This article originally appeared in Censorship News Issue 129
“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” – Frederick Douglass, 1860
Support for free speech is not a dogma never to be questioned. When white supremacists violently march in Charlottesville under the banner of “free speech” while NFL players are penalized for protesting the murder of unarmed black people, can one still insist that those of us standing up against racism and working towards a more equitable society should engage politely with racist ideologues? Every bigot is free to speak without government interference, but why should noxious ideas be granted the platforms of our liberal institutions? Don’t such platforms legitimize destructive ideas as part of normal democratic debate?
These are vital questions, but they need to be considered in the broader context of our fractured public sphere. Instead, they are often presented as self-evident arguments to put pressure on liberal institutions to refuse any platform to pernicious ideas.
De-platforming highlights a growing crisis of liberal democracy, where the incivility of a populist president is mirrored by leading liberals’ refusal to engage in “polite conversation” with a “fascist” (to quote Roxane Gay on Steve Bannon’s since-rescinded invitation to the New Yorker Festival). Worse, liberal dissenters today are often subjected to internal progressive bullying where Twitter mobs force heretics in line or cast them out. But who profits from an atmosphere where political disagreement is met with moral opprobrium and treated as a contaminant to be put under quarantine?
Those who hold so fast to their own moral certitude, and readily punish anyone within their own ranks who dissents, willfully blind themselves to the different ways some of their fellow citizens experience the world. The appeal of influential ideas needs to be understood, no matter how distasteful they may be. Locking ourselves in echo chambers of consensus and outrage and denying there is anything to learn about the political other may be comforting, but it is a losing strategy. This has been amply demonstrated by the populism thriving today.
The free exchange of ideas alone will not resolve the current political crisis. Yet the demonstrative refusal to listen across emotionally fraught differences is making it worse. Denying liberal platforms in the age of the Internet is unlikely to wither pernicious ideologies or reduce the influence they have among their followers. It does, however, contribute to social polarization, which provides fertile soil for a growing oligarchy-serving populism.
Svetlana Mintcheva is Director of Programs at the National Coalition Against Censorship.