Free Speech Is Not Enough

Not sure my next book will be Free Speech Is Not Enough, but I’m thinking about it. Can the world really be ready for a “Not Enough” series? Or should this idea be Left Behind? (Classical reference there. . .)

Conservatives are making a big strategic mistake to repair behind the principle of free speech in response to the kind of suppression of speech we’ve seen like Charles Murray at Middlebury, Milo at Berkeley, etc. Put simply, today’s ill-liberal left doesn’t believe in free speech any more. To the contrary, they are openly contemptuous of the idea of free speech, and have an entire theory to justify suppressing speech in the name of “justice.”

But let’s start with the superficial defects of the free speech redoubt. The left says America, and any defender of America, is racist, sexist, imperialistic, homophobic, transphobic, glutenphobic, and probably phobicphobic before long. To respond primarily with an appeal to free speech to is concede the premise of the left. Are we really saying—“Yes, I demand my right to free speech to defend racism, sexism, etc. . .”? Lame.

The right response to demands for censorship of speech is to challenge the leftist narrative, and its underlying theory, directly. The left believes that the idea of free speech itself is a tool of “oppression,” which is why the left has no respect for the idea of free inquiry. This is not new at all; it is merely a revival of Herbert Marcuse’s doctrines from the 1960s. As Marcuse wrote back then, “[T]he restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions. . . .”

One person who gets this clearly is Stephen Carter of Yale Law School. He has a very good column up at Bloomberg News this week on “The Ideology Behind Intolerant College Students.” Worth reading the whole thing, but here’s the best part:

I want to say a word about the ideology of downshouting. Students who try to shut down debate are not junior Nazis or proto-Stalins. If they were, I would be content to say that their antics will wind up on the proverbial ash heap of history. Alas, the downshouters represent something more insidious. They are, I am sorry to say, Marcusians. A half-century-old contagion has returned.

The German-born Herbert Marcuse was a brilliant and controversial philosopher whose writing became almost a sacred text for new-left intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s. Nowadays, his best-known work  is the essay “Repressive Tolerance.” There he sets out the argument that the downshouters are putting into practice.

For Marcuse, the fact that liberal democracies made tolerance an absolute virtue posed a problem. If society includes two groups, one powerful and one weak, then tolerating the ideas of both will mean that the voice and influence of the strong will always be greater. To treat the arguments of both sides with equal respect “mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society.” That is why, for Marcuse, tolerance is antithetical to genuine democracy and thus “repressive.”

He proposes that we practice what he calls a “liberating” or “discriminating” tolerance. He is quite clear about what he means: “tolerance against movements from the Right, and tolerance of movements from the Left.” Otherwise the majority, even if deluded by false consciousness, will always beat back efforts at necessary change. The only way to build a “subversive majority,” he writes, is to refuse to give ear to those on the wrong side. The wrong is specified only in part, but Marcuse has in mind particularly capitalism and inequality.

Opening the minds of the majority by pressing one message and burdening another “may require apparently undemocratic means.” But the forces of power are so entrenched that to do otherwise — to tolerate the intolerable — is to leave authority in the hands of those who will deny equality to the workers and to minorities. That is why tolerance, unless it discriminates, will always be repressive.

Marcuse is quite clear that the academy must also swallow the tough medicine he prescribes: “Here, too, in the education of those who are not yet maturely integrated, in the mind of the young, the ground for liberating tolerance is still to be created.”

Today’s campus downshouters, whether they have read Marcuse or not, have plainly undertaken his project. Probably they believe that their protests will genuinely hasten a better world. They are mistaken. Their theory possesses the same weakness as his. They presume to know the truth, to know it with such certainty that they are comfortable — indeed enthusiastic — at the notion of shutting down debate on the propositions they hold dear.

A nice piece of work by Prof. Carter.