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The Left and Free Speech

Is the Left more opposed to free speech today than it used to be?

In a sharp take on the Left, Freddie deBoer asks, “Is the social justice left really abandoning free speech?” Drawing on this report about an incident at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Freddie answers his own question thus:

It’s a question I’ve played around with before. Generally, the response [from the Left] is something like “of course not, stop slandering us,” or whatever. But more and more often, I find that the answer from lefties I know in academia or online writing are answering “yes.” And that is, frankly, terrifying and a total betrayal of the fundamental principles we associate with human progress.

Freddie goes on to offer a rousing defense of free speech. I don’t want to enter that debate. I have a different question: Is Freddie’s sense of a change on the Left — “more and more often” — accurate?

To be clear, I know exactly the phenomenon Freddie is talking about, so he’s not wrong to point it out. But from my admittedly impressionistic vantage as a middle-aged American academic, it seems far less common than it used to be.

Historically, the Left has had an ambivalent relationship to what used to be derisively called “bourgeois freedoms.” From Marx’s On the Jewish Question to Herbert Marcuse’s notion of repressive tolerance, some of the most interesting thinking on the Left has been devoted to examining the limits of what for lack of a better word I’ll call the liberal defense of freedom and rights. And of course this tradition of thought has often — and disastrously — been operationalized, whether in the form of Soviet tyranny or the internal authoritarianism of the CPUSA.

But if we think about this issue from the vantage of the 1960s, my sense is that today’s left — whether on campus or in the streets — is far less willing to go down the road of a critique of pure tolerance, as a fascinating text by Marcuse, Barrington Moore, and Robert Paul Woolf once  called it, than it used to be. (As Jeremy Kessler suggests, that absolutist position, which is usually associated with content neutrality, historically went hand in hand with the politics of anti-communism.)

Once upon a time, those radical critiques of free speech were where the action was at. So much so that even liberal theorists like Owen Fiss, who ordinarily might have been more inclined to a Millian position on these matters, were pushed by radical theorists like Catharine MacKinnon to take a more critical stance toward freedom of speech. But now that tradition seems to be all but dead.

Something happened on the way to the censor. Whether it was the pitched battle among feminists over the MacKinnon–Dworkin critique of pornography — and their advocacy of anti-porn statutes in Indianapolis and elsewhere — or the collapse of the Berlin Wall, most leftists since the 1990s have been leery of deviations from the absolutist position on free speech. Not just in theory but in practice: just consider the almost fastidious aversion to shutting down any kind of discussion within the Occupy movement.

That’s not to say that leftists don’t go there; it’s just that the bar of justification is higher today. The burden is on the radical critic of free speech, not the other way around.

Yes, one can still read of incidents like the one that provoked Freddie’s post (though compared to the past, they seem fewer and farther between). And critical issues like the relationship between money and speech are still argued over on the Left. But, again, compared to the kinds of arguments we used to see, this seems like small beer.

My take, as I said, is impressionistic. Am curious to hear whether others have a different impression. And to be clear, I’m talking here about the Left, not liberals, who may or may not be, depending on a variety of factors and circumstances, more inclined to defend restrictions on freedom of speech.