restricted speech — is a portentous indication of the direction in which they are headed. And what direction could that be other than something vaguely totalitarian, if not outrightly so?
In modern times, there has emerged a distinct obsession with emotional safety. The individual is regarded not as resilient and intact but feeble and easily wounded. At colleges, large numbers of students rally for the paternalistic protection of their minds, as if it is an outrage to be exposed to ideas that they do not want to entertain. Challenging opinions are thought of as shrouded in danger. Such protestors, clenched and angry, feel righteous in lashing out with condemnations of hate speech, righteous in demanding censorship, righteous in insisting they be thusly protected by the academic elite and the university higher-ups.
Interesting to note: this is a far cry from the Left’s provocations of the 1960s with its ethos of experimentation and revolutionary-esque liberation. The 60s counterparts positioned themselves as rebels against paternalistic figures and institutions. Today, the young generation of the Left is categorically different, imploring these same paternalistic figures and institutions for their clout. This effect is hardly confined to college campuses and can be witnessed to a similar degree on social media, with calls for banning a host of political content, mostly that of right-wingers, which increasingly happens with decent success.
The belief nowadays is this: People are innately vulnerable above all.That’s a scary shift to have undergone. Stemming from this is the notion that the individual is not self-reliant. Victim-culture is rampant in part because it has become established that if you claim the victim, you’ll actually get things! Increasingly, the victim is indulged and is incentivized to continue in their pleas for censorship, amongst other things. Victim-culture also starts straying into politics in the form of laws protecting and benefiting disproportionately minority peoples, for example.
As it is, the leftists posit that individual, subjective offense is grounds for punishment, essentially — usually something along the lines of censorship. Their logic goes: I am offended = I am justified in my demand for censorship. I am involutionary exposed to an opinion I do not like = I am justified in curtailing free speech. And because all of this is based on what each individual person finds offensive and personally disagreeable, there’s an endless multiplication of offenses. It never ends! There’s nothing healthy or advisable about structuring your society in such a manner — that is, in a way that sufficiently encompasses everyone’s need to feel equally protected. Least of all, it’s impossible!
And for all the Left’s championing of diversity, diversity of thought is clearly not what they are after. Offense, it would seem, can negate the necessity of diversity entirely. Offense is like a currency in today’s culture. Collect enough of it and increasingly, you can actually wield power over your opponent.
Interestingly, at the core of the Leftist offense conundrum is that there is no distinction made between speech and action. It is insinuated that being exposed to ideas that one dislikes or strongly disagrees with is akin to a physical attack, equivalent to a direct assault on one’s identity. Leftist protestors unfortunately see themselves as powerless victims, in the sense that they are supposedly powerless against the supposed damage inherent in mere exposure to opposite viewpoints.
Such opposing viewpoints will assuredly do damage to their selves, and they will have no say in it — or at least that’s the belief. Thus, retribution is justified. To those asking for censorship, the swarm of opinions encountered in daily life are not conceived as the natural, healthy consequences of democracy but as direct assaults on one’s identity.
Sure, free speech may cause discomfort. But our preoccupation should not be with comfort or lack thereof. The primary concern of free speech is definitely not “protecting” minds. Speech has never been about that! A free exchange of ideas naturally helps us improve and challenge the ones that we currently uphold. Free speech is about continual intellectual progress and challenge. And such an aim has weak ties to the modern Left. Instead, a lot of the modern Left curiously appears to be in the business of carting around caution tape in an effort to actually shield themselves from anything that might, even mildly, threaten their ideological loyalties.
Of course, there are those that will hurl the claim that to advocate for free speech is to necessarily endorse the entire spectrum of radical, highly controversial political opinions. This is a very damaging thing to insinuate on their part (and they know it) and a radical claim to make.
It’s all-or-nothing and if you defend the right to unequivocal free speech then you are summarily grouped in with the entire gamut of opinions that exist, however unsavory and extremist some of them may be. According to leftist dogma, you are to be identified with them as a consequence of defending their right to exist.
But to defend free speech is not to defend the validity of every opinion out there. Defending free speech is not about credibility. The crux of free speech is the principle of it — the principle of every opinion having an equal opportunity to be aired and to exist. To concern ourselves too heavily and arbitrarily on what is okay to be aired and what is not is risky business; a threat to liberty. And the principle of free speech is not concerned with staking valuations on different opinions and ideas.
Again, to allow it to exist is not to automatically endorse it. (Permission and endorsement being conflated reads as a political strategy to push through anti-free-speech measures.) What it comes down to is this: Allowing the freedom of speech is probably wiser and less harmful than allowing the regulation of speech.
After all, this is important on a psychological level: Suppressing certain discourse will have unintended bad effects. Forcing people not to say, in some cases, generally considered “bad” things is probably not going to accomplish any kind of good in the long run. Logically, such a pursuit will backfire. What happens when you don’t permit people to say the things they want to say? It gets driven underground and that’s where bad things can fester, dangerously so. Regulating the speech of your opponents does not disarm them. It makes people feel restrained and this is usually not a good feeling to engender, especially en masse.
Furthermore, the debate with free speech is so viscerally significant because censorship of our speech inevitably ties in with censorship of our very thoughts. Any censorship smothers, in an ugly fashion, the thought that wanted to be uttered; it does not painlessly evaporate. This suppression is not good (and isn’t it odd that conservatives are the ones arguing for free speech when they are the ones typically associated with traditionalism and “repression”? And yet it’s the Left that hungers for censorship — which, in that case, we should ask why. It’s less about protection and more about power, I think.)
My point is this: it is less dangerous to let people utter their thoughts instead of not allowing them the perfect human liberty to do so. After all, on some level, we humans are aware that it is not natural for external forces to oppress our speech. Censorship is a totalitarian aim at its core and you have to ask yourself what the end result of it is. Where does it lead? To what overarching ideology can censorship, even in mild forms, be connected to? Totalitarian oppression is what. We’ve already seen the evidence of that.
What makes the Left think that they’ll stumble into a peaceful, conflict-free society if they can just get their hands on restricting speech and regulating the public sphere in this manner? All historical evidence directly contradicts this presupposition. Controlling and murderous societies always resulted. Peace remained a fairytale, painfully at odds with the grim portraits of Communist, censorship-rife societies. That’s obviously the worst-case scenario, but it’s one we have to be mindful of.
Censorship to the degree that any opposing opinion deemed even potentially threatening can be silenced is the unspoken goal of many radical leftists. Their logic reads that in doing so, conflict — or potential conflict — will be eventually eradicated. But that will never happen. Never in practice anyways. Only in theory; only in the quixotic imaginations of radicals. Conflict is inevitable in any society and it is not the mark of an “evolved” one to have been successful in stamping it out. If by “evolved” we mean totalitarian societies, then sure, I bet you could find a lot of silenced voices in the hollow, ghostly streets of Communist Russia, as one example. And yet, the conflict that the modern Left is fluent and practiced in is increasingly not that of rational discussion (which they view as characterized by a futility) but attack-and-confrontation-style theatrics.
Liberty is not a concept couched only in politics; it receives a major boost (or lack thereof) from culture itself. It requires sufficient vigilance to stay alive. If we should be protecting anything, it should be liberty itself. Currently, cultural attitudes are indicating widespread hostility towards free speech. In modern universities — a cultural institution — we see the slow crawl to totalitarian censorship in effect. And universities are the very nucleuses of the free discussion of ideas, historically the halls of intellectual diversity! It becomes clear that universities are not so much committed to the free discussion of different ideas but rather, are committed to cultivating groupthink and flushing student’s minds of the “wrong” kinds of thoughts. Intellectual provocation is increasingly viewed as distinctly punishable in this new atmosphere.
A word of warning: This is how societies crumble. Not with a bang but with a progressive degradation, a pernicious peeling away of the things that originally helped us to flourish.
And a word on political correctness: While technically one could call it a mild form of “being polite,” let’s first recognize that in its inception it was used to silence dissenting opinions. Political correctness was derived from the Frankfurt school of thought, aka Critical Theory. It busied itself with creating intellectual conformity and upholding intellectual authoritarianism. Such things bear an eerie resemblance to the modern Left.
A hostility towards free speech will change our society, and not for the better. Genuine inquiry and critique are fading from the mainstream. (And that can go for the whole of the political spectrum.) Instead, strategies of condemnation without evidence or argument and attack-style confrontation are front-and-center. If there’s discourse happening, the prevailing tactic is not to listen to understand but to reflexively attack.
More and more, a slavish adherence to ideology takes precedence. Increasingly, language is used not to reach truth but to gain power. We’re allowing — and in some cases, cultivating — the death of free speech and we don’t want to know the consequences to that — they’re very ugly.