Freedom of speech is a liberty that is woven into the very fabric of the United States. We have a long history here of continuing the tradition and system set up by the founders of America, such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Except for certain periods of a marked diminution of free speech and dissent (such as the Alien and Sedition Acts, McCarthyism, and the juggernaut of the post-9/11 Middle East wars), one could rest assured that if they wished to stand on a soapbox and absolutely trash the POTUS, one would not be prevented from doing so. Of course, there are libel and slander laws, which make it illegal to lie about someone in public (i.e., to besmirch their good reputation). And yes, in the age of social media free speech, freedom of expression, and the liberty to be who one chooses to be are greatly stressed.
Americans tend to like things simple, but unfortunately when it comes to freedom of expression, the right to dissent against custom and prevailing opinion, and an ability to be an individual in a sea of others, things are not that simple. In a word, freedom of speech might seem simple, but it is actually somewhat complex. Perhaps I should specify: it is easy to figure out with 97% of peoples’ free speech situations, but many incidents get pretty dicey and controversial pretty quickly. Big money influences the political environment now, massive corporate entities seek profit from “infotainment,” and everyone seems to feel entitled to talk trash online. In a word, “cancel culture” is a foolish buzzword, but is also alive and well.
On both sides of the political spectrum. Liberals are wont to try to ensure that the ways of the past are mended, making “isms” scurry back to the closet—racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, etc. Frequently in the news one will see someone famously who gets the spotlight for crossing a line of propriety—some would say orthodoxy and political correctness. The latest, as of this writing, involves Kanye West saying anti-Semitic things. We have a little room for publicly speaking ill of Jews in this country—much more so than Germany, for example—but for the most part society has a rule that says, essentially, Jews have been maltreated for millennia, so if you are going to defame them and tell lies about them for your own nefarious reasons, that’s not okay, and you will be called on the carpet if you try to do so. Indeed, it would be on Kanye or Rush Limbaugh or the white supremacist (or whomever) to validate their viewpoint/claim/public statement as having some basis in fact, lest their complaints about a people come off as boorish and ill-conceived and inappropriate. As with most slurs and generalizations, it is rocky territory to start a sentence with “The Jews……”
In perhaps the longest SNL monologue in history, political correctness bogeyman du jour Dave Chapelle mentions Kanye and “The Jews” and it’s pretty funny (LINK). Comedians have of course been on the front lines of free speech, since often what is funny is somewhat controversial. Clearly, folks such as Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Sarah Silverman notoriously pushed the envelope in regard to what can be said (for laughs) and tolerated (the audiences, and the social-media-obsessed public at large). Chapelle has of late “been a little bit obsessive with topics of the LGBTQ community, and what he feels is unnatural, crazy and strange,” says this The Young Turks commentator (LINK). Dave points out that “they cancelled J.K. Rowling,” and believes that there is an imaginary line of respect-slash-political-correctness that a lot of folks in the LGBTQ community say cannot be crossed. Whether that line is wisely drawn or essentially aims to make a traditionally marginalized community above any kind of criticism or humor is the question Dave is all wrapped up in nowadays. He doesn’t seem to be cowed by efforts to silence him, or appear to be particularly bigoted in regard to LGBTQ folks—which makes this a unique case.
If you’re wondering why conservatives seem to harp on this kind of stuff all the time—and therefore are natural allies with comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Bill Maher, and a hundred others who feel things have gotten way too serious out there—the answer is complex. When it comes to free speech, conservatives have historically tried to protect the good name of the United States against slander. The way Donald Trump led the charge against quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to often “take a knee” at football games when the National Anthem was being sung is telling. That is, Trump saw in that an opportunity to score some points against mainstream society which said, “Hey if this guy feels this way then so be it—the country is strong enough to survive a sports star kneeling and remaining silent during the quasi-mandatory pep rally that is meant to unify and quiet feelings of dissent.” Certainly, liberals feel that C.K. deserves the right to protest peacefully if he feels that African Americans are getting short shrift in numerous ways. Trump, however, used this as a wedge issue—with great sound and fury.
Conservatives would say that Trump was right to point out that it was inappropriate to disrespect the flag and the country in that manner, since the song extols the virtues of America. Conservatives have tended historically to be either somewhat, very, or extremely intolerant of free speech that calls into question the goodness, excellence, sacrosanctity, or beauty of what they consider to be the greatest country on earth. Trump knew this and was quite aware of how fragile the relationships between persons of different viewpoints, political ideologies, and sensitivities has become, and how fraught the ability to tolerate free speech on the part of “the other end of the political spectrum” are today. It is magnified by social media platforms, of course. This is a question of tolerance, and propriety, and respect, and truth. Conservatives also tend to see this issue as one that signals that liberals are forever moving the goalposts, making free speech more constrained and narrowed. They also feel liberals are always negative—looking at the history of America, or modern day goings on (such as police conduct, a person with a dissenting opinion or an axe to grind, for examples) and telling everyone what they can and cannot think, say, and feel. Trump exploited this to create divisions and animosity to ride a wave of white, blue collar, authoritarian-in-personality, suburban, economically fractured, nervous, fearful, Christian nationalism all the way to ultimate power. Arguably.
I tend to believe, sort of like Bill Maher the wise old comedian, that liberals are at their worst when they sacrifice victims on the altar of political correctness, or worry about pronouns to the exclusion of much more important political fights. They tend to miss the forest for the trees when they worry too much about free speech matters and try to police conservatives and societal institutions on social media and such. Conservatives miss the boat when they dictate too authoritatively what books and other information can be safely let out into the masses, when they tolerate lying and similar unscrupulous behavior in each other and in politicians (the way evangelical Christians supported Donald Trump will forever vex and disappoint me), and when they disallow the teaching of historical and valid truths to be taught in classrooms. In a word, liberals hold on too tight when it comes to ensuring that conservatives not infringe on the social justice-oriented rights of people who need protection, and conservatives are dangerous to the degree that they try to whitewash the past and manipulate the way truth is disseminated in society.
It is truly a free speech conundrum to tease apart what the whole political correctness thing is all about. For example, do conservatives and liberals have double standards for what can be tolerated? On the one hand, no; but on the other hand, yes. Perhaps liberals are a bit too sensitive about past wrongs committed by Americans (and there are sooo many), and see it as virtuous, in the present, to try to stand up for the rights of others. This is well-intentioned, and is a force for social, political, racial, and other types of progress. “Progress” meaning progressive. For example, if police mistreat and even kill unarmed black men at a greater rate than they do other groups, progressives feel that indicates the institutionalized racism inherent in policing and the criminal justice system.
This fact (though that would be debated by many) leads to the idea that, as Captain Picard said in the movie Generations: “The line must be drawn here. This far and no farther!” This link shows two minutes of discussion between Lilly and Picard, and she is wise to point out that he is obsessed, irrational, and overwrought. He is hell-bent on stopping the nemesis of the United Federation of Planets from essentially wiping out Earth and all the “good guys,” but his more rational interlocutor Lilly draws apt comparisons between Picard and the wonderful fictional example of an obsessed man, Captain Ahab in Melville’s book, Moby Dick.
The volume gets turned up on all this when various persons and institutions are profit-driven, or when they are protecting their turf from their political nemeses. For example, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms elevate free speech that is the most controversial. They artificially pump up the popularity of that content—the online equivalent of how kids tend to yell “FIGHT!! FIGHT!!” as soon as a scuffle begins in the schoolyard. Why? Because they want to get eyeballs on screens; in other words, make people more emotionally engaged with the content. They want people to type out vitriolic and impassioned and irrational and tribalistic commentary on their computer screens; they want folks to “mix it up” and “scrap” with each other. The peculiar nature of computer screens make it far too easy for people to say stuff they would never say in public. Why? At bottom it’s about money: advertisers can advertise better when folks stay glued to their screens for longer amounts of time. This makes the companies more profitable.
It’s not that far from getting two dogs in a room and causing a vicious dog fight—when these companies pit people against each other in tiny, repetitive contests of opinion, alleged fact, political correctness, disagreement, and enmity. Clearly, Russia exploited this to an ominously successful degree in the 2016 election period. These Russian “trolls” would throw out something juicy to a “room” of charged-up, politically-opinionated Americans and then both Russia and the social media giant would benefit from the ensuing dogfight. It literally cost Bernie and Hilary a lot of support, and Trump was probably watching with glee, since he is a narcissistic, dark-hearted pile of shit.
So that’s the profit-driven complicating aspect of modern free speech. It ties in well to the other aspect: when people are protecting their psychological or social turf from perceived nemeses. Others. In other words, when members of one “tribe” (political faction, religious sect, minority group, historically disadvantaged group, ethnicity, etc.) seek to protect the good name of their own group, and denigrate the other group in some way.
Human beings are just naturally tribalistic. It was a survival advantage throughout the millennia, and that appendage is less useful now, but is still sticking around. If you have an incident where a suspect flees or fights or whatever, and the police officers perceive themselves as having to chase the suspect down, fight them, or shoot them, in five minutes it’s over. However, if the person who was killed is a member of a group that was historically maltreated by some official entity representing some kind of government in the land (i.e., a black man, and a municipal police force), and especially if the officer is a white male, then things get heated real fast. If the African American and allied communities wish to protest and express their grief, anger, hopelessness, powerlessness, and outrage, it’s basically a powder keg. If the police are too heavy-handed (and at times in the past, brutal) then it’s virtually impossible for the two factions, or tribes, to be rational, calm, and cooperative.
For both sides, it feels like justice is on the line. For blacks, it can feel like their very lives, their very Americanness, is at stake. For cops, it often is perceived as “us against them” and they feel they are being unfairly judged and punished by groups in society—aided by social media and at times, traditional media. They feel they have to fight to prevent trespassing over “the thin blue line” that they take great pride in guarding. The police often feel they are being sacrificed on an altar of political correctness—being made into a scapegoat to get newspapers sold or the like. They look at, say, rioting not as a last-ditch expression of powerlessness and hopelessness and rage, but as a puerile acting out of a group that refuses to follow the law and accept their proper place in society (i.e., a person with no right to riot). When justice is on the line, people get self-protective, strident, tribalistic, defensive, and closed-minded. Justice makes people go to extremes; to circle the wagons. People will choose to die rather than accept injustice, at times. The Israelis and Palestinians historically have done just this. Both cultures are very tribalistic, do not tolerate much free speech when it comes to criticizing the in-group, and the like.
Conspiratorial thinking, lies, and disinformation are literally so big of a subset of free speech that it is impossible for me to “go there” in this blog. They are hugely important in society now, though—more so when they involve the political realm. As well, there exist these societal tsunamis such as the SCOTUS decisions that allow unregulated cash to flow into political action committees and such (Citizens United, Buckley, McCutcheon, and others, for example) (LINK). Finally, academic freedom is a big thing now and it has everything to do with free speech. These are some of the hot-button issues one could check out if they care deeply about all aspects of liberty.
I stated that the desire to stake out territory and defend it against perceived enemies comes pretty naturally to human beings. It’s a damned, miserable fact. Have you heard of the Robber’s Cave Experiment? That’s an intriguing, instructive pioneering social-psychological experiment that sheds light on how primed human beings are to be part of groups—and to defend those groups against “the other.” Experiments such as that one illustrate that free speech may be a laudable goal, but it is complicated greatly by other aspirations within the hearts of human beings: self-protection, competitiveness, dominance, superiority, tribalism, and belonging. Another old-timey social psych experiment that sheds light on group dynamics and social control is that of the Saints and the Roughnecks.
In the end, liberals and conservatives, Jews and anti-Semites, transgendered individuals and society at large, comedians and members of the public, politicians and voters, social media companies and eyeballs, and friends and neighbors face an uphill climb when they seek to get along, behave peaceably, make progress, observe justice, uphold propriety, and care for those who are different from us. Free speech is forever the vehicle through which this all plays out—for better or worse. Ω