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Fake free speech warriors


Andrew Sullivan’s twitter feed is currently a non-stop hysterical diatribe about how he was right all along about the severe threat to liberal democratic values the PC Woke movement poses.

A bunch of the rest of the usual suspects are right there with him:

Side topic (Not really):

Anyhoo, let’s review for a moment how empty the whole “free exchange of ideas” frame for thinking about this issue really is.

Note that the claim here is that it was a good thing for the NYT op-ed page to solicit an op-ed from a U.S. senator, advocating the use of the military to crush “riots,” aka political protests, and that it’s a terrible thing for people criticize that decision, at least if the latter form of free speech ends up having any real world effects.

Now why was it a good thing for the Times to not merely run but now it turns out actually solicit Cotton’s paean to state violence in the defense of Order? The argument Serious Public Intellectuals Weiss, Sullivan, and Lukinanoff put forward has two prongs:

(1) It’s a good thing for people to know what Tom Cotton, Donald Trump, Bill Barr, etc., are thinking about the protests (an informational argument).

(2) It’s a good thing for people who oppose using the military to crush political dissent to have this belief challenged on the nation’s most important editorial page (a political-pedagogical argument).

It’s hard to overstate how ridiculous these arguments are, if they are considered concretely, as opposed to in the usual abstract bloviating world of citations to Voltaire, Mill, Brandeis et. al.

Point (1), in the age of the Internet, hardly needs to be debunked. If you want to know what the people currently in control of the federal government think about anything, you can just check out their Twitter feeds (This is apparently what the editors of the NYT op-ed page did when they decided to offer their real estate to Tom Cotton to Both Sides using the military to crush political dissent). This is just a particularly egregious example of how informational arguments for the virtue of protecting “free speech” — not in the legal sense of speech free from government censorship, which has nothing to do with any of this — are pretty much completely anachronistic. Putting Tom Cotton on the NYT op-ed page has exactly nothing to do with informing the public about what Tom Cotton thinks, and everything to do with giving his ideas the imprimatur of respectability politics.

Point (2) must, to have any practical significance, be based on the assumption that the belief that is being challenged should be challenged: that the opposing belief is, in other words, the sort of belief that ought to be, if not adopted, at least be given a respectful hearing and considered seriously. This of course is always a political judgment on the part of the people who control publication decisions at places like the New York Times. There are a vast number of widely held beliefs that people like Weiss et. al. would all agree should not be given such a hearing. This is why arguments about how newspapers, universities, and so forth should reject “political correctness” and instead be “open to all viewpoints” are always 100% phony. Literally nobody actually believes this, because it’s such a preposterous idea if taken seriously, which is why it never is.

Should the view that Cotton is arguing for be given a respectful hearing by readers of the New York Times specifically? Again, the decision to solicit an op-ed from him on this topic can only be justified if the answer to this question is an unequivocal “yes.” (How many op-eds do the editors solicit? Answer: Not many). Now you can argue that Cotton’s view should be given a respectful hearing by the readers of the New York Times, but you have to argue for it, not spout empty and incoherent platitudes about “the free exchange of ideas” etc.

And the decision to solicit Cotton’s piece can only be defended if that defense is conducted at an extremely high level of abstraction. Once that question is asked in a concrete way — should the Times have solicited this particular piece at this particular time? — then the defense of the decision collapses immediately, unless you believe that giving Cotton’s views on this subject the respectful, serious attention that the decision to publish them in this venue is supposed to give them would have been an affirmatively good result of this entire process.

Again, that is the decision that needs to be defended. Not surprisingly, Sullivan, Weiss, Lukianoff, and the various other free speech warriors rushing into the breach don’t seem willing to argue for the proposition that it’s a good thing for the New York Times to go out of its way to make sure that its readers give respectful consideration to a U.S. senator’s rather fascistic-sounding ideas about how to deal with the current political protests. But that is exactly what they are actually arguing, so it’s even less surprising that they are doing everything they can to avoid saying so in words of one syllable.

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