July 15, 2020


Free Speech Defenders Don't Understand the Critique Against ThemOn cancel culture, the Harper's letter, the counter letter, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Bari Weiss, hypocrisy, and more (Nicholas Grossman, Jul 15, 2020, Arc Digital)

Here's the critique: You say you value free speech and oppose social penalties for bad speech, but your actions show that you don't. You value free speech for you and people who agree with you and oppose social penalties for expressing things you agree with. You're open to disagreement on some topics, sure, but when it comes to things that are important to you, social penalties for speech you identify as bad -- such as "Bari Weiss sucks" -- are not just acceptable, but good, something to be proud of, something to broadcast on a public forum so others know that you did it, encouraging them to do it too.

That critique often comes with an accusation of bad faith -- that the signatories don't care about free speech, they're just trying to protect their power -- which I think is unfair. Some, at least, genuinely care about how cancel culture hurts people with less visibility and influence. (Williams, it's worth noting, did not name the dinner party guest, which spared the guest from some internet unpleasantness.) But the hypocrisy charge sticks, and free speech defenders play into it by miscasting their argument as a high level defense of the principles that undergird a free society rather than what they're actually doing: debating the parameters of socially-acceptable speech regarding race and gender.

Free Speech Hypocrites

Not incidentally, hypocrisy is also a central criticism of Weiss. She denounces cancel culture, builds up cancel culture opponents as heroes and martyrs, and tries to cancel people whose expressions she deems antisemitic. And her definition of antisemitic includes things that others would classify as criticism of Israeli government policy rather than bigotry against Jews. Among the people Weiss has gone after are Palestinian-supporting Columbia professors in 2004-05 and cartoonist Eli Valley in 2019. Weiss has become an object of scorn in some circles not because they've never seen any of her work, but because she embodies the hypocrisy of free speech for me, but not for thee.

I take Williams's word that his soon-to-be-expelled dinner guest was unable to articulate this critique, but that doesn't mean no one has. Philosopher Judith Butler offers a version of it in Jewish Currents while reviewing Weiss's book How to Fight Anti-Semitism. For example, Butler discusses Weiss's emphasis on "opposition to identity politics," snarkily adding "which presumably excludes Jewish identity politics."

Williams's defense of Weiss highlights a problem that's too prevalent among free speech defenders: focusing on their least thoughtful opponents, including randos on social media, rather than engaging more thoughtful critiques. And it's a problem for anyone who supports things like freedom of expression and a relatively open marketplace of ideas, because it means the most visible defenders of free speech are talking past their opponents to preach to the choir.

...what about social distancing?

Posted by at July 15, 2020 12:00 AM