Why is free speech waning?

November 10, 2014 • 8:47 am

Since the 1960s, when I was engaged in various forms of liberal political activism, I’ve seen a waning of the support for free speech, so that now speech that offends people (erroneously lumped as “hate speech”) is under question.  The UN, of course, is contantly beleaguered by Muslim countries to make “defamation” an international crime, but much of the pressure also comes from college campuses in the U.S. and U.K. In fact, in our student newspaper last week, one student, offended by a Halloween costume of another (granted, a costume expressing a noxious national stereotype) called for help from the administration to suppress that kind of thing because, as he said, “Words hurt.”

“Words hurt” is the mantra of the new suppress-free-speech movement. And yes, words can hurt feelings, but so what? They also make people think. My view has always been that of the U.S. government itself: that speech cannot be suppressed so long as it doesn’t try to incite immediate violence.  If someone wants to wear a Halloween costume stereotyping Jews as hook-nosed, money-grubbing killers of Christ, more power to them. I will combat that with the best weapon I have against that kind of “speech”: other speech.

But, as we know, things are changing. And I don’t know why. The change is described in an article by John O’Sullivan in the Wall Street Journal:No offense: the new threats to free speech.” It’s ironic that in matters like free speech and the right to criticize religions like Islam, we leftists must sometimes make common cause with conservatives, and find support not in the Guardian or the New York Times, but in the Wall Street Journal or the National Review. (Note: that does  not mean that we adhere to conservative political policies!)

At any rate, O’Sullivan describes the anti-free-speech trend, but doesn’t analyze the reasons for it very deeply. Here are a few excerpts, and it’s a shame that we find such defenses of free speech mainly in right-wing venues:

Hearing criticisms of your own convictions and learning the beliefs of others are training for life in a multifaith society. Preventing open debate means that all believers, including atheists, remain in the prison of unconsidered opinion. The right to be offended, which is the other side of free speech, is therefore a genuine right. True belief and honest doubt are both impossible without it.

It isn’t just some Muslims who want the false comfort of censoring disagreeable opinions. Far from it. Gays, Christians, feminists, patriots, foreign despots, ethnic activists—or organizations claiming to speak for them—are among the many groups seeking relief from the criticism of others through the courts, the legislatures and the public square.

England’s libel laws—long a scandalous system for enabling the rich to suppress their scandals—now have imitations in Europe and the U.S. In May 2014, the European Court of Justice created “the right to be forgotten,” enabling those with ugly pasts—a fraudster, a failed politician, an anti-Muslim bigot perhaps—to delete their crimes, misdemeanors and embarrassments from Internet records so that search engines cannot find them.

Here we get a sense—and I think O’Sullivan’s right—that a some of the pressure to restrict free speech comes from religious people (especially Muslims and Catholics), “ethnic activists” (those who don’t want their ethnicity or nationality, or certain national policies, criticized), and from certain quarters of feminism that decry any criticism as misogyny and bullying. But if this is indeed the case—and I suspect there are other causes as well—why is this happening now?  After all, the rectitude of treating women, minorities, and those of other ethnicities as moral equals has been a theme in Western society for at least five decades. Yes, some of the pressure comes from other parts of the world, like the Middle East, but that doesn’t explain why Western society is becoming less supportive of free speech.

Nor can it be explained by the rise of postmodernism. After all, that movement sees no “truth” privileged over any other, ergo postmodernism should never support restrictions on speech.

More from O’Sullivan:

This slow erosion of freedom of expression has come about in ways both social and legal. Before the 1960s, arguments for censorship tended to focus on sexual morality, pornography and obscenity. The censors themselves were usually depicted as benighted moral conservatives—priggish maiden aunts. Freedom of political speech, however, was regarded as sacrosanct by all. As legal restraints on obscenity fell away, however, freedom of political speech began to come under attack from a different kind of censor—college administrators, ethnic-grievance groups, gay and feminist advocates.

Could it be that now that Baby Boomers—of which I am one—are in positions of power (politicians, college administrators, and so on), our youthful fights for diversity have been transformed into misguided attempts to maintain diversity by suppressing criticism that we see as harming it?  That’s of course, is a mistake; as O’Sullivan says, “The right to be offended, which is the other side of free speech, is therefore a genuine right. True belief and honest doubt are both impossible without it.”

He continues:

The new censors advanced such arguments as that “free speech can never be an excuse for racism.” These arguments are essentially exercises both in begging the question and in confusing it. While the principle of free speech cannot justify racism any more than it can disprove racism, it is the only principle that can allow us to judge whether or not particular speech is racist. Thus the censor’s argument should be reversed: “Accusations of racism can never be an excuse for prohibiting free speech.”

Meanwhile, the narrowly legal grounds for restricting speech changed, too. Since the 18th century, the basic legal justifications for restricting political speech and publication were direct incitement to harm, national security, maintaining public order, libel, etc. Content wasn’t supposed to be considered (though it was sometimes smuggled in under other headings).

Today, content is increasingly the explicit justification for restricting speech. The argument used, especially in colleges, is that “words hurt.” Thus, universities, parliaments, courts and various international bodies intervene promiscuously to restrict hurtful or offensive speech—with the results described above. In the new climate, hurtful speech is much more likely to be political speech than obscene speech.

There it is: “words hurt”— the very phrase that appeared in our student newspaper yesterday. (The student who wrote in was offended by another student dressed up in a Halloween costume as a Mexican narco. That is offensive but shouldn’t be prohibited.)

The three paragraphs above comprise a decent analysis of the history of speech restriction, but don’t get at the reasons for increasing restriction. Surely 9/11 and the actions of extremist Muslims are one reason (we have to shut up about Islam or we’ll be threatened or killed), which plays on misguided (and bigoted) sentiments that Muslims must be treated with kid gloves compared to other groups—a double standard for behavior.

But that doesn’t explain it all. It’s palpably clear that free speech as a principle of democratic society is on the way out. Not completely, for it’s written into the American Constitution, but even Canada and the UK are restricting its exercise, and European countries like France, Germany, and the Netherlands have criminalized public denial of the Holocaust. (I find this execrable: it is through the response to Holocaust denial that I in fact learned a lot about the evidence for the Holocaust.)

In the end, I’m baffled, except in my conclusion Muslim threats and terrorism are responsible for restrictions of speech that criticizes Islam (and, by extension, religion as a whole). I’m also at a loss to explain why, in my own country, one of the foci for the anti-free-speech movement is the college campus. Surely college campuses should, if anything, be a hotbed for free speech, for that is where you learn to think about and assess your own values and beliefs. But the collusion of administrators and students is eroding that freedom, too.

I suspect readers will have their own theories about what has happened to free speech in the last 20 years or so, and I’m eager to hear your theories, which are yours.





125 thoughts on “Why is free speech waning?

  1. I think the big shift has been that the left and far left, once the engine of the free speech movement, have become so embroiled in trying to appear PC that speech suffers. Liberalism has become more associated with relativism. The left is so afraid of appearing culturally biased that they are unwilling to draw any lines in the sand. So speech suffers.

    1. I think that’s a pretty fair analysis. It’s always a tension, isn’t it, between “letting the neo nazis protest” (to use an analogy) and banning them. It’s so easy to relax the great Principle, in this case of free speech, and do the thing we would otherwise wish to do, which is ban them. Again, it is easy to lose sight of how important the principle is. That is, it’s easy to forget Voltaire’s dictum to defend the right to speech while also arguing vehemently against the content of the speech. I think the left has just forgotten this, but it is basic to who we are. We’ll get back to it, in part because of the efforts of other liberals such as Jerry, to remind us of our committments.

      I also think that we need to be very careful (more careful) to be clear with especially the feminist groups about when they are really arguing against the right to make the speech and when they are just arguing against the content of the speech. Are they saying “I denounce the right to make that speech because it hurts me,” or are they saying, “That speech hurts me and I strongly denounce it.” Sometimes it is the former, sometimes the latter.

    2. I agree. The evidence is ‘words hurt’. The impetus behind being politically correct was to avoid using previously standard phrases because they offended, marginalized, or denigrated a particular group. Thus, most whites no longer call Asians ‘Orientals’.

      As particularly liberals have learned to be sensitive to the feelings of other groups, they seem to be extrapolating from avoiding problematic terms to avoiding any speech that could offend any group. This includes, of course, speech that analyzes just the ideas of any given group, as opposed to speech that may in fact be directly bigoted and/or racist.

      1. I tend to say Asian rather than Oriental these days but my good Japanese-Canadian friend recently remarked that he had been the first Oriental ( no air quotes) to have been hired at a big management consulting firm.

        1. My Indian friends are always annoyed at the word “Asian”. I say “suck it up – think of First Nations who were called ‘Indians’ forever and still do call themselves that”. 🙂

          I like to irritate everyone. With my hurtful words. 😀

          1. ‘My Indian friends are always annoyed at the word “Asian”.’

            Do they trouble themselves to advise you regarding what term(s) in their opinions you ought to use?

            What are their opinions on the Indian caste system?

            1. Well they’re only joking and they are happy to be in Canada whether born he or emigrated. I know one put “other” on the ethnicity question on a form and wrote in “Canadian”. It was partially a joke because the form mixed in ethnicities and nationalities.

              1. And my black friends (American and Canadian) virtually all say black and not African-American or -Canadian.

              2. Yeah I’ve always said black. No one says “African-Canadian”. Besides, not all black people are “African” and it gets confusing anyway. I used to make the joke that I wanted to be called “Northern European Canadian”. LOL just call me white – it’s my ethnicity and my colour.

              3. Available on Youtube is a talk George Carlin gave to the U.S. National Press Club in the late 90’s, his theme predictably enough about the (ab)uses of language.

                Carlin prefers the use of “black” to “African-American.” Contrariwise, he compares the skin tones of humans from Africa with some from India (and I presume he would also include some from Sri Lanka), claiming there’s little if any difference between their skin tones, and muses that one would be no less reasonably justified in referring to Indians (Sri Lankans) as “black” and, as a consequence, how shall one sufficiently distinguish between the two groups in discourse without referring to “African” and “Indian”? (He also critically examines and compares the two phrases “people of color” and “colored people and finds it difficult to discern a meaningful difference between the two, also reflecting that “white” [or pinkish white or pink or pinkish-tan, etc.] would seem to no less qualify as “of color.”

              4. On a choir tour in Ireland some years ago (I accompanied; you don’t want to hear me sing), our director was struck by how many, as he put it, African Americans there were in Ireland.

            1. Regarding “African-American:” I recently met a Caucasian couple who announced, “We’re African-Americans; we moved here from South Africa.”

  2. I think that it is a ratchet: a few unreasonable complaints are made, the odd one succeeds, so more people complain, even more succeed, and so on.

  3. My guess is that free speech isn’t understood by high school and college students. The other day you posted a video of college students not being about to answer who won the Civil War and who our country’s vice president is. In such a climate of ignorance, is it really a wonder that students don’t understand what free speech means?

    I think the young lefties of today are simply conflating censorship with the notions that they are entitled to “safe spaces” on campus where opposing, or anachronistic views aren’t tolerated anymore. I agree that many views of the far Right can seem like something flung out of the 50’s, but the desire to remove such views by censorship is dangerously misquided and hypocritical.

  4. I don’t know why, but the old “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” philosophy that my gen grew up with has evidently vanished.
    Not to disparage politeness,courtesy but this current over- sensitivity to any reference to one’s looks, , ability or dis, religion, and alot more is just plain victimization/poor me stuff. And/or attention seeking. Maybe it will pass…but it is indeed a sad and dismal trend.

    1. I think it’s a little worse than even this. Polite and courteous (constructive) criticism seems now to be categorized as hate speech.

      It’s one thing when the tone of conversation is antagonistic and designed to shut differing views down. But we have people (like Sam Harris) basically saying “let’s talk about the bad ideas” being labelled a racist.

      Indeed it is a sad trend.

      1. That’s the saddest thing about the Sam Harris case. There’s plenty of claims Harris makes that are contentious, overblown, or outright absurd*, yet it seems Harris’ critics are more interested in labelling him as being bigoted than they are in showing where he is in error. It’s almost as if they want to destroy Harris’ legitimacy as a critic rather than tackle his criticisms.

        *He also has a lot of important points to make.

          1. There were a number of things in The End Of Faith that I thought were contentious, or at least misleading in the way he presented it. The quoting of stats about support for atrocities in Muslim countries, for example, doesn’t really say much without comparing those statistics to analogous situations in non-Muslim and non-demographic countries. Without such a reference point, the point he is trying to illustrate has no power.

            In terms of his central thesis, what I think he failed to establish was how it was that the particular doctrines showed a causal link. One of the continued objections is that there are non-religious factors dominating the motivations of religious fundamentalism – his argument didn’t really show why we should think there’s a causal link. (which, of course, is not to deny there’s a causal link, but simply that Harris’ case wasn’t sufficient in demonstrating that).

            There were other things in The End Of Faith that rubbed me the wrong way, such as his exhortation of America’s role as the good guys in global affairs, and his advocacy of faux-spiritualism.

            Letter To A Christian Nature had the baffling assertion that liberal believers did not truly believe in God (or something to that effect, it’s been 6 years since I read it).

            In The Moral Landscape, his assertion that he solved the IS-OUGHT gap based on brain scans is downright absurd. How our brains process fact and value doesn’t say anything about how we ought to think of fact and value. Furthermore, his utilitarianism in TML effectively leads to impossible moral calculations.

            In other words, there’s plenty to disagree with. And in saying all that, I still think The End Of Faith is a great read and Harris has a lot of important things to say. I don’t agree with all his stances, I don’t agree with all he argues, but I really find it disheartening that there’s a movement on the left to deal with Harris by casting him as a racist or a bigot or a sexist or whatever. That to me serves no purpose other than to try to marginalise his arguments as opposed to dealing with them.

    2. I wonder if it is generational and I hate to generalize but generations Y and younger were brought up thinking they were “special” and “smart” and they got rewards for everything, including showing up. Perhaps when they see this doesn’t happen and that not everyone is special and that some people are mean, they mistake this for injustice that must be silenced forcefully instead of with counter speech.

    3. “Not to disparage politeness,courtesy but this current over- sensitivity to any reference to one’s looks . . . .”

      Seems to me one ought to be a bit cautious about commenting (egregiously? gratuitously?) about anothers physical characteristics/appearance. Do such comments qualify as ad hominem? Who among us are without physical blemish, especially after the bloom of youth fades? (Such commenting is not an option for a blind person, eh?)

      [Last week, on the eve of the U.S. mid-term election, an NPR reporter declined to resist the urge to comment on Mitch McConnell’s physical, specifically facial, characteristics. What did that possibly have to do with election campaign coverage? (I vigorously oppose his politics/ideology.) On the other hand, were McConnell discovered to have made disparaging remarks about his opponent’s, or any other human being’s, physical appearance, then he ought not to whine if a tsunami of vituperation befalls him.]

      But, if that’s free speech, so be it. However,one who dishes it out should not be “offended” if it is returned in equal measure.

      1. Ad homs should be called out for what they are – shitty arguments meant to attack someone and elicit an emotional response that takes away from a logical discussion. I actually get annoyed even at jokes about a person’s appearance, for example Bill Maher’s constant jibes at Chris Christie. So they guy is overweight, last I checked obesity wasn’t a character flaw. Attack his stupid ideas but leave his appearance out of it.

        1. I agree with you but not everyone has done so. Recall, if you will the ‘Sin of Gluttony’ and Danté’s Third Circle of Hell with the punishment he dreamed up for them there.

          1. Physical appearance used to be taken as indicative of a person’s character back on those times. It was rampant in Ancient Rome and people had no qualms about public ally shaming someone they thought was unattractive.

  5. Two things:

    One, a lot of it has to do with the rise of the internet and social media. Suddenly we live in a world where your thoughts and opinions on religion and politics have real world consequences in an unprecedented way. Suddenly everyone you know past, present and even future can see what you think or used to think; and that has real life social consequences. The fact that many Americans, in spite of living in the one country that has the most robust free speech laws in the world, still comment anonymously for fear of the people they know seeing what they really think speaks volumes.

    Second, many nations are victims of their own success. In the same way that the majority of anti-vaxxers can only hold the views they do because they have grown up in a world where deadly and maiming diseases are beyond their experience thanks to vaccinations of previous generations; so people who have lived in a world where no-one gets “disappeared” or murdered for saying the wrong thing think that hurt feelings are more important than certain liberties. Hurt feelings is the worst thing that has ever happened to them. Naturally therefore, hurt feelings are bad and any activity that leads to hurt feelings should be banned.

    Of course, this allows a growing section of the population to manipulated very cynically by those for whom free speech really is a threat.

    1. I think Grania is onto at least one causal element. Widespread Internet access has been around for about 20 yrs or so. I think this phenomenon contributes not only to the burgeoning offense industry on the left, but probably also to the growth in political polarization as well. The anonymity of the Internet feels akin to the diffusion of individual responsibility that members of a mob undergo.

      1. And television in the 1960 was the big three (CBS,NBC, and ABC), cable came in the 1980s, even radio is less than 100 years old.

        At no previous time in history has a biology professor had 30,000 followers.

    2. we live in a world where your thoughts and opinions on religion and politics have real world consequences in an unprecedented way

      IF you intentionally put them out there for people to see. Honestly, if you go to your computer, turn it on, log in to a site, and post a comment (or the equivalent), then yes your comment absolutely is fair game for criticism. You’ve proactively put your opinion out there in the public. If you don’t want to deal with the real social consequences of someone not agreeing with your opinion, don’t voice it. Nothing compels you to.

      Now I agree that there are issues with recording people involuntarily, but outside of that, I don’t have much sympathy for someone’s ideas getting critiqued when they chose to participate in a conversation (on-line or otherwise). Ad homs are bad, and harassment is bad, but elsewise, don’t go in the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat.

      1. You are missing my point. I am not saying that there shouldn’t be social consequences for speech. Not even slightly.

      2. Not everyone chooses to participate. Social media enables rumors and whispers to travel ’round the world at the speed of light, and this can be devastating to one’s meat world reputation whether or not one has ever done or said anything online. The ability for a meme to go viral has never previously existed; there isn’t even any way to express “meme going viral” without reference to social-media era language. It’s still a new phenomenon, and we’re right in the middle of sussing out how to deal with it.

    3. Deleterious effects of free speech are simply what comes about when >10^8 opinions are voiced globally every day. It actually looks as if free speech is less than it is.

      Consider this.

      1984. Send a letter to a local newspaper saying you think the president should be assassinated. It would be likely you would be visited upon by secret service.

      2014. Each day, thousands of people publicly comment that they wish the president dead. How many of them are visited by the secret service? How many less is this than those who thought but said nothing in 1984?

      Internet speech has the following vice: few actually consider it an emblem of free speech anymore, but a flea market for sarcasm.

    4. Excellent post Grania. A Maslowian hierarchy of needs has made us unable to properly calibrate hurt feelings against anything more serious.

    5. Interestingly, Naomi Klein wrote similar in The Shock Doctrine about how opinions and thoughts can be broadcast in an unprecedented way. I think she was on to something there, even though she sometimes says things that are, frankly, bonkers.

    1. I think that has something to it. Like when you see Americans relinquishing freedoms for safety. There is a pernicious cowardice pervading the populace.

      1. Security theatre really bothers me. Why on Earth are we being intimidated by extremists into spending outrageous amounts of time and money into employing people to make things difficult for us? It hardly inconveniences the extremists at all. They take note of the countermeasures against their last attack and pick a new attack.

        Have a little pride people. Less chance of a terrorist hurting you than driving in a car.

  6. It’s economic conditions, and how they shape the human psyche, in my opinion.

    After the second world war, the western world’s standard of living kept rising, and people felt their destiny was in their hands. They highly valued individual autonomy, and did not threatened by much anything, let alone the expression of noxious marginal ideas.

    Recently, even educated people feel their destiny is not in their hands. They feel economically threatened with poverty. Since they feel they cannot personally improve their lot, they psychologically attach more importance to protecting their group. Individualism and rights associated with it are considered less important than threats to the cohesion of the group.

  7. why is this happening now?

    Well, I think you’re right about 9/11 making the US public a bit more authoritarian in general.

    I think another part is that the majority of US liberals who advocate for speech codes today are too young to remember or internalize the harm of McCarthyism and similar movements: they don’t grok where repressing speech might lead, because that’s a hypothetical bad to them, not a real one. One might draw an analogy to the baptist church: early in US history they were very forceful defenders of the separation of church and state, because they were an oppressed minority religion. Now they’ve forgotten the harm that non-separation did to them, they don’t argue for separation any more. Somewhat ironically, a decades long liberal majority (on social issues such as whether racism is wrong) may be one of the very things undermining the liberal notion of free speech.

    Lastly, don’t underestimate the impact of ‘mercenary’ speech-code users. Lukainoff’s book Unlearning Liberty was quick to point out that University Administrators are very agressive about manipulating liberal notions of “good” censorship to prevent students or faulty from criticising the administration or themselves. IOW, the guys at the top are just waiting for liberals to give them this power, because they will use it not to punish the hate speech students are concerned about, but rather to call any criticism of their policies hate speech and thus insulate themselves from criticism.

  8. As in many debates, we are going to have to carefully decide where to “draw the lines” and perhaps part of our problem is wanting some simplistic slogans to substitute for careful ethical and legal analysis. I agree with your antisemitic greedy Jew and Mexican narco examples. Both disgusting, both very much deserving verbal counter-humiliation, but neither getting very close to the line of inciting immediate violence.

    One can find examples, however, where I’m quite a bit less comfortable. The guy who hung black people in effigy in his yard as a halloween display is getting close to, if not over, the line. Handing out abortion doctors’ addresses while screaming about them being murderers seems to be likely to have crossed the line, but perhaps you’ll disagree.

    1. IANAL but I would say your first example is free speech, your second could be construed as incitement; as with many things, the question of whether it was or not would depend on lots of other specific details of the case. In close call cases, its the court’s job to figure out when speech is intended to incite and when it isn’t, even recognizing that the exact same verbiage may in some cases be inciteful and in other cases not. In those cases, the courts will likely take into account past history, other actions of the speaker, how they communicated their message, who their audience was, and so on. The courts aren’t stupid – they know people often use dogwhistle and subtext to get a message across. It’s a hard job teasing that out in the case of incitement but that’s part of what we pay them to do.

  9. I think social media has played a part. We aren’t used to hearing (reading) objectionable opinions. We block and unfriend people.

    Young people, especially, grew up being able to do this. This might be why they want it done on college campuses. They’re not used to unpleasant opinions they can’t just delete.

    1. Maybe it is different in the US, but the move towards criminalizing “hate speech” in countries like Canada and the UK long predate the internet, let alone social media.

      I think it began with the PC movement in the ’80s, or perhaps even earlier.

      1. I can’t speak for any country other than Canada, but the hate speech laws haven’t actually changed in a long time. Speech which encourages violence or other forms of ill treatment is illegal. Ugly or unpleasant opinions are still legal. We’ve had neo-nazi websites pulled down——by the ISPs. Law enforcement did not get involved.

        I have seen a move to restrict free speech on college campuses, usually in the from of preventing people from speaking.

        Members of the Westboro Baptist church were denied entry to picket a funeral. That was something I personally disagreed with. I think the counter protests would have been awesome!

        1. It’s worse than that here. The University of Ottawa officially more or less disinvited Ann Coulter from speaking there owing to some student complaints. I have no use for her ideas, but take the Voltairean road. Speakers have been shouted down and students increasingly demand “safe spaces,” ie, to be insulated from any idea that might discomfit them. And THAT is the idea of a university now?

          In addition, we have been plagued by Human Rights Commissions, federally and provincially, which have, until it was snipped recently, grown their mandate from investigating real rights abuses in housing, employment, sex discrimination, to coddling those offended by mere utterance, even, in one notorious example, in a comedy club. By the way, those so offended – who paid nothing – won virtually every case before these kangaroo courts, and the “offender” was on the hook for all expenses plus any penalties assesses. A true travesty.

          1. I see that more as a sign of the corporatization of universities, where administrators are more concerned about satisfying their “customers” (i.e. students) and protecting themselves against legal liabilities than about fostering the free exploration of ideas.

  10. It’s certainly a worrying trend.

    Perhaps this is something that should be taught in schools. I never learned about this as a child inside of school, growing up in semi-rural Australia.

    If we don’t find a way to inoculate the coming generations against the current waves of stifling free speech and expression for the sake of others’feelings, our global civilisation will really have some trouble on it’s hands.

    Modern Russia and China of course aren’t doing well on this front.

  11. why is this happening now?

    My theory, which is mine, is that the welcome and long-overdue recent focus on stopping childhood bullying is spilling over and giving new life to more general worries about respecting people’s “identities.” Religion is being lumped in with race and sexual orientation, deep and intrinsic aspects of self which shouldn’t be challenged. Telling someone they’re wrong is being equated with telling them they are wrong.

    Which means that the Little People Argument is partly gathering inspiration from …. actual little people — our children.

    1. “Telling someone they’re wrong is being equated with telling them they are wrong.”
      I get this impression too. It’s almost as if holding a belief and the belief itself are one and the same, or at the very least that holding a false belief is a very serious indication of one’s competency. That is, if you hold a false belief you must not be mentally competent.

      I’m not sure how much Hollywood is a good litmus test for this, but I watched the brilliant Spanish film Abre los ojos and its competent-though-unspectacular Hollywood remake Vanilla Sky, and in the American version they made a big song-and-dance out of the fact that the main character wasn’t really deluded in his belief about anothers feelings, whereas in the Spanish version they didn’t have anything like that. It really made me wonder why that would be the one major change the filmmakers made. My guess was that there’s the perceived notion that Americans have trouble with delusion as being a fact of life – though that’s purely speculative on my part.

      1. That is, if you hold a false belief you must not be mentally competent.

        In support of this, consider how quickly the religious assume that atheists must believe they are “idiots” because we think they are mistaken about the existence of God. They’ll complain about how Dawkins repeatedly insults their intelligence and castigates them as morons and never come up with a quote where he does anything of the sort. They apparently just know he does this all the time, because he must. All atheists do.

        I’ve had alternative medicine proponents insist that I’m “telling them they’re stupid” even when I take special pains to emphasize how easily all people, myself included, make common errors when trying to determine cause and effect in complicated situations with confounding variables.

        I’m not sure if this is an attempt to demonize the opposition or if they really do, deep down, fear making mistakes. Maybe elements of both.

        1. I’ve had way too many of those conversations, and very few where the arguments put forward are addressed. If Ihadto guess, I’d say mental competency is used as an assurance argument. “I disagree with your conclusion and I assure you I’m mentally competent. So your argument must be wrong.” I’ve said it a number of times, but if the arguments aren’t addressed, I cannot see where my argument goes wrong, and thus I cannot see why I am wrong. So the move does nothing beyond trying to shut down the debate.

  12. I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss postmodernism entirely.

    It’s my impression that most “postmodernists” don’t actually go “full pomo.” That is, they only pull out epistemological relativism when it’s convenient, and they often do it sneakily rather than explicitly. Many seem not to even realize that they’re doing it, and I suspect that they think they’re doing “critical thinking,” applying modes of analysis they’ve learned from passionate but misguided teachers. Of course, really it’s just “sloppy thinking.”

    So I view postmodernism as a pernicious pseudo-intellectual undercurrent, a toolbox of unrigorous but fancy-sounding ideas, flexible weasel words, and obfuscatory rhetorical techniques. It can be used as needed to support pretty much any position you want. Merely annoying when used to poorly interpret art, it is truly dangerous when applied to “real life” scenarios.

    And it often is thus applied. Fields like critical race theory, postcolonial studies, Middle Eastern studies, gender studies, cultural anthropology — they’re swimming in it. Which is a shame, because their objects of study are IMPORTANT.

    What those fields have in common is their focus on oppression. That, and their under-the-surface postmodernist bent. It’s the extremists in those fields who have led the charge to restrict hurtful speech.

    But that’s been happening for a few decades now. The big difference recently is the Internet. Extreme viewpoints in those fields have “trickled down” (think of the widespread misapplication of the sociological concept of “privilege”!), and it’s never been easier for like-minded people to connect, reinforce their shared ideas, and ignore or outright banish dissent. The Internet is full of echo chambers where in-groupers are constantly reminded that they’re right. Some of these people go to college. Some of them are professors.

    Authoritarianism is a problem, and it’s not going away any time soon.

    1. I think you nailed it. One of the currently popular areas is “media criticism,” which seems to hold a strong attraction for the younger generation. This field is predicated on the notion that mass media reinforces social hierarchies and the oppression that comes with those hierarchies. There seem to be two big problems: (1) contemporary internet media is not the same as mass propaganda from previous eras. It is no longer a conduit for centralized messages; whereas media critics used to target media produced by large power centers with outlets directed toward “the masses,” they now extend those critiques against the masses themselves (e.g. criticism of You-Tube media, independent films, tweets).

      (2) Media criticism involves itself with analyses of sexism, racism, etc, but these analyses are lacking in objective criteria. It is virtually impossible to falsify a claim of misogyny or racism. Media criticism thereby offers a lazy way for young critics to look intellectual and progressive, but it lacks protections against descending into mere authoritarian denunciations.

      1. That’s a good example, I think, and it hits on some points that I didn’t have time to include in my earlier post.

        Look at how words like “misogyny” and “racism” and “power” and “privilege” have been redefined in these overlapping cliques. Note how the purveyors equivocate between their “new” definitions and the everyday definitions accepted by everyone else. Again, you can’t always tell whether it’s intentional, but that intellectually dishonest tactic comes straight out of the postmodernist’s playbook.

        Most of them don’t deny that “truth” exists. Instead, they trot out the postmodernist toolbox to advance their unevidenced positions on culture, society, economics, history, and psychology. In so doing, they offer tempting but flawed and oversimple explanations for complex phenomena. Our colorful, nuanced world becomes a black-and-white caricature. Hard lines are drawn. Sides are either good or bad, and it becomes a moral imperative to fight ferociously against the bad side, populated by oppressors.

        It’s all backed by “research,” you see! Sure, freedom of speech is nice, but the hurt of some words is more than just immediate emotional pain. If it perpetuates oppression, then it actually does incite violence in a big-picture sense.

        I hope that better spells out the connection I was trying to make between postmodernism and the New Authoritarian Left. The link isn’t direct, but it’s there.

        The FIRE website has several examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about. Here are a few others that come to mind:

        -A Harvard gender-studies student calling for replacing academic freedom with “academic justice”: http://www.thecrimson.com/column/the-red-line/article/2014/2/18/academic-freedom-justice/?page=single

        -An Emory doctoral fellow in gender studies suggests that anyone (with a penis) who thinks the First Amendment is the most important one might just be a misogynistic “Reddit troll”: http://www.dailydot.com/opinion/5-signs-dating-reddit-troll/

        -The sneering “freeze peach” meme popular in certain censorial online social-justice circles, some of which seem to be rather free of thought, if you catch my drift…

        1. That “reddit troll” article is pretty weird, and hypocritically prejudicial (i.e. it promotes unwarranted generalizations based on superficial details). I’ll resist the urge to view it as a representative sample. The writer is perhaps just a young person with inadequately researched opinions.

          I’ve seen the “freeze peach” meme before, and it gives me shivers. I can agree, however, that people often misuse free-speech arguments to demand attention or access on privately moderated fora. This is usually where I see “freeze peach” appear. It has some validity when used in rebuttal to bad-faith free speech claims.

          I should also mention that some critics are very careful to distinguish between criticism and censorship. It’s perfectly fair to critique perceived X-ism in media or speech, so long as it is part of an open critical discussion.

          I think what’s missing is a demonstration that the fringe anti-speech leftists are growing in actual influence. They are definitely more visible and aggressive, but is there really more support for censorship among left-leaning people or academics?

          1. Yes, I’m certainly guilty of generalizing, and I agree with you about how free-speech arguments are sometimes misused (though I’ve also seen this used as a straw-man by “freeze peach” intoners, where the complainant isn’t speaking about legality at all but rather about the general importance of open and honest debate).

            As to whether the “fringe anti-speech leftists are growing in actual influence,” I think the answer is yes, at least in some areas. Between mandatory “trigger warnings” and “free speech zones,” for instance, there’s ample evidence that colleges and universities across America are caving to the PC authoritarians.

    2. I would no rule out pomo either…

      But I think it is (and will) be very difficult to isolate a single well defined ultimate (or even proximate) cause, rather then a whole set of (often) interrelated technical innovations, cultural trends and intellectual ideas.

      And in this set, (I think), pomo certainly is a prominent member

      But if I would dare another guess (to add to the list, and that I have not seen mentioned yet), it would be the self-esteem movement, which in the school system today has eliminated the idea of achivement, excellence and hard work, so that you nowdays get a gold star for just showing up, everyone gets a gold stars, everyone is “special”, not only unique… and do not dare to even think otherwise… let alone say so…

      And if you imply that someone is not special, or critize his or her performance in any way, you are guilty of destroying that persons self-esteem, and, (according to the belivers), that persons future prospects in life.

      Something that seems to have drastically increased narcissism and severly warped self images and understanding of the real world, ideas and traits that are probably reinforced and heavily nurtured by the internet and all the social apps.

      And one aspect of narcissism is of course, that sufferers often are highly sensitive to any threat that might “pop” their bubble, and they are (as far as I understand it), more likely to (try to avoid or prevent that from happen) and lash out violently when it does happen…

      1. “But if I would dare another guess (to add to the list, and that I have not seen mentioned yet), it would be the self-esteem movement, which in the school system today has eliminated the idea of achivement, excellence and hard work, so that you nowdays get a gold star for just showing up…”

        This is undoubtedly true in some places. But existing alongside this is the parallel world of hyper-competiveness and manic focus on achievement. In youth sports, select and travel programs demand obscene levels of commitment, money, and are entirely results focused. This was not the case a generation ago in Little League or Pop Warner. We can also see the same thing happening in elite private schools with kids on the Ivy league track.

        What is interesting to me, and should be pointed out more, is how the hypercompetitive enclaves are dominated by white and Asian families. Its almost like a revolt against the extremes of the self-esteem movement, and serves to exacerbate the distance between the haves and half-nots. Not only do the less well-off receive poorer facilities and less funding, they also receive inferior “self-esteem” based pedagogy. Although I don’t support the extremes cited in travel sports and certain elite schools, I do think that students should be pushed to work hard and experience failure.

    3. Yes. Tribalism. Again.

      Many people are “liberal” in the sense that they belong to a tribe with that label. They have set of in-group/out-group identifiers (modes of speech, touchstone ‘issues’) and the usual tribal mode of operation: eliminate the “other” by any and all means available. A lot of “discussion” of various issues (this is true of people of all political stripes) is really just an exercise in identification, in sussing out whether you are part of the group or the enemy “other’.

  13. Nor can it be explained by the rise of postmodernism.

    I think some of it can be attributed to postmodernism. To the extent that it modulates language.

    Other contributors I believe include social media with its tendency to amplify and provide a callout culture. And the influence of reality TV programming. We have a generation brought up on this programming and I have to think it’s influenced how they behave (more callout culture, the tendency to overshare personal information, etc.).

  14. “The right to be offended, which is the other side of free speech, is therefore a genuine right. True belief and honest doubt are both impossible without it.”

    Certainly there is no right to not be offended and attempts to sterilize speech so that fewer and fewer are offended will only result in less meaningful speech, dialogue and mutual understanding.

  15. I think many activists like evoking bad conscience in other people (that is, in people who’re largely on their side already) because the real targets of their activism so frustratingly won’t feel any. It’s a way to make you feel more effective.

    But that too is only analysing the symptom. Why it’s on the increase – if it is! – I can’t tell.

  16. Conversing recently with a 20ish netizen, I was admonished by her for encouraging discrimination even though I had said that to be discriminating, that is, using discernment, is a very important skill in life.

    Hell is paid with good intentions. Instead prancing on cobblestones of prejudice, we are traipsing on ones of mush. And we are sinking, because that is one aspect of the Hitchens that I loved, his unrelenting support for free speech. He knew that without that, we are sunk.

    1. paved. As in, “the road to hell is…”

      I wouldn’t normally nitpick, but given your story and the accompanying mistake, maybe it’s possible that the flub was in the message, not the listener?

  17. Why colleges? Uh, duh. (Reasons not excuses.)

    1) College is the first time many people come in direct contact with the fact that the ways/beliefs/conventions they took for granted in their families and communities aren’t universally accepted and applauded.

    2) As budding adults it becomes their job to maintain their own psychosocial homeostasis without the cocoon of childhood.

    3) As new adults they aren’t necessarily very good at doing so respectfully.

    4) Nobody at college got time to deal with all the yelling and whining of people who are offended that other people have different opinions.

    5) Majorities and bullies often shout down dissenting views and it’s tricky to protect the expression of less popular/confident/aggressive views.

  18. As noted above, this was already happening in Universities in the 80s at least. Our students’ union had a “No Platform” policy, whereby anyone the heads of the union disagreed with would not be allowed to speak on campus.

    Similarly, the idea that the Looney Left and Rabid Right had gone all the way round the back and met up on the other side was already a commonplace by the mid 80s.

    As with many of the other problems we have now, it seems to have started in the 80s and has been getting worse through inertia.

  19. I am unsatisfied with the explanation that the left ‘wants’ to be multicultural. It doesn’t address the main question, why now? The left has generally adopted anti-racist, pro-feminist, pro-gay etc. positions after some initial consciousness raising overcomes the oppressive social norms. It takes some critical reflection to do that work, not uncritical emotional posturing. If the left suddenly wants to believe in multiculturalism uncritically, that still has to be explained. It raises more questions than it settles.

    Universities are businesses that, more and more, look to the bottom line. Universities are accustomed to trade on their reputations for excellence in order to attract applicants. But applicants today may be more interested in credentials than in critical thinking. Students are handing over huge chunks of cash. Perhaps they feel justified in telling the universities, “just give me the goods; don’t question my religion and culture”. Should we be surprised if the universities bend to that desire (especially those universities whose reputations for excellence are not the highest to begin with)? “Tolerant” campuses are as much a draw as the new multimillion dollar athletic facility. Campus “unrest” is a dreaded nightmare of the past college administrators will avoid at any cost.

    1. “Universities are businesses that, more and more, look to the bottom line.”

      I think this is an important premise. Higher education (like health care and politics) care more about money than the people they are supposed to represent. In the case of universities, I can see how the administrators would mitigate the “hurt feelings” of a minority of their students in reaction to losing potential revenue.

    2. I agree. Students are now consumers and all universities are for-profit businesses competing against one another. Since 1980, tuitions have quintupled. “Paying customers” will not tolerate their child to be exposed to anti-Semitism, racism, and bigotry.

      1. If racism and bigotry was all that was being purged from the University, I’m not sure that I’d have a problem with that. The issue is that legitimate criticism is also being purged under the banner of protecting students from offensive speech. The current definition of “offensive speech” now seems to be roping in viewpoints that are based on reason and evidence but are nonetheless banned because someone, somewhere might have their feelings hurt by them.

  20. It is surely a dangerous cultural change in America over the last 40 years or so. Freedom of Speech in the 60s was believed in and always argued for but now the concern seems to be with offending someone. The evolution of the thin skinned?

    Intimidation is also a big factor today. Violence happens at the drop of a hat and everyone has a gun. I would say that people in many parts of the U.S. are more interested in protecting the second amendment than the first.

  21. Whenever a group gets a power they’ve never had, there are some in that group that get carried away. Because of the PC movement, there are many groups that are able to speak out en masse that couldn’t before. Some of those people go too far.

    The combination of the Internet, increased population, more education, more disposable income and a few other things also means that extremists find one another even though they’re usually only a tiny proportion of the population. They get together, egg each other on, and become outspoken. Then, in the huge media market that reports via sound bites, squeaky wheels and sensationalism, they get noticed. They thus have an influence their numbers often don’t deserve.

    Of course, this process can and does result in good stuff happening too. Also, groups on the extreme tend to move the centre of society, often in a good way. People don’t want the extremist view to hold sway, but hearing it creates dialogue and makes the average person realize they have some good points.

  22. I think a lot of the issue is the fact that there is a limit to what is reasonable in the way of free speech in every day life.

    These limits include for example defamation, violating people’s privacy, threats, harassment and outright hatespeech (inciting violence against particular groups).

    Laws are on the books on all of these issues, but up until now those were all the sorts of crimes you needed connections and a certain amount of money in order to really get going.

    Sure you could always defame someone, but without the power of the printing press you were defaming them to people you knew, and that is about as far as it reached.

    The power of the New York Times to defame was far greater and more lasting, than the power of Joe Sixpack.

    Now Joe Sixpack has something approaching the power of the New York Times. Note the story of Zoe Quinn – a bitter ex wrote a rambling screed about her cheating on him with games journalists, and suddenly it spawned a harassment campaign that has resulted in random phone calls to her parents.

    Even after the original post was shown to be a pack of lies.

    And each person echoing the accusations has the same basic power, resulting in more and more harassment. When Anonymous says “we never forget” – that is part of the overall story, they really never forget.

    Consider revenge porn and the invasion of women’s privacy that entails, consider how jumped up wankers are willing to fire women because nude photos or videos of them appear online against their will.

    That is what the right to be forgotten is supposed to address – information which shouldn’t be readily available because it is defamatory.

    Now part of this is that there is an entire generation of administrators whose main and only positive contribution to this planet will be as mulch, but they have power now.

    They are still firing people now.

    And I am sorry I cannot support an absolute right to free speech in this sort of environment. More speech is not enough to correct this issue.

    Obviously the current legal solutions are going to overreach themselves, it is the nature of law to be harsh at first and then mellowed, but unfortunately thanks to the presence of this sort of behaviour those laws have been made necessary.

    1. Sure you could always defame someone, but without the power of the printing press you were defaming them to people you knew, and that is about as far as it reached.

      The power of the New York Times to defame was far greater and more lasting, than the power of Joe Sixpack.

      Now Joe Sixpack has something approaching the power of the New York Times.

      Yes but ironically while this has been going on, we have been getting more tolerant and liberal about defaming speech: it is much much harder to win a libel or slander case now than 100 or 200 years ago.

      IMO there’s two reasons for that (and spoiler alert: since both reasons still apply to the internet age, I think we will continue to loosen restrictions on defaming speech rather than tighten them).

      Reason one: we have more independent, objective measures of a person’s credibility. Prior to accessible criminal records, employment records, credit scores, etc… slander was a much bigger deal, because that was all the evidence an employer might have to hire you on. Now, it’s not so big a deal because an employer can just check to see if you really did some bad act. And while the internet propagates rumour, it also allows easier access to good records such as university attendance and credit checks.

      Reason two: I think with every media revolution, our cynicism of reporting and media has largely kept pace. I might use wikipedia for generally unimportant stuff, but the fact that it’s “on the web” doesn’t make me trust it more. In fact it somewhat makes me trust it less. And I think that a similar statement is true for most people about most web postings. So while defaming speech has gotten progessively easier to spread across a wide range of listeners, it as also gotten progressively less credible in those listener’s opinions.

  23. “Why now?” ( I don’t know how to cite…)

    For me, one possible explanation is that the level of violence that is deemed acceptable in our societies has steadily declined over the years. Practices that were totally acceptable one or two generations ago, like spanking or boys fighting,are not OK anymore. Perhaps it is the same thing with words, hurtful words are not OK anymore. And if it is a generational thing, it would explain why it is prevalent in college.

    It is probably at least partly cultural as I am from France, but I do not find obvious that accepting all speech that doesn’t try to incite immediate violence is the right thing to do. For me, while political free speech is indeed extremely important, I do not feel that being able to express demeaning opinions about other people is an important right.

    1. “Perhaps it is the same thing with words, hurtful words are not OK anymore.”

      This is a very interesting point, but this does not explain how “I disagree with you because of X facts” is now in many cases considered to be a harmful form of discourse.

      Speaking from a member of a US generation of kids who was raised to highly value self-esteem, I think that mere disagreement with someone’s ideas has been conflated with attacking them personally. I once brought someone to tears in a college class by (what I thought) was calm disagreement. I should say that the professor sided with me, telling the sobbing student to “grow up a bit”.

  24. I’m just two months older than the official boomers. I was in college in the sixties. A Quaker college, in fact.

    I see no difference between the behavior of my classmates then and now. What I saw then and see now is herd behavior or tribal behavior. Us vs them. If I were asked to characterize the single thing most wrong with people, it is the tendency to value belonging to a tribe at the expense of intellectual honesty.

    1. Amen. My tribe has better beer than theirs, ergo, they are assholes.

      This is what happens when provincialism undermines empathy.

  25. If I was feeling provocative and a bit lazy, I’d chalk this one up to a collective case of ongoing western white man’s guilt. ( All genders included ).

    But I’m not, so I won’t.

    I do think though, that free speech is the new kid on the block and what we’re seeing are local backlashes trying to impose the status quo.

    Globally speaking the idea of common and shared free speech is still a novelty and I think we’re seeing the natural consequences of increasing globalization. Old ingrained truths are being challenged by the accumulative amounts of information available in historically unprecedented fashion.

    Too bad one (wo)man’s free speech is another (wo)man’s hate to bear.

  26. “It’s palpably clear that free speech as a principle of democratic society is on the way out.”

    In engineering, we sometimes refer to a system’s “dynamic stability”; what that means is how a system oscillates around an equilibrium position as it returns to equilibrium.

    Systems, when disturbed, tend to overshoot the equilibrium position, but hopefully, over time, the overshoots get smaller, rather than larger.

    This is what may be happening with free speech. Part of what happened in the 60s and 70s was to make us aware of how deep some of our prejudices lay in our psyche, and the only way we became aware of them was by watching what came out of our mouths. Part of gaining control of our thoughts was to gain control of our mouths.

    The lesson may have been learned too well by parts of society, but we’ll probably find a happy compromise somewhere down the line.

    1. “It’s palpably clear that free speech as a principle of democratic society is on the way out.”

      In my darkest hours I think the default position of ‘civilisation’ might well be authoritarian.

      The brief period of free speech that ran from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Eighties – and only then in a small number of countries – might have just been a cultural anomaly which will baffle and maybe even shock our descendants.

      The fashion for free speech might have no more lasting significance than the hula hoop or leg-warmers.

      1. Cue the debate whether speech has ever been free in the sense that we’d like to think.

        It’s just a matter of not pissing off the right/wrong people.

  27. We need to remember that the First Amendment limits government’s ability to suppress opinion. In this context, state institutions (universities) have a more narrow range of motion than do private ones. Non-state organizations are perfectly free to limit their participants’ speech rights, even though it isn’t usually a good idea.

    Individuals and private organizations are limited only where speech can inflict direct harm: extortion, libel, bribery, and, most importantly, threats of or incitement to violence.

    It shouldn’t be all that difficult: someone who threatens to burn down a mosque can be prosecuted, and someone who threatens to burn a Bible can’t be (assuming they own the physical Bible in question, aren’t causing air pollution, creating a fire hazard, etc., by doing so).

    Either can be socially sanctioned and called a fool till the cows come home.

  28. While we’re on the subject of limiting free speech, this just popped up…. proposed throttling free expression in the UK…

    “Last month, May unveiled her ambition to “eliminate extremism in all its forms.” Whether you’re a neo-Nazi or an Islamist, or just someone who says things which betray, in May’s words, a lack of “respect for the rule of law” and “respect for minorities”, then you could be served with an extremism disruption order (EDO).”

  29. I recommend the following two excellent books on free speech –

    i) ‘Unlearning Liberty’ by Greg Lukianoff
    about free speech erosion on US campuses.

    ii) ‘Kindly Inquisitors’ by Jon Rauch
    about the intellectual arguments for free-speech.

    Any others?

  30. I think that liberal ideology is characterized by the following beliefs about history, sociology, economics human nature, and epistemology:

    – With few exceptions, human societies throughout history have been organized as patriarchal. Such societies inherently advantage men at the expense of women.

    – The last several centuries have seen technologically advanced Western powers exploit and oppress the less technologically advanced peoples of the world.

    – White populations have systematically oppressed and exploited people of color.

    – Capitalism is a flawed economic system that concentrates wealth and economic output into the hands of the few at the expense of the many.

    – Nationalism, and its close cousin Patriotism, are outdated and potentially dangerous concepts.

    – The concept of race is a completely social construct.

    – Culture is the primary or sole determinant of human behavior. The use of genetics to explain variation in human behavior is not supportable.

    – No one set of cultural values can be said to be “better” or “worse” than another set of cultural values.

    – No one set of beliefs about the world can be said to more accurate than another set of beliefs.

    – Diversity and inclusiveness are highly desirable, and in some cases mandatory, aspects for businesses and organizations to have.

    The first four beliefs (which are more or less accurate) animate the righteous indignation that many liberals feel and determine how they view different groups of people in the world. Despite the fact liberals do not like to engage in neatly categorizing people into distinct groups, they do tend to view the world as composed of “oppressors” and “the oppressed”. Chief among the oppressors are the Western powers, men, and white men in particular. The “oppressed” are women everywhere, and minorities. The oppressed need defenders, people to stick up for them against the oppressors.

    The engine of oppression is culture. People do what they do because they have been imbued with these behaviors by their culture. Men are misogynist because their culture teaches them to behave that way. We could just as easily have a culture where women commit the majority of violent crimes and are the sexual aggressors and rapists. If you want to end this oppression, you need to tear down the cultural beliefs and institutions that support it.

    The post-modernist views that there is no such thing as objective knowledge seem to be another case of sticking up for the little guy. Science, with its knack for debunking cherished beliefs about reality, can seem like another tool of the West to oppress and delegitimize societies that have not adopted its methods. Science seems suspect from the get-go due to guilt by association.

    Of course, you will notice that many of these ideas are incompatible. If no one value is better than another, then why privilege values like diversity and inclusiveness over others? If there is no way to obtain objective knowledge, then how can we be so certain that genes do not play some role in explain variation in human behavior?

    What you will see is that the apparently contradictory beliefs held by many liberals are explainable if we understand that primary motivation: to protect oppressed groups. Thus, the concept of tolerance is only useful when deployed in defense of an oppressed group; the same with free speech. The right to be tolerated or listened to does not extend to dissenting members of non-oppressed groups. Diversity and inclusiveness are also applied inconsistently – you will not hear many liberals argue for all-women or all-minority groups to include more white males.

    As to why this type of selective use of free speech and tolerance seems to be on the rise, I think that Jerry answered his own question. The generation that was fueled by righteous indignation in the 60s/70s is now and has been in the driver’s seat. While meaning well, a lot of them have sacrificed reason and evidence in their quest to protect the oppressed. I also think that there is a little bit of overcompensation going on here – if you are a hyper educated, well-off white person in a position of institutional power, you very much resemble “the Man” more than you did when you were a long-haired protestor in your youth.

    When my generation, who is by comparison politically apathetic, is in charge, we might see a rollback of a lot of this nonsense.

    Apologies for the long post in advance.

      1. Thank you! There is a commentator above that brought up the commercialization of Universities as part of the explanation of “why now?”. I now think that this is as much a factor as the aging of the baby boomers, and if I could I would amend the post for this.

    1. Almost all of those statements are partially true, but in many cases also highly misleading. Of course western ruling classes have exploited the people of the third world, but not half as much as third world ruling classes have done.

      Its also very noticeable that the list makes no mention of class. My hypothesis (which might be someone else’s) is that at least part of the discourse about “oppression” and “privilege” is just some middle class people trying to distract attention away from their own class privilege.

    2. Agree that post-modernism is an indirect cause for diminishing free speech.

      I like Karl Popper’s incredibly visionary analysis that dates way back to 1945 in “The Spell of Plato”: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them”. This ever-so-basic principle in democracies should serve as the guideline rather than caving merrily in to everyone who is “hurt” by words. Universities are there to teach people how to go beyond “hurt”, how to give and take criticism and develop arguments.

  31. I don’t think “why now?” is the best question. This has been building for decades.

    Consider the 1988 case of Jimmy the Greek. He said that blacks make better athletes due to stronger slaves being bred together by their owners. This was attacked as a horribly racist statement, and he got fired.

    But it wasn’t a racist statement. The absolute worst thing you can say about it (and you’d probably be right) is that it’s wrong. There is, to my knowledge, no good evidence that slave owners really did any organized breeding at all, much less for specific traits. But they could have, and pointing that fact out would not be racist. No more so than believing it to be a fact and being wrong.

    All the pressure against racism, both institutional and cultural, had already swung the pendulum the other way at least 30 years ago. Any discussion of race became taboo.

    This environment of de facto censorship incorporated a host of other “social justice” causes. Attack bogus rape statistics, or criticize overreach of new laws meant to protect women (who are the safest demographic, even ahead of children)? You’re a rape apologist and misogynist. Point out that blacks are more prone to commit crime (even in the context of showing how it relates to their economic circumstances)? You’re a racist.

    The Social Justice Warriors were on the ascent.

    After decades of this, it’s reached the point where hurting someone’s feelings is hate speech that can’t be tolerated. Unless, of course, you’re a heterosexual white male. That’s the only group you can safely attack these days.

    College campuses are the natural breeding ground for these ideas, and they have been spreading into other areas steadily over the last decade and a half or so. We saw it in the atheism/skepticism movement. It also happened in the Occupy Wall Street movement (the SJW crowd turned it into a complete joke – see Stephen Colbert’s interview of the “female-bodied” “Ketchup” for a horrific example). And most recently, it’s come to a head in the gaming community, after SJW academics (with the help of their “useful idiots”) infiltrated games media in 2012.

    The attitudes are so pervasive in our culture now that I can’t even read what I’ve just written without wondering whether the author should be fitted with a tinfoil hat.

    1. Speaking of Jimmy the Greek and his “theories”, I have always found it easy to explain black dominance in US sports such as basketball, as inner city youth (who are predominantly black) are subject to more intense and frequent exposure to the activity. It’s the exact same explanation for why those of Asian descent tend to dominate classical music and academics, or why Brazil (used to) dominate soccer.

      However, black dominance of American football is not so easily explained. As football exposure takes place mainly within the context of highly organized play (often at schools), there is less of a difference in exposure b/t black and non-black populations of kids. In fact, it is often the rich white private schools that have the best facilities and most frequent exposure to the sport. Yet when you look at the composition of pro and top level college teams, they are still dominated by black players, particularly in certain positions dependent on speed and extreme athleticism.

      Furthermore, when you look at the dominance of certain tiny Caribbean nations in sprinting and leaping events, over behemoths like China would like nothing more than to have a legit track and field champion, you wonder if there is something more than culture to explain the variance.

      1. I thought there was something like a greater preponderance of fast-twitch muscle fibers in the thighs of at least east Africans which explained faster running ( on average). If this is true, did it evolve from chasing and/or running from large animals on the savannah?

        1. I don’t completely buy the fast twitch fiber argument. The Chinese, to bring them up again, absolutely dominate Olympic weightlifting. You don’t get much more of a fast-twitch dominated sport than that.

          It may have more to do with differences in anatomy. The ideal sprinter’s physique, in terms of limb and trunk proportions, percentage of body fat, etc. might be different than the ideal weightlifter’s physique. And those ideal archetypes are distributed differently among the different populations of the world.

          My own pet conjecture (not even rising to the level of a hypothesis) is that great leapers and sprinters tend to have “high” calf muscles, meaning a high insertion point on the tendon, a short muscle, and a long tendon. I have this calf anatomy, and I could dunk a basketball at age 15, despite being only 5’11 (about 1.80 meters) and not particularly strong at the time. Whatever limited power I could produce was obviously stored and released very efficiently. If you take a look at sprinters and great leapers such as volleyball or basketball, this calf anatomy is very common.

          In my late teens and early 20s I more than doubled my lower body strength (as measured by the traditional barbell lifts), but only saw modest gains in vertical leap. Therefore while strength is a factor in jumping ability, having that “leapers physique” helps enormously.

          1. This is just a theory I’ve heard posited about the fast-twitch muscles…
            I think I sort of have calf muscles like yours (despite being barely 5’2″) and was also not at all bad at basketball and the long-jump when I was a teen. My dad (5’7″) had the same calves and jumped hurdles in college (something I never attempted or had any interest in;-). Mostly did dance – and squash.

            1. I can’t run distances – never could. I am amazed by runners. I can manage a 30 second sprint & that’s about it. I figure my only chance in a fight or flight scenario is “hide”, “be charming” or “escape in a vehicle”.

  32. My general feeling about the problem of free speech is that we now live in a society where we can be perpetually outraged – either by old media or new – and perpetual outrage is a continued call for action.

    The other thing it seems to be is that moralists tend to be the loudest voices, and moralists will take contrary views as being “morally problematic” – i.e. it’s not just a personal dislike for the view, but a moral imperative to do something about the problematic speech. I think we can understand it when it comes to science, with the fight against epistemically unwarranted ideas like creationism – an area we are happy to deny the view any sense in which it can pretend to be legitimate science. Why is it any different when morally abhorrent views are silenced by dissenters on moral issues?

  33. I’m tending to think free speech is not on the wane but actually increasing or at the very least holding it’s own. Even as these self interested individuals and groups are trying to shut it down. I don’t have any evidence to back up this claim but just a little mental exercise on the human condition. Although, of sorts I am my own evidence by writing here.
    We have always bitched and moaned about what others do and say, nothing remarkable about that.. until of course, it becomes oppressive, killing and torturing over the perceived wrong words mounted in the form of a critique.
    That’s when you really know freedom of speech is not permissible or tolerated. Places like China may fall under this category, Burma most likely.
    Meanwhile in the west, the internet, social media, wireless and satellite communications has indeed enhanced and empowered as your group and it’s individuals have access to more like minded and here you can assemble and make a noise, partition, protest whenever something dose not fit your view. The fight for your rights slogan has been picked up by any organized group, individuals no matter what they stand for.
    As we can see there is always a counter punch (persons who love pies for one) who can also engage and use counter tactics.
    These networks work both ways and just because incidences of tolerance or lack of, can loom large because of it’s availability does not mean freedom of speech is on the wane.

  34. In the UK, the proportion of the population which is Muslim is increasing exponentially. British families tend to have 1.9 children, whereas Muslim families have between 4 and 6, depending on which newspaper you read. Furthermore, approximately 80% of British Asians marry people from overseas (that is, mainly arranged marriages with people from the mother country).

    One could simply say it comes down to numbers.

  35. Apologies if someone has already mentioned this (I haven’t read all the comments in detail) but it occurs to me that since W journalism also has declined in the US. Remember how after 9/11 people were fired for opposing what the group wanted to hear? I find much news on TV has become bi-partisan instead of reporting the facts. There are of course exceptions, but these exceptions should be the norm.

    With journalism waning examples for how free speech operates in a democracy are sparse. There will be generations who have never knowing good journalism.

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