Is this the freest moment for speech in history or is speech under assault from censors and cancel culture

There’s been an interesting argument going on the past couple of days between Vox’s Sean Illing and Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). It started with a piece at Vox titled “What the 2020 debate over free speech missed.” As with many Vox pieces, this one is framed as a correction to some consensus view, usually on the right, that Vox wants to challenge. Not every Vox piece falls into this well worn “Ackshually…” framework but this one does.

2020 was an especially rancorous year, and among the many things we fought about was the state of free speech in America. There’s a rising contingent of heterodox thinkers — on the left and right — who argue that a culture of censoriousness has enveloped intellectual life and curtailedfree speech.

Illing then walks through a list of examples, from the battle at the NY Times over Sen. Cotton’s op-ed, to Bari Weiss quitting the Times, to Andrew Sullivan being pushed out by New York magazine, to Glenn Greenwald leaving the Intercept and even including Matt Yglesias recent departure from Vox.

And the common complaint, if there is one, is that public discourse is being stifled. As Greenwald lamented, “how imperiled, across all societal sectors, this indispensable value of free discourse has become.”

Greenwald’s critique of cancel culture is right and wrong at the same time. The boundaries of speech are being contested, on different fronts and for various reasons. But that has always been the case. What’s genuinely new about this moment is the number of voices in the discourse. We’re living in what is unquestionably the freest and most open information space in human history. So all of the challenges to speech are occurring alongside an explosion of … speech.

It’s pretty hard to argue with that. I got into this in the era of blogs about 15 years ago, around the same time Matt Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan got into it. Blogs democratized speech to a new degree. And then social media came along and now it’s even easier to share your opinion than ever. And to his credit, Illing does acknowledge that there’s something censorious happening on the left right now.

But in a truly free society, everything is up for grabs. The left, at this moment, is exerting a lot of cultural power and forcing mainstream media institutions to bend to new and shifting ideological standards. Whether that is, ultimately, good for leftist political movements is a separate conversation. What’s clear is that the digital media environment doesn’t privilege the same voices and attitudes that prevailed in the pre-digital world. It’s too competitive and fragmented now. That’s a major shift in how we think and communicate and it’s producing massive conflict.

Again, I think he makes a fair point. The only reason we’re hearing from so many petty tyrants on the left is because they have the ability to be so vocal now. Their calls to silence “hate speech” and whatever else offends them in a given day probably couldn’t exist without social media. That said I do want to return to that first sentence in the paragraph above because I think that’s where he loses me.

But before we get to that, Greg Lukianoff of FIRE put together an large thread on Twitter arguing that free speech is in worse shape than Illing seems ready to admit.

He has more to say about Hong Kong but let’s skip ahead:

The big picture seems to suggest things are getting worse this year:

Skipping ahead, Lukianoff eventually comes back to what’s happening on American college campuses:

He offers lots more examples and then gets to a survey of 20,000 students FIRE did this year.

And here’s Lukianoff’s counter-argument:

To try to sum up this long thread, Lukianoff is saying that yes we have a lot more access to speech thanks to technology but we also seem to have a growing number of would-be censors and while the former is good news, the latter has the potential to undo a lot of that, either legally as in Hong Kong or culturally as on American campuses and social media.

For his part, Sean Illing felt he was being misunderstood:

My own take on this argument is that Illing is correct that, in general, we have more voices in the conversation than ever. So that’s a big win for free speech and he’s right that we shouldn’t skip over that. But I think he’s far too quick to skip over the fact that there seems to be a small but quickly growing consensus on the left in favor of dumping liberalism and free speech in favor of cancel culture. It’s not live and let live or even I hate what you’re saying but I’ll defend you’re right to say it. What’s been building over the last 6 years or so is closer to ‘Shup up or else!’ Cancel culture doesn’t want to argue it wants to dominate and punish disagreement. Censorship isn’t a bug it’s a feature of woke thinking.

As I pointed out above, Illing does mention this in passing and even allows that it may not be a good idea for the left to pursue it. But ultimately he seems strangely blase about where that might lead. That’s why the line I highlighted above bothers me: “But in a truly free society, everything is up for grabs.” Well, no, it’s not. In a truly free society, freedom itself is defended and is not up for grabs. Sure, there may be people who think it’s up for grabs and who act or speak as if it is, but those people should be quickly shown the error of their ways by those of us who know better. Not to defend a particular partisan outcome but to defend free speech itself.

Illing doesn’t seem engaged in that effort. His argument boils down to this: Arguments for censorship have always been around and are a natural part of free speech, so let’s not panic. What I think he’s missing is the urgency that Lukianoff has precisely because he’s on the front lines of these battles. He sees people getting run over by the censors and he sees it’s a growing trend. What matters is stopping the censors in their tracks before they gain credence and claim more victims.

Maybe Sean Illing does care about that but you don’t really get the sense that he does from his piece which sounds more like a justification for letting things play out, i.e. “in a truly free society, everything is up for grabs.” But free speech is not up for grabs. The fact that we have a lot more of it now than 20 years ago doesn’t mean we can take it for granted and wink at the petty tyrants trying to cancel people they disagree with.

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