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Qualifying Free Speech Out of Existence: Dare to Speak and the Danger of Polite Self-Censorship

It is easy to come away from Dare to Speak filled with confusion about whether, or even how, to take the title’s advice. Reducing minds to group representation is, in the long run, no way to arrive at either truth or justice. Instead, it first leads to conflict, and finally to a weary agreement that the groups can only live in peace separately—and in silence.

Suzanne Nossel is the president of PEN America, an organization that “stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide.” In her new book, Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, which has garnered endorsements from high-profile figures such as Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nossel clearly identifies the chief threat to free speech, but her defense of this embattled right leaves something to be desired.

Nossel rightly insists that attempts by government to control speech, however well-intentioned, invariably become “discretionary, which can mean that they are used selectively to target speech that is unpopular or considered unfriendly.” The Weimar Republic, she warns, had hate-speech laws on its books “that were enforced rather robustly,” but they only ended up providing fodder for Nazis “crying persecution.” Nossel is not any more enthused about the prospect of privately owned digital platforms—such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter—stepping up to censor inconvenient utterances. “Pious pronouncements by tech company CEOs about free expression,” she complains, “come off as self-serving,” and she is fearful of the “risks associated with commissioning the world’s most powerful companies to exercise vast and unprecedented controls over speech.”

In the face of widespread demands for such censorship, Nossel argues that free speech is essential to self-government, promotes tolerance and personal autonomy, catalyzes progress, and serves as the foundation for all other freedoms.

Polite Self-Censorship

This is, at moments, a brave book. At moments, it is even a provocative one. So, why is this book one of the last things I’d recommend as a defense of free speech, free expression, or the First Amendment?

Largely because, in the interest of giving no offense to the potentially offended, Nossel succeeds in qualifying nearly every one of the virtues of free speech out of existence. Speech should be free, Nossel writes, but she then counsels speakers to be so conscious of how their speech affects their hearers that much of her book becomes a brief for polite self-censorship. “Speakers should be conscientious with language,” Nossel insists. “Exercise care with speaking, and be willing to apologize where appropriate.”

 

Of course, she warns, “listeners should stop short of efforts to silence” language that offends them. Yet it seems perfectly permissible to Nossel for “listeners . . . to aid in identifying and condemning speech that is hateful and hate-motivated crimes.” Nossel never actually explains how such identification and condemnation might not work as silencing.

In advice that often veers in tone toward Martha Stewart rather than Sojourner Truth, Nossel wants speakers to know that “mindfulness about speech can help us avoid unwanted controversy.” Which is true: in fact, being mindful about speech can help us to avoid all controversy, if we take the trouble beforehand to vet our speech for anything controversial. Of course, by that point, it will be a worthwhile question whether the speech is worth speaking or hearing. The purpose of the free speech principle is not to make speech anodyne, but to make the powerful listen. This is particularly true in an academic context, where the pursuit of truth sometimes takes us between Scylla and Charybdis. Nevertheless, Nossel intones, “professors should be conscious of where a rising generation draws its red lines.”

Nossel, of course, would deplore any association of this advice with self-censorship. “Does linguistic conscientiousness amount to self-censorship? It shouldn’t.” No, of course it shouldn’t—but why doesn’t it?

Can Speech Be a Form of Violence?

Nossel is rightly reluctant to credit the arguments of those who equate rhetorical or metaphorical violence with actual physical harm. “Calling speech a form of violence lays the foundation to ban and punish it as we do physical assaults,” she observes. Like Princeton professor Keith Whittington in his 2018 book Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, Nossel is conscious that yielding to this “new definition of violence . . . would upend centuries of laws and norms, raising all kinds of questions about banning not just speakers but also protests, demonstrations, books, articles, films, and other forms of communication.”

 

Whittington has warned that “once words are taken to be equivalent to violence, then the call for censorship quickly follows.” In fact, collapsing the distinction between speech and physical violence paves the way not only to censorship, but “to the use of actual violence against unpopular speakers in the name of ‘self-defense.’”

Curiously, Nossel makes no reference to Whittington’s book, even though it is a vital defense of academic free speech. Instead, she recommends elaborate strategies for placating the potentially harmed. The reader is told to use “care and diligence” to avoid “blowback.” Resolve “verbal offenses . . . with a simple apology” that will “voice a measure of acceptance of the consequences of the misdeed, so that the expression of regret does not come off as a self-serving attempt to avoid reprisals.” Earn “absolution” by engaging “substantively with those [you] have offended, working to win their trust.”

What Nossel seems not to have noticed in these recommendations is how she has shifted the burden from the shoulders of those who are obliged to tolerate free speech (so that theirs in turn may be tolerated), to those of the speakers, who must now demonstrate “that ill will was neither intended nor courted.” It would be interesting to speculate on the results if this rule had been applied to John Peter Zenger, to Frederick Douglass, to William Lloyd Garrison, to Eugene Debs, or even to Martin Luther King. What do we think of those who, in the past, have actually done as Nossel advises? One wonders how different the operation of Nossel’s advice would be in the face of a blasphemy statute.

Celebrated First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, in The Soul of the First Amendment (2017), contrasts the way Americans valorize free speech with the prosecution in Poland in 2010 of a singer who gave “offense to religious feelings” for saying that she “believed more in dinosaurs than the Bible.” There can only be one standard of “offense,” and that is the offense taken.

Politics and Power

It is difficult to escape the suspicion that politics plays some role in the selective flimsiness of Nossel’s protections for free speaking. Hate speech assumes its loathsome lineaments when it “is inimical to the values of equality and inclusion.” By contrast, when complaints over censorship emerge from conservatives, it is only because of “what they see as a bias against right-wing opinion.” Note the deprecatory what they see.

 

Similarly, much as she balks at the notion that only membership in “a racial or ethnic group” should decide what can be said about it, she agrees with Ibram Kendi in conceding that “racism pervades every facet of American society,” and “free speech is no exception.” On those terms, Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind is “too sweeping in dismissing subjective perspectives” and fails to encourage “the need for society, or the university, to pry away the calcified detritus of bigotry that continues to leach into our academy and communities.” Yet there is more than a little self-contradiction in Nossel’s hesitant endorsement of strategies like “progressive stacking” (prioritizing the speech of “minority groups” in classrooms) as a way of promoting “equality of participation and speech,” since the actual words of “minorities” are comparatively infrequent in her own pages.

Yet Nossel is certainly right in her anxiety about the fundamental threat to free speech in all forms and at all times: power. Much as she deplores both “white supremacist” and “Islamic extremist” speech on the internet, Nossel is even more worried when internet CEOs volunteer to cure the problem themselves. “Fighting back against perceived bias may create its own distortions,” she writes, in a targeted rebuke to Mark Zuckerberg. A tech company may not be able to arrest or imprison you for what you say, but beware granting it the “ability to delete your posts and shut down your accounts,” since this is “a potent form of social control, and not subject to the appeals and other constraints of our legal system.” Creating a “Supreme Court of Facebook” would, for Nossel, be as laughable (or as weep-able) as an offer from John D. Rockefeller to self-police Standard Oil, and she would not mind at all if the exemptions from liability granted to internet companies under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act underwent some serious revising in the direction of legal accountability.

How Can We Dare to Speak?

It will be easy to come away from Dare to Speak filled with confusion about whether, or even how, to take the title’s advice. Reluctant as Nossel may be to grant the instant equation of violent speech with violence itself, she concedes that there are “harms that certain speech can inflict: emotional pain, the promulgation of pernicious falsehoods, or . . . violations of privacy and dignity.” True, some of these “harms” can be “speculative, imagined, or exaggerated.” Still, she cannot quite disentangle herself from suspicions that “microaggressions” contribute to “higher rates of depression and stress” and “feelings of anger, frustration, doubt, guilt, or sadness.” It never seems to occur to Nossel that there are individuals—the Pol Pots, the Benedict Arnolds—who ought to be experiencing those symptoms as a result of what they have heard.

Nossel believes devoutly that “progressives in positions of influence bear a special responsibility to defend the neutral principles of open expression,” and she is clearly uncomfortable at finding progressives increasingly expressing skepticism “of speech protections.” Yet when we agree to define ourselves not as individuals but as group representatives, we are likely to regard speech as an obligation to hold up “our side” rather than to uphold the truth.

Reducing minds to group representation is, in the long run, no way to arrive at either truth or justice. Instead, it first leads to conflict, and finally to a weary agreement that the groups can only live in peace separately—and in silence.

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