You Were the Thought Police All Along

You Were the Thought Police All Along

Political correctness and campus speech politics are among the cultural issues keeping libertarians today from recognizing their place within the community of liberals. Libertarians see themselves as defenders of freedom of speech and expression, as well as scientific investigation, while liberals and the left take up the role of thought police. Meanwhile, liberals see themselves as simply calling out, and opposing giving a platform to, dangerous and reactionary people. The perceived stakes are erosion of liberty on the one hand, and the public acceptability of dangerous prejudices on the other. As long as the dispute continues the way it has, many who are open or loyal to liberal principles will continue to be pulled into coalition with conservatives.

The discussion has taken place well outside the traditional concerns for freedom from censorship backed by state power. And this despite the fact that some of the disputants are nominally committed to the (incorrect) view that state power is the only power that matters. Libertarians have been among those howling the loudest about censorship in instances when it seemed to be merely private citizens applying social pressure. And liberals have joined some on the left in pronouncing the dangers of certain forms of speech. What’s odd is that libertarians and conservatives often deny the power of words. Certainly when speech is equivocated with outright violence, liberals and the left have veered into hyperbole. But one need not give in to a vulgar Foucaultianism to see that speech and rhetoric are more than mere words.

The early modern and nineteenth-century liberals certainly did not underestimate the power of speech. They strongly endorsed freedom of speech nevertheless. Many of their reasons are familiar to us today. Early liberals had a basic faith that the truth would prevail under conditions of liberty. But they also were suspicious of the partiality of censors; through cynicism, through political capture, or simply because of ignorance, censors could bias public speech against the truth. Moreover, many liberals strongly believed that open criticism is a necessary precondition to arriving at the truth. Growing our knowledge is very difficult without the resources gained through critical analysis. Add on top of this the notion of discovery, which one finds running through J. S. Mill in the nineteenth century to Friedrich Hayek in the twentieth: Much of what might seem trivial or even immoral, today, we may eventually come to realize is an improvement over what came before. If we stop experimentation in ideas and rhetoric from the start, we cannot know what important resources we will deny to the future.

Arguments concerning freedom of speech are applicable beyond the realm of government censorship. For the most part, we ought to strive to give open, public discussion a very wide latitude. But in what follows, I will argue that there are cases in which it is appropriate to use the power of speech and expression to marginalize particular points of view. The standard here is not drawn from the freedom of speech tradition, but instead is more akin to simple reasonableness, or philosophical warrant, or larger moral concerns. These standards are much more fluid, less categorical, and less precise than one might desire. Different interpretations are asserted by a dizzying array of groups through the messy process of contestation that is an ongoing feature of life in a pluralist society. In a nation with freedom of association, it can be no other way.

Mere Words

Gamergate is a perfect, if fraught, example of how people can behave as if words have power even if they say otherwise. When they were not simply making death or rape threats to people they disagreed with, Gamergaters would often jeer that their feminist enemies didn’t understand that the profitability of the status quo in video gaming made the industry impervious to feminist critiques. But if profit was the sole driver of the industry, and the changes feminists wanted were unprofitable, then why did there need to be this big movement against the feminists?

The animus is better explained by their infamous call for “ethics in video games journalism.” Because one indie game developer had had a relationship with one journalist, Gamergaters latched on to the (repulsive and sexist) theory that feminists were sleeping with journalists in order to influence what they wrote. However one feels about the theory, it clearly demonstrates a respect for the power of words; video game journalists, through their words, apparently had the power to shape the video game industry.

The power of words grows ever greater if you watch “Tropes vs. Women,” a YouTube series by Anita Sarkeesian, the central target of Gamergate scorn. Upon watching these videos, one discovers that they are the most conventional—I would go so far as to say boring—recitation of standard feminist arguments, applied to video games. Each video describes one trope, explains its significance according to feminist theory, and provides numerous examples from a variety of video games. If even this can reshape an industry that dwarfs even Hollywood in revenue, as her critics accuse her of attempting to do, then words must be potent indeed.

Let us turn to a more recent and less asymmetric example: the controversy surrounding philosophy professor Rebecca Tuvel’s article in Hypatia, “In Defense of Transracialism.” In it, she drew a parallel between the arguments defending and critiquing the morality of being transgender and those of being transracial. In response, hundreds of people signed an open letter listing their grievances with the article and calling on Hypatia to pull it and apologize. After some initial pushback, the journal issued an apology.

Jesse Singal refers to this episode as a “witch hunt.” On Twitter he adds:

The implication from this and other tweets is that “online complaints” allow any set of unrepresentative wackos to drive scholarly inquiry. But the authors of the open letter view themselves as members of a community in which Hypatia plays a special role. They believed that, by publishing the article, Hypatia had failed to meet the responsibilities entailed by that role. Isn’t it natural for members of a community to organize and make their voices heard? What does it matter if they are representative or not, if they are correct? From the perspective of the authors of the open letter, Singal and others who have taken an interest since the story blew up are outsiders intruding on an internal community discussion.

But for Singal, academia itself has a special role in society at large. Its internal discussions have an influence on its overall character. If things go badly, we may end up with worse scholarship and science, a loss to all of us. Nevertheless, Singal’s specific critique lacks force. Who cares how representative an opposition group is? Peer review isn’t representative, either; self-consciously so. Reviewers are picked based on perceived expertise and willingness to give their time to the particular journal. Nor is the peer-review system so flawless that we ought to perceive it as the only legitimate venue for serious discussion. Singal didn’t suggest that we should, but his emphasis on “online complaints” as opposed to academic articles points in this direction. His article itself is a kind of online complaint, after all!

The core of his concern, of course, is the call to take the article down. And the classic defenses of free speech do apply here, in terms of the merits of critiquing the article rather than removing it. But we are not talking about state censors here, and there are definitely scenarios in which the open letter writers’ actions seem reasonable. Imagine, for example, if eugenics were to become the consensus view in social science again, with articles about the benefits of forced sterilization dominating top journals. I would favor aggressively organizing against it; online and at the universities. I would push hard to get pro-eugenics professors ousted from their jobs and marginalized in their field, and to amplify the influence and status of those who opposed them. This can only seem excessively harsh or dangerous to those who underestimate how dangerous the influence of institutions like the social sciences can be when they go awry, or for those who have an unrealistic faith in the self-correcting properties of such institutions if left alone. Their history provides ample evidence that their work is not neutral to the concerns of society at large (nor could it ever be), and that fields are capable of falling in with wicked ideas for decades at a time.

None of this would entail a renunciation of freedom of speech. I wouldn’t want to establish state censors to ban favorable discussion of eugenics; with the cozy relationship that exists between social science and government, I have no faith in which side such censors would take in any case. But to push for a change in the makeup of academia and to promote certain ideas is no more censorship than Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy project is censorship. For if the scenario I described above is censorship, then surely pushing to hire fewer professors on the basis of their liberal beliefs is, as well?

The classic defenses of freedom of speech were formulated at a time when some of the best and brightest were either proponents or agents of state censorship. The liberal critique still resonates most strongly against such censorship, and it does indeed expand beyond it into giving wide latitude to public expression and debate in general. But at the end of the day people have limited attention to give, and the voices and ideas people encounter have a highly skewed distribution. Making use of our freedom of association in order to try and knock some ideas out of the main body and into the long tail—and ushering better ideas into the mainstream—is not censorship. It is perfectly consistent with freedom of speech. This falls well short of defending Antifa and black bloc activities which veer into outright violence to achieve that end. But it does suggest that the open letter authors did not fail in their commitment to liberty. Where they failed—if they failed—is in the reasonableness of their criticism: Did they make the case that retracting Tuvel’s article was warranted?

These are inherently contested concepts, unattractive to those who might prefer the sharp, categorical lines of being for or against free speech. But they are the most appropriate standards nevertheless.


Featured image is a postcard of the State Penitentiary at Stateville, Joliet, Illinois, USA, from the Mary Evans/Peter Higginbotham Collection.