If you’re going to ask a conservative which predominantly leftist idea is the greatest threat to our nation’s culture of free speech, I’d expect that they’d immediately answer with “speech is violence.” It’s an understandable response. After all, “speech is violence” is not only the most dramatic claim, it’s a claim that has occasionally justified and rationalized actual violence — including on campus.
But there’s another claim, one that’s slightly less lurid and thus somewhat easier to justify. It applies in the most emotionally fraught debates about race, sexuality, and gender, and it goes something like this: No person should be required to “debate” his right to exist. Free speech is fine, but “dehumanizing” speech is something else entirely.
For example, if you argue that a man cannot get pregnant, you are “erasing” trans people. If you argue that marriage is a union of a man and a woman, then you are “dehumanizing” gay Americans. To take another example, as Jesse Singal points out in his invaluable newsletter, campus activists once tried to deny Heather Mac Donald a platform to critique Black Lives Matter by arguing that “if engaged, Heather Mac Donald would not be debating on mere difference of opinion, but the right of Black people to exist.”
As these ideas do, it has spread off-campus to Silicon Valley, where Google employees objected to Heritage Foundation president Kay Cole James’s very presence on a Google advisory panel on artificial intelligence, in part because they said they didn’t want to debate their “humanity” or because James (allegedly) believed that people like one Google critic “should not exist at all.” More than 2,500 “Googlers” signed a petition to remove her from the panel, and Google eventually canceled the board entirely.
The idea that James denies the humanity of any human is, as they say, big if true. But it’s not true. The belief that another person is created in the image of God, endowed by that same Creator with unalienable rights, but is also morally, philosophically, or scientifically wrong is not dehumanizing. It does not deny any person’s existence or proclaim that he or she should not exist.
Moreover, even if you (wrongly) believe that an opponent’s point of view dehumanizes you, should you shy away from engaging that idea? Earlier this month, Singal tweeted this obvious truth and kicked up a predictable online storm:
90% of the time “I will not debate someone who is arguing against my right to exist” is simply a false derailing tactic, but if someone DOES deny your right to exist, and is in a position of power and willing to debate you, how crazy would it be to NOT debate them??
— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) April 13, 2019
The debate quickly derailed into a bizarre mischaracterization of Singal’s position, with critics claiming that Singal had wrongly argued that black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass had “debated his people to freedom.” No one thinks that emancipation was won entirely through debate and engagement, but also no reasonable person should understate the importance of debate and engagement to advancing and articulating the abolitionist idea. Slavery is reviled in modern America not just because Pickett’s Charge failed on Gettysburg’s third day.
Writing in The New Republic, Josephine Livingstone also took aim at Singal, arguing that “debate is fruitful when the terms of the conversation are agreed upon by both parties.” This is false — debate is often at its most valuable when you can expose the bad faith or duplicity of an opposing party. And then Livingstone makes this extraordinary statement:
It is telling that critics of the social justice movement are obsessed with free speech and debate: It is the one inviolable principle they can fall back on when argument on the actual issues fails.
But how do we know when an argument “fails” unless it is engaged, interrogated, evaluated, and — yes — debated. An argument doesn’t “fail” when it is simply declared false. It truly fails when it is tested and found wanting.
It is curious indeed that free speech is now labeled an instrument of oppression. Historically, it has been an instrument of liberation. Ask yourself, are America’s historically marginalized communities better off now or in 1924, the year before the Supreme Court made the free-speech clause of the First Amendment applicable to state and local governments in Gitlow v. New York? Douglass himself declared free speech to the “great moral renovator of society and government.” He rightly identified free speech as “the dread of tyrants.”
An atmosphere that is devoid of truly meaningful debate is one that is more likely to give birth to bankrupt ideas. And the woke progressive monocultures in quarters of academia and Silicon Valley have advanced and protected both the idea that speech is violence and the idea that disagreement is dehumanizing — especially when disagreement touches on matters of race, gender, and sexuality.
It’s an odd thing that we now take for granted the notion that traditional Christians, Jews, and Muslims can and should work together, attend schools together, and debate matters of faith with one another, even as many people now contest the idea that traditional Christians or other people of traditional faith can easily work next to (much less debate) matters close to the heart of LGBT citizens. After all, are matters of sexuality somehow more fraught than matters of eternity? Is declaring a person’s faith to be false less offensive than arguing that a man doesn’t have a uterus?
History teaches us that religious conflicts are the norm, not the exception, and rivers of blood have been spilled attempting to decide disputes over dogma through force of arms, but in the United States we’ve achieved a level of peaceful religious pluralism that is rare in the annals of world history. We have proven that we can tolerate religious differences and debate ultimate truths — matters of identity every bit as fundamental as the popular categories of modern intersectional politics, if not more so.
It’s time to recognize the American culture war for what it is — a religious dispute — and incorporate it into America’s existing religious pluralism. A Christian no more “dehumanizes” a gay man when he believes in traditional sexual morality than a gay man “dehumanizes” a Christian for believing that the theology he’s based his entire life upon is nothing but an ancient fiction. A proposed limit to freedom of conscience is no more “dehumanizing” than a proposed limit to the reach of a public-accommodation statute.
Finally, is speech really free if it can’t touch on the weightiest matters? Debates about the worst Star Wars movie (it’s still Phantom Menace, but Last Jedi is close) or even about economics or foreign policy may be interesting, and they can certainly be important, but absent debate about first principles, the First Amendment is but a trifle — a cosmetic protection for cosmetic speech. Every American should be able to handle a challenge to his or her most foundational values. Healthy pluralism requires nothing less.
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