Columns, Opinions

Jacobs ’18: The conservative assault on free speech

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, February 6, 2017

My conservative friends tell me that free speech is under assault by American liberals. A brief interaction with on-campus Republican groups or a glance at right-wing social media communities reveals similar sentiments. Conservatives claim that political correctness has gone wild and that attempts to censor speech threaten to hurl the United States into a dystopian and intellectually neutered future.

But this is nonsense. It is a tale conservatives have retold in an increasingly banal litany that fails to accurately represent the American political climate and distracts from the most pernicious threats to free speech. What may have begun as a helpful — and perhaps needed — criticism of the left has mutated into a sordid and misused slogan, utterly incapable of contributing to political discourse and instead bent on coddling far-right conservatives.

Of course, there have also been instances when progressives have undermined free speech. For example, when Milo Yiannopoulos was not able to speak at the University of California at Berkeley because of various protest-based disruptions, they arguably did a disservice to public discourse and inadvertently bolstered the very ideas they find so contemptible by bringing more attention to Yiannopoulos’s rhetoric. Berkeley students had every reason to protest Milo, but preventing him from speaking only fed into his repugnant convictions.

But in recent years, the far-right has extended their criticisms to apply to moral condemnation of any kind. Now, when someone regurgitates a political perspective that is by any reasonable standard racist or ignorant, many conservatives tell us we should not label their perspective with those terms. The irony here should be immediately apparent: In the attempt to cast progressives as hypersensitive, conservatives have adopted positions that have produced hypersensitivity amongst themselves. We have to be wary of politicians and writers of any political affiliation who justify contrarian viewpoints in the name of defending free speech.

One might argue that the use of words such as racist and sexist — and indeed, the entire thesaurus of other -ist words — can stifle discussion when they are employed as ad hominem insults instead of criticisms. But this type of language is no more antagonistic to free speech than calling someone’s opinion incorrect or stupid. It may be unhelpful in promoting discourse, but it is an entirely legitimate application of free speech. In fact, nuanced moral condemnation is essential to political discourse. Who thinks we should avoid such language when describing neo-Nazis? Criticism on ethical or moral grounds is essential to prevent the normalization of such views.

We should not pull our punches for the sake of ideological diversity. Not all opinions are good ones — there are no “alternative facts,” history is not a fictional narrative constructed by George Soros and there are very real consequences of espousing xenophobic and decisively immoral positions. The notion that people should not be allowed an impassioned rebuttal when faced with such distressing elements is inherently antagonistic to free speech.

Though I sympathize with conservatives on campus who may feel dwarfed by the largely liberal student population readily disposed to attack right-wing ideas, a liberal environment does not mean that free speech is under attack. It only indicates that conservatism is an ideological minority and that if someone wants to defend President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, they better do a damn good job of it.

Today, with an administration disposed toward authoritarianism, free speech advocates who have traditionally criticized the left should turn their attention to a government and political movement that poses unprecedented threats to civil liberties, including free speech.

The generously-named alt-right have appropriated the term “fake news” and apply it to any piece of information contrary to their own ideological positions. They’ve formulated petitions to arrest Madonna under charges as a terrorist sympathizer. They have contended that criticism of Trump’s policies against refugees is anti-American and treasonous. And they’ve exhorted followers to harass and threaten ideological and cultural opponents.

Things are even more worrying at higher levels. The president has attempted to thwart the media — referring to them as “the opposition.” He has threatened to “open up” libel laws so he can prosecute journalists and has repeatedly attempted to silence and discredit his critics. The current administration’s Chief Strategist Steve Bannon has said the media should “keep its mouth shut” while simultaneously expressing sympathies for authoritarian ideologies. Even if many currently express distrust in the media, one cannot find any parallel to this extreme on the left.

If there was ever a time for free-speech advocates to direct their criticisms and opposition chiefly towardsprogressives, that time has passed. And though I believe that the left should undoubtedly do more to become receptive and open to conservative viewpoints, the notion that the left is engaging in some widespread movement that seeks to limit free speech is a misguided straw man. This argument distracts us from a party and an administration with an affinity for censorship and fundamentally undermines the movement to preserve free speech.

Julian Jacobs ’18 can be reached at julian_jacobs@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.