The demise of free speech in America

Free speech is the jewel in the crown of Liberalism. While Liberalism has many objectionable features—individualism, laissez-faire, freedom as procedure rather than substance—its defense of the right to speak and debate any idea is a lasting contribution to human progress. John Stewart Mill’s On Liberty is the classic argument.

A milestone for my generation was the 1965 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, where students won the right to bring in speakers of their choice, uncensored by the administration. This was a tremendous victory, rapidly duplicated on campuses across the country. This was the spirit of the times: freedom, liberation, breaking the ice-grip of the Cold War.

How times have changed. Today on campuses the call is for more and more restrictions, more and more punishments, more and more policing of speech and thought. This has taken on dimensions I would never have though possible, even in a totalitarian society. Even gestures and facial expressions are monitored: micro-aggression. Students expect to be shielded from anything that makes them uncomfortable. Hostility to freedom of speech is pervasive.

Carl Boggs, who participated in the Free Speech Movement back in the 60s, has a good piece on the current reversal of attitude.

At Berkeley, as at other institutions of higher learning in the U.S., campus life is governed by a byzantine system of laws, rules, and codes restricting or banning discussion on a wide variety of topics. Transgressions, real or perceived, can bring censorship, protests, discipline, even violent assault. In contrast to the older McCarthyism, however, the new censors are not so much the government and police but students, faculty, and administrators ready to investigate, detect, and punish.

He points out how astonishing it is that today the Left attacks speech whereas in his day—and mine—it was the Right.

In more recent times, the deepening cult of identity politics, along with elevated ideological strife, has given rise to an astonishing reversal: the same arch-conservative interests that strove to block advocacy in the sixties are now fighting – often against censorship and force – to secure their own freedom of advocacy. The previous “outside agitators” on the left have become mostly insiders, apostles of multiculturalism and unswerving enemies of “hate speech”.

All of this is part of the demise of the Left, which has descended into irrelevancy and replaced real politics with obsessive identity politics.

At the same time, definitions of hate speech – nowadays often framed as an act of violence – grow more elastic, expansive, and arbitrary the deeper we enter the murky realm of multiculturalism. The campus terrain has become especially treacherous, fraught with endless pitfalls and dangers. We have entered a zone where garden-variety Republicans like Coulter are ritually denounced as “neo-Nazis” and “white supremacists”.

All of this has reached a level of militant, fanatical stupidity that is truly frightening. Not long ago in Boston, 40,000 counter-demonstrators shouted down a tiny free speech rally, screaming “Nazi scum!” This is insanity.

The Left has completely lost its way.

References: The Strange (and Tortured) Legacy of “Free Speech”

Categories: Philosophy

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