There has been a curious turn in the free-speech wars. For a decade, America’s elite culture has been marked by a growing willingness to persecute people for private remarks and personal opinions that fall outside contemporary speech norms. The examples are numerous and familiar, many of them high-profile. The signal case is probably Brendan Eich’s forced resignation from Mozilla in 2014 after it became public that he had donated $1,000 to support Proposition 8 in California. Other examples are less sympathetic: Donald Sterling’s career was destroyed after tapes surfaced of racist comments he made to his mistress; Paula Deen lost publishing deals and endorsements over similar allegations that she had used racist language decades earlier. The overall pattern is that of an increased sensitivity to violations of speech norms, almost always enforced by the Left. If you give to the wrong group, if you say the wrong thing (even if only to a friend), not only do you face the general social opprobrium associated with wrongheaded or “incorrect” opinions, but you may be hounded out of employment, your life may be threatened — you may be forced, essentially, to vacate the public sphere as a pariah.
For many on the left, this tide of censoriousness is not so much an unfortunate consequence of social media as it is a useful tactic to police American speech. The phenomenon is most evident on college campuses, where groups of outraged students regularly attempt to force professors out over even minor controversies. The latest incident: At Evergreen State College, angry students demanded that professor Bret Weinstein, who describes himself as a “progressive intellectual,” be fired after he called into question the idea of a day of white absence from the university.
But it has cropped up in other left-leaning spaces as well. There was widespread support on the left for Eich’s firing, and much of the Left gleefully endorsed the punching of Nazis after Richard Spencer was assaulted. (Who decides what a “Nazi” is, you ask? “I do!” scream a million different voices at once). The implicit assumption always is, and always has been, that the growing liberalization of American life will ensure that the Left keeps a monopoly on this sort of sanction.
The curious turn in the free-speech wars, then, is that the Left, too, has begun to suffer casualties. A blizzard of cases over the past week suggests that the remonstrative tone in American speech has escaped the bounds of the university hall and the Twitter feed. First, Kathy Griffin lost endorsements after posting a video of her holding a representation of Donald Trump’s severed head. Then, Reza Aslan was dropped by CNN after calling Trump a “piece of s***” on Twitter. Most recently, Delta and Bank of America both dropped their sponsorships of Shakespeare in the Park after the production’s Julius Caesar clearly analogized the Roman tyrant to, of course, Trump — assassination scene and all. Corporations are starting to realize, perhaps, that about half of America voted for Trump, and liberal commentators, celebrities, and artists alike are feeling the heat. Predictably they have cried “censorship” — in some cases, rightfully so — but thus far they have failed to recognize that the cultural preconditions were laid by themselves and their liberal predecessors.
Now, then, may be a good time for disarmament. It should be clear over the past few weeks that there is no caging the beast: Companies, after all, are sensitive to financial, not intellectual, distinctions and will defer to the most easily offended every time. Now is a time when the American Right may offer an olive branch — particularly with four more years of Trump looming, and with American progressives racing to outdo each other in the tactlessness of their criticism. The era is over, we could say, when the bad quip, the inartful performance, or the indiscreet donation will lose you your job, your standing, and destroy your life. Accept these terms, and criticize the administration freely — you will still be subject to all the social censure and disapproval that has always enforced social norms, but your livelihood no longer will be on the line. In return, you must welcome conservatives back into the fold and re-expand the window of what is acceptable.
To some conservatives, this will seem risky — a dangerous unilateral disarmament that deprives them of useful weapons in the short term without ensuring protection from those same weapons in the long term. But that view is shortsighted: Norms reinforce themselves, after all. A consensus for restraint in political dialogue, if it takes hold strongly enough, cannot be broken by any one group without political cost. And the alternative, a Hobbesian race to persecute both Left and Right, conducted by the angriest and the dumbest, in the service of the narrowest possible discourse, should be welcoming to none.
— Max Bloom is a student of mathematics and English literature at the University of Chicago and an editorial intern at National Review.