The Right Is Worse Than the Left on Free Speech. So What?

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Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Mari Uyehara has a column arguing that too many columns have been written about free speech on campus. Uyehara does not endorse the kinds of repressive actions that these columns decry (no-platforming is “a terrible technique,” she concedes), but instead focuses on the disproportionate coverage. “The number of publications and prominent journalists willing to cover [these episodes] is quite high,” she complains. “Andrew Sullivan has written in New York magazine about a half-dozen articles, warning that ‘the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy.’ His colleague Jonathan Chait has written another dozen on PC culture … In The New York Times, Bret Stephens regurgitated a speech as an article called ‘Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort,’” and so on.

This is not the first column to argue along these lines. Jamie Piltch (“Free speech isn’t under attack on campuses”), Chris Ladd (“There Is No Free Speech Crisis on Campus”), Rich Smith (“There’s No Free Speech Crisis on Campus, So Please Shut Up About It”), Jeffrey Sachs (“The ‘campus free speech crisis’ is a myth. Here are the facts”), Matthew Yglesias (“Everything we think about the political correctness debate is wrong”), Hamilton Nolan (“Get Over College Kids”), Sophia McClennen, Leah Finnegan, Andrew Hartman, Clio Chang, Clio Chang again, and David Masciotra, to name just a few, have all hammered home essentially the same argument.

Many columns have made the case that too many columns have made the case against political correctness on campus. That is not necessarily a bad thing. If people have intense feelings about the number of columns devoted to discussing free speech on campus, they should express them. The heart wants what the heart wants.

But complaints about the quantity of a discussion tend to devolve into non sequiturs. Many of the anti-anti-PC-niks, while conceding that it’s wrong to shout down speakers or close down newspapers, use the moral power of some other issue to make their case. Because we have too many anti-PC columns, they insist, we have too few columns on some worthier subject. “This is not to say that counter-protests and free speech debates aren’t important and don’t deserve our attention,” argues McClennen. “But it is stunning to note the public apathy toward the systematic defunding of higher ed — a move that affects all families regardless of political beliefs.” Uyehara complains bitterly that “The Free Speech Grifters” — her term for critics of illiberalism on campus — “were silent when Maya Wiley, the Social Justice SVP at the New School, made news for the humanity she showed toward Sam Nunberg during his six-hour media meltdown over an FBI subpoena.”

As a matter of fact, I was not silent about Maya Wiley’s extraordinary gesture toward Sam Nunberg. But imagine that Uyehara was factually correct, and I had failed to discuss that episode. What does one have to do with the other? If the real problem with anti-PC columns is that they ignore more important issues off campus, then doesn’t that criticism apply with equal force to anti-anti-PC columns?

The anti-anti-PC columns propose numerous psychological theories to explain the perverse motivation of the moderate liberals and (generally) anti-Trump conservatives who talk too much about the campus left. We have supposedly given aid and comfort to the far right, which has deftly exploited the excesses of the campus left.

My response is that the right is attempting to discredit liberalism by attaching it to the illiberal left, and the proper response, both morally and politically, is to separate the two. It’s obvious to me why conservatives want everybody who’s alienated by the callout culture to self-identify as a conservative. It’s less obvious to me why liberals should also want that.

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There is, of course, a valid argument to be had over the scale of the problem. I think defining the question as “free speech on campus” largely misses the point. It is not, for the most part, a question of “free speech” in the legal sense. It is about the spread on the left of norms and protocols of political discussion that make reasoned disagreement difficult or impossible. In its most extreme form this can lead to overt censorship, and such acts mostly occur on elite campuses, which have the highest concentration of committed radicals. But campuses are not the only places where this political style has been on display. There is only so much formal censorship that can go on in a country with robust First Amendment protections. The question is what progressives are doing to our own minds.

As the noted Free Speech Grifter Barack Obama has put it, the impulse to shut down or shut out any opposing viewpoint as an offense or a threat to safety is a “recipe for dogmatism.” The great strength of American liberalism is its permeability, its openness to evidence and diverse perspectives, in contrast to the stultified atmosphere on the right. When some of us have diagnosed conservatism as suffering from “epistemic closure,” this is not merely a partisan talking point to bludgeon our opponents, but the expression of a fundamental value. A value is something you hold yourself to, not just something you taunt the other side with.

That’s why it misses the point for so many progressives to dodge complaints about left-wing dogmatism by pointing fingers at the right. The impulse to close ranks against the larger political enemy encourages overlooking unhealthy habits on one’s own side. Is the right worse? Yes, of course — and we have to keep it that way. If your only response to your side’s shortcomings is the comparative evil of the other side, then eventually the level of your standards will sink to theirs.

Jamelle Bouie, who has written probably the most sensible and fair-minded anti-anti-PC column, concedes not only that it’s wrong to shut down opposing points of view, but that it’s legitimate to worry that “an illiberal campus left might eventually become an illiberal political left.” Bouie simply concludes that it won’t happen because “similar warnings” failed to pan out when political correctness flared up briefly in the early 1990s. I hope he’s right. I’m less confident than he is in our ability to predict the future. One thing I do believe with some confidence, though, is that liberal values won’t prevail if people aren’t willing to speak up for them.

The Right Is Worse Than the Left on Free Speech. So What?