Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images
the national interest

Why Haven’t the Free-Speech Liberals Denounced This? (They Have).

Not every free-speech advocate is a hypocrite.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images

“Many people have said this already,” writes Hamilton Nolan, a columnist for In These Times and The Guardian, “but watching the Cancel Culture Panic brigades entirely switch their positions now that the issue is Palestine is a very valuable learning experience that I hope people remember for a long time so that we don’t have to repeat that charade again.”

Many people have, indeed, already said that the “Cancel Culture brigades” (or the Harper’s letter signatories, or pro-free-speech commentators at places like the New York Times or The Atlantic, or any other stand-in for pro-free-speech liberals) don’t actually care about free speech at all. But it continues to be said, day after day, and year after year, even though it is plainly untrue. The frequency with which certain left-wing intellectuals almost ritualistically repeat this canard is itself revealing.

As a factual matter, the claim is that “Cancel Culture Panic brigades” (or some other shorthand for liberals and centrists who oppose illiberal speech norms by the left) refuse to condemn crackdowns on pro-Palestinian activism or other left-wing speech. The claim is obviously untrue. There is a large cohort of people who defend liberal norms against both the right and the left. A very partial list of writers who have criticized left-wing illiberalism, and also recently defended the free-speech rights of anti-Israel activists, includes Michelle Goldberg, Robby Soave, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Phoebe Maltz Bovy, Yascha Mounk, Jesse Singal and Katie Herzog, Nicholas Christakis, and myself.

The main organization dedicated to defending free-speech norms against both the left and the right is the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. If you peruse FIRE’s website, you’ll find it includes a long list of defenses of free speech for left-wing activists and academics in general, and anti-Israel activists in particular.

FIRE has gotten so accustomed to being accused of ignoring right-wing violations of free speech that it is, in fact, actively criticizing that it has a collection of them. To offer a few examples of this common trope, here are student-debt activist Melissa Byrne, The Nation columnist Elie Mystal, and Democratic satirist Doug J. Balloon asserting that FIRE has refused to defend some left-wing victim of cancel culture that FIRE has, in fact, defended.

It is true, of course, that hypocrisy exists on every issue, including free speech and cancel culture. Broadly speaking, there are three approaches to free speech. The first is to complain about censorship by the left while ignoring or defending censorship by the right. The second is to complain about censorship by the right while ignoring or defending censorship by the left. And the third is to attempt to have some consistent set of principles that can defend free-speech norms regardless of content.

Calling out hypocrisy is an important tool to identify the difference between members of the first two categories and members of the third category. Strategic silence is a form of hypocrisy: If you only call out illiberalism by one side, while ignoring it by the other side, you are effectively legitimizing illiberal actions by your allies.

For those in categories one or two, the third category is deeply inconvenient. Since they wish to denounce their political enemies for impinging on free speech while ignoring similar actions by their allies, they don’t want to acknowledge that any consistent standard is possible. Asserting that nobody actually opposes illiberalism on the merits frees you up from grappling with this position.

That impulse is not limited to free-speech issues. Insisting that nobody really upholds a value is a way of giving yourself permission to ignore it. Brutal dictators like to say that every government violates human rights; gangsters are fond of insisting they’re no more crooked than any other powerful person.

There is a crucial difference between a specific, factually grounded charge of hypocrisy and a sweeping generalized charge of hypocrisy. The former is designed to uphold standards by shaming those who violate them. The latter is designed to undermine a standard by asserting implicitly that nobody actually cares about it.

The ubiquitous rhetorical move of insisting the “cancel-culture brigades” never criticize right-wing censorship serves that purpose. Its adherents repeat it so frequently because it plays a crucial role in their worldview in discrediting a belief system, free-speech liberalism, that poses a threat by dint of its ideological proximity. (The near enemy is always more dangerous than the far enemy.)

By dint of the frequency with which it is repeated, usually on social media, the belief that no principled free-speech defenders actually exist has become a kind of metaphysical truth. Their accusation that nobody cares about free-speech norms is actually a confession that they personally do not care.

Why Haven’t the Free-Speech Libs Denounced This? (They Have)