See your quarrel brought to the point
Of grievous war.… There’s more
If I am sure you want it: I can send out
Rumors to stir the border towns to war,
Fire them with lust for the madness of war,
So they’ll be joining in from everywhere.
I’ll scatter weapons up and down the land.
—The Fury Alecto, in Virgil’s Aeneid 7.747–54
In early January 2015, two French-born Islamist terrorists attacked the Paris office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, murdering twelve and injuring eleven others. Over the next two days, another terrorist killed a policewoman and wounded other officers before entering a kosher supermarket, shooting customers, and taking and eventually killing four hostages. Before being gunned down by police, the attackers killed seventeen people in all, wounding twenty-one others, several critically.
Later that same month, three million people marched through Paris in a show of unity against terrorist violence. Many brandished signs bearing the slogan “Je Suis Charlie,” which was generally understood to mean not just solidarity with the murdered editors and artists but also support for free speech as an absolute, uncompromising principle by which every form of expression, from satire to protest, obscenity to blasphemy, is acceptable, even admirable.
The “Je Suis Charlie” marchers would not like to hear this, but their view of free speech is similar to that of libertarian-minded Americans who denounce mask wearing and social distancing as infringements on their sacred liberties. Both groups place free expression above all other considerations. The only difference is that the Americans uphold the freedom to spray respiratory droplets into the faces of others, while the Paris marchers upheld the freedom to publish cartoons of Muhammad as a fat, ugly lecher with a permanent erection having doggy-style sex with a fat, ugly version of the Coptic slave Maria al-Qibtiyya—or, in the case of one Charlie Hebdo cover, a depiction of Christ gleefully sodomizing God the Father while being anally penetrated by the Holy Spirit.
It might be objected that spreading a deadly virus is a genuine harm, while offending other people’s religious sensibilities is not. This makes sense, perhaps, in the context of Charlie Hebdo as a limited-circulation print publication. But Charlie Hebdo is also online, and for every bloody-minded terrorist there are hundreds of ordinary Muslims, Christians, and Jews who feel insulted and demeaned by its blasphemous obscenities. To these people the standard Western response is Get over it. Putting up with views we find abhorrent is the price we pay for free speech.
But what about non-religious sensibilities? Here we encounter a very different Western response: You can’t say that. You’re canceled. No longer confined to the campus, this cancel culture is also online, mirroring the hyped-up giving of offense by Charlie Hebdo with a hyped-up taking of offense. For example, last June a group of students at the University of California–Los Angeles found genuine harm in a professor reading aloud from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
The offense? That 6,900-word letter, addressed to eight white Birmingham, Alabama, ministers who had denounced as “unwise” and “untimely” the nonviolent protests by King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), contains two occurrences of the “n-word.” The first is in a list of insults, humiliations, and acts of violence visited upon blacks in the segregated South; the second in a passage praising the white Southerners who joined the SCLC and got thrown into “filthy, roach infested jails,” where they suffered “the abuse and brutality of policemen who view[ed] them as ‘dirty nigger-lovers.’” The letter’s tone and language are carefully modulated to show no fear, no disrespect, and (most important) no doubt about the wisdom and timeliness of the protesters’ nonviolent actions. Today, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is considered a literary masterpiece, for reasons that surely include the author’s calculated dropping of those two n-bombs.11xThe way things are going, universities may soon ban all of King’s writings, because in addition to using the lower-case “n-word” occasionally, he used the upper-case one, Negro, every day of his life. This is not as outlandish as it sounds. According to Lexico, an online collaboration between Dictionary.com and Oxford University Press, Negro “now seems out of date or even offensive in both British and US English” (https://www.lexico.com/definition/negro).
None of this mattered to the UCLA students, who I suspect did not take time out of their busy schedules to actually read King’s letter. Here are some of their tweets, followed by a university administrator’s reply:
Student: This is absolutely ridiculous and disgusting. He [the professor] needs to be fired immediately.
Student: This is DISGUSTING!!!! @UCLA DO BETTER. FIRE HIM. WHAT INSTITUTION ALLOWS THIS????
Student: this is DISGUSTING!!! his response?! How is he a professor?!!?!!!??? Ugh
Student: This is why Black students hate it here!
Student: Were other students DEFENDING HIM???
Student: Sadly, they were.
Administrator: Thank you for bringing this to our attention. This information has been shared with UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion for review.22xheav. (@heavynne_), “@UCLA After numerous students plead…,” Twitter, June 2, 2020, https://twitter.com/heavynne_/status/1267971350074757122.
The university’s reply begins with a velvet glove for the students (“Thank you”) and ends with an iron fist for the professor (“review”). UCLA has divulged no details, but in keeping with the cancel culture, it appears to be conducting that review behind closed doors with no provision for the accused to have a proper defense. In a complaint filed with the University of California general counsel, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education warned that “UCLA’s silence on whether it is investigating [the professor], when all outward indications are that it is doing so, will…have an unacceptable chilling effect on the academic freedom and freedom of expression rights of its students and faculty.”33x“University of California, Los Angeles: Lecturer Referred to Administration after Reading Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter Containing Racial Slur,” The Fire (blog), accessed August 4, 2020, https://www.thefire.org/cases/university-of-california-los-angeles-lecturer-referred-to-administration-after-reading-martin-luther-king-jr-letter-containing-racial-slur/.
We thus arrive at a troubling impasse. At one extreme, the champions of free speech embrace the ultralibertarian view that every limit on expression, no matter how benign, is a fatal step toward tyranny. At the other, the custodians of public virtue deploy star-chamber methods to enforce an ideology, congealed from political correctness, that grows ever more invasive, intolerant, and inhuman. Both extremes have forgotten that every society in history has limited speech in some way, yet some have remained freer than others. To refresh their memories, I offer here a list of five time-honored modes of limiting speech:
First, illegitimate coercion by an authoritarian state that arbitrarily and without due process harasses, attacks, imprisons, or executes those who criticize, dissent, or otherwise deviate from the official version of the truth.
Second, self-censorship practiced by the subjects of such an authoritarian state, living under the constant shadow and threat of illegitimate coercion.
Third, legitimate coercion by a democratic government that respects the rule of law and the rights of its citizens.
Fourth, self-regulation practiced by private institutions and organizations in a democratic regime, to comply with the law and, on occasion, to keep the government at bay.
Fifth, voluntary restraint practiced by individuals and communities that in the absence of government pressure are free to shape and enforce their own speech norms.
To the extent that the American tradition of free speech remains strong, it is because the first and second modes have been rejected in favor of the third, fourth, and fifth. Of these, the most important but least discussed is the fifth, voluntary restraint. As fish don’t notice the water they are swimming in, Americans don’t notice the array of informal norms, customs, and taboos that define what is, and is not, acceptable speech in the myriad regional, ethnic, religious, and other associational settings that constitute our society. Some of these voluntary restraints apply everywhere; others do not. Like the connective tissue in the body, they are more or less firm or flexible, depending on their function and location.
For different reasons, this connective tissue is under attack by both zealous libertarians and fanatical thought-police. This is dangerous, because without these informal norms holding the body politic together, the nation’s formal regime of legitimate coercion and self-regulation cannot survive. Most Americans sense this, which is why we want to repair those norms. But that is not going to happen until we face a very tough question: Can any free nation, especially one as huge and diverse as the United States, sustain a tradition of free speech based on voluntary restraint, when the arena in which the nation expresses itself culturally and politically is dominated by participants who have little interest in sustaining that tradition—and indeed, are invested in stoking the extremes?
By participants I mean the complex of privately owned print, broadcast, and digital media that in recent years have earned significant revenue pandering to the prejudices, fears, and angers of an increasingly polarized and ill-informed public. Right now, the most scrutinized companies are the digital giants Facebook, Google, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter, with their relentless deployment of state-of-the-art algorithms to extract personal data from billions of unwitting users by manipulating their emotions. But before addressing that fraught topic, we need to consider how the predigital legacy media laid the groundwork for our present predicament—first in popular culture, then in news, and now in an increasingly toxic online culture.