Sunday, March 20, 2022

The Times' Clumsy Blow for Free Speech

         The New York Times struck a clumsy blow for freedom of speech last week [March 18] in an unsigned editorial under the headline, “America Has a Free Speech Problem.” The Times’s editorialists diagnosed the problem as stemming from what they called “a destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination around cancel culture.”
            In a misguided attempt at bothsidesism, the Times faulted “many on the left” for refusing to acknowledge the existence of cancel culture. More substantively, the Times rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of “many on the right” who “for all their braying about cancel culture, have embraced an even more extreme version of censoriousness as a bulwark against a rapidly changing society, with laws that would ban books, stifle teachers, and discourage open discussion in classrooms.”

This recent example illustrates the conservatives’ hypocrisy. The Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas criticized “cancel culture” in a speech to a Republican audience in Utah on March 12, barely three months after his political activist wife Ginni Thomas joined fifty conservatives in urging the House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy to expel Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger from the House Republican conference because of their participation in the committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. If McCarthy obliges, that would be cancel culture to the max.

            The Times editorial cited no instance in which a free-speech speaker has been “canceled” by individuals or groups seeking to shun or silence the speaker. The proof of the diagnosis consists, according to the editorial, of the results of a recent poll commissioned by the Times that showed only 34 percent of those surveyed believe that all Americans enjoy freedom of speech completely. Indeed, 84 percent of adult respondents called it a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem that some Americans do not speak freely in everyday situations because of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism.

            From this observer’s recollection, the only free-speech speaker to have been effectively canceled during the past few years is Colin Kaepernick, who was blackballed out of his career in professional football based on a backlash by political conservatives. Football fans nationwide, encouraged by Republican politicians and conservatives, objected to Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem before an exhibition game in San Diego on Sept. 1, 2016, as a symbolic protest against police brutality against black Americans..

            A Wikipedia entry on “cancel culture” notes that “some public figures claim to have been ‘cancelled’ while continuing their careers as before.” The heavily annotated entry also cites several public opinion polls that record public concern about the issue, including one conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2020.

            The polls simply record the conservatives’ success in coining a weaponized term that necessarily stings and sticks in the public consciousness. A neutral term for the practice could be, for example, “consequence culture” or “call-out culture.” Either of those terms would show the practice to be fully consistent with freedom of speech: the freedom, that is to say, to disagree with what some free-speech speaker says.

            In that regard, it is worth recalling George Orwell’s prescient essay, “Politics and the English Language” (1946), in which he warned that thought corrupts language and language corrupts thought.

            The Times premised its critique on a free speech principle unfound in law books or First Amendment treatises. “Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned,” the newspaper lamented.

“This social silencing, this depluralizing of America, has been evident for years, but dealing with it stirs yet more fear,” the newspaper added. “It feels like a third rail, dangerous. For a strong nation and open society, that is dangerous.”

Calling out offensive or hateful speech is an important First Amendment exercise that empowers the marginalized victims of prejudice or discrimination vis-à-vis established opinion leaders with regular platforms like the Times or respected professionals regularly invited to speak at prominent public fora, such as colleges and universities.

To be clear, the powers that be “canceled” black Americans in much of the country for a full century after the end of the Civil War. And LGBT individuals were similarly canceled out of public consciousness through most of U.S. history until the Stonewall protest in New York City in 1969. Only now have black Americans and LGBT Americans summoned the resolve to speak out against those who have silenced them and erased them from the United States’ melting pot.

            The “braying” from conservatives about cancel culture betrays their true purpose: to silence or disarm their opponents, not to establish some principled ground rules for public discourse and debate. The Times deserves a big raspberry for giving aid and comfort to the partisans who claim allegiance to free speech even while enlisting friendly politicians such as Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, to suppress free speech in schools and in the public square. [825]

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