The Corner

Politics & Policy

If You’re Going to Oppose Free Speech, Please Do It Properly

Protesters disrupt a speech by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Harvard University, September 28, 2017. (Mary Schwalm/Reuters)

One of the many problems with being a progressive is that your utility carries an expiration date. You might be radical now, but you are reactionary compared with tomorrow’s radicalism, and you will be expelled if you fail to keep up.

Thus saith the New York Times, which Monday informed John Stuart Mill that his services were no longer required. Philosophy professor Bryan Van Norden, declaring in his headline that “The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience,” sets out to confute free-speech absolutism as applied to publicly promoting unorthodox speakers.

While freedom of speech is necessary, says the author, that does not entail inviting the ignorant to peddle their garbage on television. Many opinions must be socially ostracized lest they beguile people who do not know any better. Rational discussion should include only viable ideas and dismiss mere idiosyncrasy.

His argument has merit, and it resembles the arguments advanced by opponents of liberalism in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nonetheless they are ancillary to the author’s main complaint, which is about power.

He explains: Whereas Mill was advocating free speech in order to bolster unpopular progressive ideas (e.g., abolition and women’s suffrage), free speech is now used to suppress progressive ideas by drowning them in conservative nitwittery and bourgeois propaganda. When Noam Chomsky gets the same airtime as a moon-landing truther, the audience believes the two viewpoints are of equal merit.

At least the progressives have a substantive idea of the common good, which they think the government should promote. But they are therefore not committed to freedom of speech as a formal principle the way classical liberals are. The latter believe that free speech is desirable because enforced knowledge is frequently wrong and unbounded inquiry is the method of progress in human understanding. This was originally a left-wing position designed to favor heretics who ran afoul of the doctrinal supremacy of the Church, but today it is a right-wing position opposed to the mounting ideological supremacy of the Left. In other words, classical liberals are committed to free speech against restrictions from any source.

Though convinced classical liberals have existed since the time of Mill, one can also discern a progressive trend that began with Milton and Locke, passed through Mill, and emerges now in Prof. Van Norden. In this leftist tradition, classical liberalism is not an end in itself; it is instead a tool, a stage in a long succession of stages to replace the 16th-century authority with a 21st-century authority. In other words, Prof. Van Norden’s ideological ancestors were Millian because it was useful to the Left, and Prof. Van Norden is not Millian because it is no longer useful to the Left.

One marvels, then, at his suggestion that newspapers and television stations refuse to promote the “ignorant,” as if some kind of promiscuous writer-sharing scheme currently existed between Breitbart and Vox. If one forswears state enforcement, which he does, one can hardly expect an Ignoramus Embargo to curtail public sophistry when media companies and think tanks already give no quarter to one another. Perhaps Prof. Van Norden means simply that the Times should show Ross Douthat the door, but then some other outfit would gladly take him in. The professor seems to think that the media oligopoly of 1960 still exists, when there were only three news networks and collusion to restrict ideas worked. If he wants to ostracize the “ignorant,” he needs to dismantle their platforms, not simply refuse them his own.

That he does not support government regulation of ignorance-carrying media outlets shows that he is either confused or dishonest. The Times should consider following his advice until he sorts himself out.

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