Free speech has become a partisan issue. But it shouldn’t be. At least according to Eli Feldman, formerly of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). This week, as part of our Spirited Discussion series, Joe and Eli sat down to talk free speech and partisanship. A lightly edited transcript of their conversation follows.
Joe Schuman: Thanks for joining us, Eli. You suggested a provocative and, perhaps, counterintuitive topic of discussion for today regarding why everyone should love free speech including and especially Progressives. But let’s start at the beginning. What got you into the free speech world?
Eli Feldman: Well, free speech was not something that was on my mind at all until college. If you had asked me at that time whether censorship occurs in the United States, I would have said of course not. But, as it would turn out, I was at Yale during the infamous Halloween costume controversy. That was my dorm my senior year. And then after graduation, I got a job working for Greg Lukianoff, the President of FIRE.
JS: So you have obviously grown to care about free speech. But for people who may not think of it as an issue on a regular basis, what would you tell them?
EF: I think there are a lot of different reasons to care about free speech, some of which may be salient for certain people over others. One of the main reasons, though, is that I believe free speech is a human right. Free speech is critical for the individual. It is important that people can say what they feel, express ideas, question authority, and not worry that they might be punished for it. When you don’t have free speech you usually end up with tyranny because when you can’t criticize the government it’s pretty easy for that government to do whatever it wants. That was why the Founders inscribed this freedom as the first right in the Bill of Rights.
If you don’t buy that argument, I would also say that free speech is useful for developing and testing ideas in search of truth. When you have a whole bunch of people who all feel one way or are the only ones comfortable sharing their opinions, you are going to end up with a very skewed outlook. A useful analogy here is within the scientific community where nothing is verboten. Nothing is off limits to question. They would say that you better have some damn good evidence. They might say you cannot lie or misrepresent facts. But scientists want to get to the truth. And if the truth is that they have been wrong, then they want to know.
JS: I definitely want to come back to the science question but, overall, I agree with your thoughts on the topic. The negative consequences are obvious to me. If we are going to start policing speech, who does it? What are the criteria? Where does it stop? There is just no good response. It is sort of a slippery slope argument, which you need to be careful about, but sometimes slopes are slippery. Additionally, like you said, exposing yourself to an idea you disagree with is the best way develop a deeper understanding of an issue. John Stuart Mill said that, “Even if we all were agreed on a proposition it would be essential to give an ear to the one person who did not, lest people forget how to justify their original argument.”
EF: I see your John Stuart Mill quote and will do you one better: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” … I want to pick up on the slippery slope idea. I am generally cautious about slippery slope arguments but free speech is one of the areas that I think the concept truly applies. At FIRE, we frequently saw governments and universities abusing their power despite the fact that restricting free speech is illegal. Many public universities are blatantly breaking the law and, eventually, they will have to recant or will get sued and have to pay damages. So even when they are not legally allowed to do so, schools are censoring people. Imagine what they would be doing if they were allowed to. A metaphor that people in the free speech world use is to imagine free speech as an apple. Everyone wants to take one bite of the apple. They just want to stop Nazis. They just want to stop Black Lives Matter. Just Planned Parenthood. The problem is there isn’t much left when you are done. I’ve had a similar conversation hundreds of times at this point but everybody draws their line at a different place. So if one was trying to legislate free speech restrictions, where do we draw the line?
JS: I am reminded of a basic free speech argument, which is that free speech is designed to protect speech that you hate. It’s not designed to prospect speech you like because there would be no need for it.
EF: That’s exactly what people get backwards. They will often say that I support free speech except for fill-in-the-blank, which is precisely the speech that needs protection. If you work in the free speech world, you often hear the following: “Of course I support free speech, but…” and then people go on to completely undermine the first statement by talking about banning or censorship.
JS: I want to pivot the conversation towards the topic of the hour: free speech and Progressives. I have a list of examples of how Progressives have, in my view, recently attempted to censor free speech either directly or indirectly.
EF: We will get into it and I think that is partially true and partially not true. But more generally my concern is that free speech has started to be seen as a partisan issue, which is (a) a total travesty if you believe in the intrinsic value of free speech and (b) ahistorical. Free speech is now a culture war football, which is to say that Progressives do focus on free speech, but only to make conservatives look like evil. And, conversely, Conservatives only focus on free speech to make liberals look like snowflakes. The cases that don’t fit one of those paradigms aren’t picked up by the media and don’t get any attention. People only want to deal with culture war anecdotes.
JS: In your work, have you found that the Left and the Right emphasize free speech to the same degree?
EF: It goes both ways, I would say. Generally speaking, Conservatives support free speech more but still you get Conservatives who are very critical of student groups who support Communism, for example. There are other examples. There was a student group that depicted police officers as animals getting slaughtered in a video. And lo and behold you saw Conservatives coming out of the woodwork saying this is threatening, this is hateful. But, wait? Aren’t you the ones calling Liberals snowflakes? In general, though, Progressives accept a much more narrow band of speech and are more comfortable imposing certain limitations.
JS: In my opinion, there are specific trends coming from the Progressive Left that are intended to stifle free speech directly. The two that come to mind for me are “no-platforming” and the concept of “speech as violence.” I am someone who always tries to hear both sides of a story and attempts to be as objective as possible, but I simply don’t have an analogy on the Right.
EF: There definitely are no platforming arguments coming from the Right. With Socialism and Communism on college campuses, for example. FIRE maintains a “dis-invitation” database and it is disproportionately filled with disinvitations of Right-leaning speakers, but there are speakers on the Left as well. So it does happen but I agree that it is predominantly on the Left.
The thing about no-platforming is that it is just wrong on every level. It’s not just that I disagree with it, which I do. But it’s not effective. What’s the point of no-platforming? A no-platformer would say that it is to prevent someone from spreading their hateful, malicious, or false ideas. Take the case of Heather Mac Donald, who was supposed to speak to an audience of a few hundred at Claremont McKenna College about the “War on Police.” Mac Donald was no-platformed by a group of student protesters and went to a nearby classroom to livestream her talk. The video now has over 10,000 views. This is just one example out of many. So even if you believe that no-platforming is justified, you have to concede that it is counterproductive. If there is a provocateur going to your campus, like Milo Yiannopoulos, it is much better to just not go to the event. Ignore them.
JS: I definitely agree about the importance of ignoring hate speech because I do believe that hate speech is almost always a fringe element. It is obviously concerning and when it results in violence it is a safety and legal issue. But for the most part it is a bunch of nut jobs and if you ignored them things would be a lot better. The other method that I have seen Progressives attempting to use to censor speech is the “speech as violence” argument. It is a way for someone to tell you that you should stop talking or that you shouldn’t be heard.
EF: It is hard for me to get inside the mind of people who subscribe to this line of argument and I consider myself pretty good at that as a psychologist and a political independent. It is, from a purely linguistic point, false. Violence is a physical phenomenon. When people say that something is verbal violence it is because violence doesn’t mean verbal. That doesn’t mean that words don’t hurt and words don’t have a profound affect on people. But they are not violence. It is important to keep separate ideas separate.
I helped my former boss Greg Lukianoff write a response to an article by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a very well respected and prominent psychological researcher in the field of emotional psychology, who argued that speech is violence. Barrett’s thesis, which was made in good faith based on her experience in her field, argued that stress causes brain damage, which it does. We see this with PSTD, for example. That’s not controversial. But then she went on to argue that if stress causes brain damage, which is a physical sensation in its end, then hate speech, which causes stress and eventually brain damage, is violence. It was an intuitive argument. But once you have a counterexample you quickly see the concept break down. What else causes stress? Homework. So if a teacher assigns you homework, which causes you stress, which damages your brain, then homework is also violence. And you can immediately see how absurd that argument is.
JS: Something that needs to be said is that Progressives only talk about speech as violence is when it is speech coming from the Right. And it is difficult for me to accept a critique when it consistently and perfectly aligns with someones political predispositions.
EF: I sometimes do a thought exercise with my Liberal friends. I ask them if they want to ban free speech in certain instances and they say yes, totally. So, to clarify, I confirm: you want the government to determine what is qualifies as hate speech? And they say yes. So then I say, you want Donald J. Trump to determine what constitutes hate speech? And then they aren’t so sure. They start to realize that when you give this sort of power to the government, sometimes you are going to be on the losing end. They become little Libertarians once the shoe is on the other foot.
JS: We’ve talked about a couple direct methods of censoring free speech, but now I want to dive into what I consider to be indirect methods of censoring free speech. I am going to hop onto my hobby horse here and talk about the phrase “the science is settled,” which is often used in the climate change debate. I’ve tried to argue with friends, and I think somewhat successfully, that science is actually a process. A process of questioning and skepticism and hypothesis testing. That is not an end, but a means. So science is actually never settled. If you do think science is settled then why would science be settled in 2019 and not in the 20th century or the 19th century? I had this exact discussion and someone who told me “there are physical laws, like gravity, that cannot be questioned.” I was very glad that they used that as an example because, actually, quantum mechanics is completely disrupting what we thought about general relativity and gravity at the quantum scale. So if even in the case of scientific laws like gravity we need to question, then certainly we need to question economic policy or social and cultural norms.
EF: I couldn’t agree more strongly. In order to be good scientists, and good consumers of science, we need to be open to the idea that everything we know is wrong if the right evidence comes along tomorrow. And that’s a big if. But we need to open to that possibility. I think that science is Bayesian, which is to say we update our understanding as we go. I think that is important to do with scientific and non-scientific contexts.
JS: Just to throw a bone to Progressives here—which I am not often wont to do—while I would not be comfortable using the phrase “the science is settled”, I would say something along the lines of “the current scientific consensus.” That phraseology recognizes that (1) a consensus allows for disagreement by a minority and that (2) the consensus is only current (ie. subject to change). In the context of climate change, I think someone would be on more stable ground saying given the current scientific consensus the risk of inaction is unacceptably high. I not only think that argument is more accurate but I also think it is more convincing. Instead of accusing someone of being wrong and dumb and evil, which tends to backfire, acknowledging doubt but emphasizing risk might compel them to action.
I would like to quickly touch on political correctness as an indirect method of suppressing speech, as well. We know that, as a result of political correctness, a “spiral of silence” occurs where an individual does not speak out or object because they think that their views are wrong or inappropriate. They think they are alone in their views so a form of self-censorship starts to take root.
EF: Now I am going to throw Progressives a bone here, as well, and mention the concept of “patriotic correctness,” which tries to capture the fact that Conservatives do have a form of political correctness even though they don’t call it that. An example of patriotic correctness would be the backlash against Colin Kapernick for kneeling during the national anthem. This was an act of protest that didn’t break any laws. It in no way affects anyone else besides upsetting them. But the Right did get very upset. I think it is important to point that out. But it is also true that political correctness is overwhelmingly found on the Left.
JS: Professor Jonathan Haidt would say that the situation you just described is Conservatives flexing their sanctity and authority moral foundation… Any closing thoughts? Alibis? Parting words of wisdom?
EF: One thing we didn’t dive into within the topic of why Progressives and free speech is that every progressive political movement in United States history—from the abolition movement to the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement—only proceeded because people were allowed to speak their minds. These movements could not have succeeded without free speech. Without someone going against the prevailing, settled societal theories and, in some cases, scientific arguments. Today’s Progressives seem to think that free speech looks like Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. But what they forget is that they and their fellow Progressives are engaging in free speech in genuine and impactful ways.
JS: Protests in front of the White House. The Women’s March…
EF: Exactly. The Women’s March is a perfect example. You have hundreds of thousands of people gathering in the capital of the country to protest the leader of the country. That is the definition of free speech. The March for Science. The March for Our Lives. All of this is only possible if you have the ability to speak out against the government.
The message I hope to leave is that if free speech is a right that you deserve as a free person in a free country, then it’s also a right that a free person in a free country deserves that you completely disagree with and who you think is a horrible person. Principles stand true regardless of who’s shoe the foot is on and who is currently in the power. Free speech is a fundamental right. And fundamental rights are fundamental.
JS: Thanks for joining us today, Eli.
Eli is the former executive assistant to the president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in Washington DC. In the fall, he will be pursing a doctoral therapy degree at the PAU-PGSP Stanford Consortium program in California.
If you like this piece, check out more spirited discussions here.