Someone asked me the other day who I considered to be the biggest winner of the 2016 election. I don’t think it was Donald Trump or the people who are aligning themselves with him. I think it was freedom of speech and expression.
Alexis de Tocquevil (Democracy in America) observed that:
Once the Americans have taken up an idea, whether it be well or ill founded, nothing is more difficult than to eradicate it from their minds.
Tocqueville might as well have been observing the United States today rather than almost 200 years ago. There are no sacred cows in America. Absolutely no one is above criticism and all issues, including politics and religion, are open for discussion. In today’s international community, the United States stands almost alone in upholding near-absolute freedom of personal expression, largely thanks to the constitutional protections provided by the First Amendment.
We take our cherished freedom to think, speak, write and express ourselves for granted. Freedom of speech must be defended if it is to remain actually free and, absent certain internalized principles, all the legal mumbo-jumbo in the world is no more than a parchment barrier and increasingly, it begins to look like a paper target.
Recent developments alarm civil libertarians because they could carry long-term negative repercussions for the United States as a free and open society.
In a global trend, people have come to expect emotional and intellectual comfort as their right. We’ve trained an entire generation that they have a right not to be offended. Are we surprised that they stopped demanding freedom of speech and started demanding to be free of the “offensive” speech of others?
Great Britain is undergoing what one writer describes as a slow death of free speech. England’s press (but not its broadcast media) has been free of government interference since 1695, but in 2014, more than 200 UK leading cultural figures signed a declaration demanding the the UK press sign up to the Royal Charter of press regulation. Ordinary people face jail time for callous tweeting. In British universities, student-driven campaigns have successfully shut down debates and banned pop songs, newspapers, and even philosophy clubs.
Of course, that’s on the other side of the Atlantic and the United States has the First Amendment prevent outright government regulation of the press, so we don’t need to be concerned about cultural attitudes dragging us in the same direction, right?
Don’t try to make that claim on most American campuses because the intellectual habits of debate and discussion and tolerance for the views of others has pretty much been eliminated. Trigger warnings and safe places are becoming the norm. We regularly hear of campus outrages involving a controversial speaker or perceived injustice, and the “offended” parties responding with a frenzied social media crusade or a real-world attempt to shame, bully, browbeat, censor, and punish the offender. These days, be careful that what you say doesn’t make someone feel “unsafe” because it will be the end of your career.
There is a brand of millennial social justice that advocates for the destruction of intellectual honesty and open mindedness. It balkanizes groups of people, engenders hatred between groups, lies if it serves their agenda, manipulates language to provide immunity from criticism and then publicly shames anyone who even remotely dares to dissent. This ideology is today’s biggest threat to free speech and genuine tolerance because it prevails among “educated” young people today, spreading through academia.
In Kindly Inquisitors, Jonathan Rauch notes that these “humanitarians” who seek to prevent offense to oppressed and marginalized peoples conflate speech with physical action. That you contemplate an alternative opinion is now considered as highly offensive as if you beat someone to death for disagreeing with you.
But the frightening prospect is that these young people will grow up to rule the world we leave them. The future of a free society looks very bleak should these types become a dominant force on the political landscape.
Despite these challenges, free speech has unparalleled potential for human liberation in the Digital Age. The battle between liberty and power and the individual and the collective will continue. I believe the truth can still prevail in the marketplace of ideas if we treasure and defend the principles, practices, and institutions that make it possible.
Under no circumstances do I consider Donald Trump to be a free speech warrior, but many of the people who voted for him did so because he is political incorrect. He did not allow the speech codes of modern society to silence him in speaking of concerns that most ordinary Americans have. People who were fed up with being told “you can’t say that” voted for someone who did “say that” and, whether or not you like what was said, freedom of speech won the election.