This article is one in a series of arguments on free speech in our summer issue.
When W.W. Norton decided to cease distributing Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth after several women accused Bailey of rape and other outrages, I called up my local bookstore and reserved a copy. When Amazon stopped selling When Harry Became Sally, which argues from a conservative point of view that it is not possible to change your sex, I went to Alibris.com and bought a used one. I would have bought the Dr. Seuss books withdrawn from distribution by their publisher, too, but I was too late: the few copies for sale online are going for hundreds of dollars. That these books had become “controversial” made me more curious about them than I otherwise would have been. I’m a grown-up, I thought to myself; I can make up my own mind about them.
These books were taken out of circulation for different reasons. Bailey’s book was discontinued by the publisher because of its author’s alleged wrongdoing. The Dr. Seuss case involves the business group that owns all his rights. When Harry Became Sally is just about one bookseller’s right to choose its wares, but it’s a bigger deal because of Amazon’s size: its sales account for more than half of all books sold in the United States. What these cases share—along with the successful drives to get Hachette to de-accept Woody Allen’s memoir and Simon & Schuster to cancel plans to publish Josh Hawley’s The Power of Big Tech—is that the challenges come from the left, broadly defined: trans activists, feminists, anti-racists, anti-Trumpers.
The left’s new enthusiasm for getting bad books taken off the shelves is a mistake. It’s in everyone’s interest, but especially the left’s, to have as broad a discourse as possible.
On elite campuses, or in the pages of the Nation, where I write, the left may look powerful and entitled to flex its muscles. But in the nation at large the left is weak. Republicans control all branches of twenty-three state governments; the Democratic Socialists of America, by contrast have around 90,000 members. In media, nothing on the left end of the spectrum is as popular as Fox News or right-wing radio shock jocks. And polls show Republicans are far keener than Democrats to ban from school libraries books they don’t like: ones about LGBTQ characters, witchcraft, vampires, evolution, and atheism, or that use “explicit language,” for example.
Some left-wing positions, such as universal health insurance and a much higher minimum wage, have a lot of support. But many do not: few Americans want to abolish the police, prisons, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or think looting and arson are great ways to stick it to the Man; according to a recent Gallup poll, only one-third of voters support trans athletes in women’s sports. What gives leftists the space to promote these unpopular positions in unfriendly places is the respect most Americans give to free speech.
People who want to deplatform a speaker or deep-six a book love to point out that the First Amendment only applies to government. But socially and culturally, the notion that people have a right to say what they think and read what they want is much broader than that. That is why common dismissals—you can still get the book online, the speaker has plenty of other ways to express herself, books go out of print all the time—sound flip.
Deplatforming a speaker who has been chosen through the accepted university channels, or attacking Powell’s Books for selling Andy Ngô’s Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy, means you lose the high ground. Now you look just like your enemies. And what have you won, really? Powell’s doesn’t put Ngô’s books on the shelves, but it sells it online. Charles Murray gets to look like the victim of a mob at Middlebury. Josh Hawley, like Woody Allen, takes his book to another publisher.
When you ban a book or shut down a speaker, what you’re really saying is that you need to protect people from ideas you disagree with. You don’t trust people to contextualize, to historicize, to weigh evidence, or even just, like me, satisfy a curiosity, without falling down the rabbit hole of error. And if they do fall down, you don’t trust yourself to haul them out. They will stay there forever, nibbling reactionary carrots. You can argue forever that there is no such thing as “cancel culture,” but people know when their intelligence is being disrespected.
The libertarian streak in American culture is rightly blamed for many of our problems. But it has a positive side. It is what allows people who think abortion is morally wrong to believe women should still be able to make their own decision, and what allows people who despise atheists (or anyone with a different religion) to resist the religious coercion and even warfare that is common in other parts of the world. It is what allows American socialists to imagine a socialism that preserves personal freedoms, including freedom of speech.
The question, as always, is who decides what is permissible and what is beyond the pale. And who, as the Latin saying goes, will guard the guards? It’s easy to imagine that the people in charge would be like oneself, but the history of book banning in Western democracies suggests otherwise. The same kinds of people always get power when ideas are up for suppression: fanatics, obsessives, careerists, apparatchiks. And ideas get out anyway: Mein Kampf was banned in Germany until a few years ago, but there have been plenty of neo-Nazis and real Nazis there for decades.
“You’re basically a classical liberal,” my husband said when I read him a draft of this essay. Maybe so. Leftists spend a lot of time attacking liberalism and a lot of time relying on it to protect them, like children who assume they can say awful things to their parents and their parents will still be there for them. That’s true of (most) parents, but politics doesn’t work that way. If you call for a bookstore not to stock your enemy’s book or rejoice when a problematic classic is taken out of print, your enemy will do the same. Then it just comes down to who has more power. You won’t have a universal principle to appeal to. During the McCarthy era, American communists like my father understood this. Stalinists were more liberal than the liberals, if only out of self-preservation.
I would support free speech even if it wasn’t a tactical necessity right now, because I don’t think I have a lock on all the truth in the world. But the fact is, given American realities, where almost half the electorate voted for Donald Trump and large numbers don’t even believe in evolution, no one needs it more than the left. It’s messy, it’s contradictory, it means living with insults and stupidity and even, sometimes, evil and pain. Fortunately, your enemy is in the same position. That may be as good as it gets.
Katha Pollitt’s most recent book is Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. She writes a monthly column for the Nation.