This article is one in a series of arguments on free speech in our summer issue.
A tenacious commitment to freedom of expression is one of the best traditions of the democratic left. But the contemporary left—a big part of it, at any rate—has embraced the belief that unwelcome ideas and works of art cause harm, and that the proper responses to such harms are calls for retraction and apology, rather than refutation (in the case of political ideas) and more powerful art (in the case of aesthetic productions).
When I was thinking about what I wanted to write here, I spent a few hours looking at the first five years of Dissent, from 1954 to 1959, and the last five years, from 2015 to 2020. What I found was a telling contrast. The first five of years of Dissent were filled with reminders of the importance of free expression. The last five years were not.
The founders of Dissent were fiercely anticommunist, yet you’ll find them repeatedly, heatedly, defending the free speech rights of Stalinists.
I’ll cite just one example. In an article about the state of liberalism in 1955, Irving Howe criticized Americans for Democratic Action for passing a resolution that supported “the right to advocate unpopular political proposals.” Why would Howe have objected to this? He objected because the ADA had changed the wording of a previous draft, which supported “the right to advocate unpopular political proposals, including communist ideas.” They’d taken out “including communist ideas.” In other words, he was attacking them for the failure to explicitly affirm the free speech rights of communists.
The early editors of Dissent, defending the free expression rights of a political group they loathed and feared, were in the tradition of Rosa Luxemburg, who said, “Freedom is always and exclusively the freedom of the one who thinks differently . . . all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political life depends on it.”
In the magazine’s most recent five years, I found articles that touched on these questions, but I couldn’t find any defenses of the freedom to think differently. Instead, I found articles like “The Free Speech Straw Man,” which told us that speech can be “part of the problem or part of the solution,” and that “each campus has to decide if regulating free speech is the best choice for its own community.” And “The Case for Safe Spaces,” in which we learned that “all politics are about emotional well-being.” And a book review that told us that a content-neutral defense of free expression is “more likely to aid the powerful than the . . . downtrodden.”
Contemporary skepticism about the idea of free expression seems to rest on two pillars.
The first is a heightened sense of distress about an old reality: the reality that the powerful can take advantage of free expression more readily than the powerless can.
The second is the startling ballooning of the idea of harm. Every affirmation of the importance of free expression that I know of, from Milton and Mill on down, comes with the important proviso that expression should be curtailed when it causes harm. What’s new in our moment is that the notion of harm has been expanded to an extraordinary degree, along with the notion of speech as violence.
It’s true, of course, that the powerful can take advantage of freedom of expression more easily than the rest of us. But it’s curious to draw the lesson from this that freedom of expression is a fig leaf for right-wing politics. The powerful can also more easily take advantage of the right to vote and the right to a fair trial. Are they fig leaves for right-wing politics too? It’s precisely because the powerful can take advantage of these rights more easily that we need to do everything we can to bring about a culture with the rock-bottom belief that these rights and the ability to exercise them must be universal. If we’re pressing for limitations on speech, we’re ultimately pressing for limitations on our own.
As for the claim that the marginalized and the vulnerable need to be protected from the harms, the violence, of unfettered free speech—well, there are many reasons to be skeptical of that claim. One reason is that history has no shortage of examples of people advocating restrictions on civil liberties in the name of the marginalized, but who’ve turned out—surprise, surprise!—not to represent the marginalized at all.
Why does this matter?
It matters because when we come in contact with ideas that challenge our own and think them through, even when we come in contact with rank falsehoods and think them through, our own beliefs become more intelligently rooted.
And it matters because, as the critic Ellen Willis put it, the expression of ideas, no matter how noxious the ideas, always
leaves a space . . . a space for contesting, fighting back with one’s own words. . . . For this reason the unrestrained clash of ideas, emotions, visions provides a relatively safe model—one workable even in a society marked by serious imbalances of power—of how to handle social conflict. . . . In the annals of human history, even this modest exercise in freedom is a revolutionary development; for the radical democrat it prefigures the extension of freedom to other areas of social life.
The left is at its most intelligent and most ethical when it believes—and vigorously promotes the belief—that everyone has the right to be heard.
Brian Morton teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. He is a former executive editor of Dissent.