Half-defense and counterattack

Matt Taibbi:

The New York Times ran a tepid house editorial in favor of free speech last week.

A sober reaction:

Arguably the worst day in the history of the New York Times.

One might think running botched WMD reports that got us into the Iraq war or getting a Pulitzer for lauding Stalin’s liquidation of five million kulaks might have constituted worse days — who knew? Pundits, academics, and politicians across the cultural mainstream seemed to agree with Watson, plunging into a days-long freakout over a meh editorial that shows little sign of abating.

“Appalling,” barked J-school professor Jeff Jarvis. “By the time the Times finally realizes what side it’s on, it may be too late,” screeched Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch. “The board should retract and resign,” said journalist and former Planet Money of NPR fame founder Adam Davidson. “Toxic, brain-deadening bothsidesism,” railed Dan Froomkin of Press Watch, whowent on to demand a retraction and a “mass resignation.” The aforementioned Watson agreed, saying “the NYT should retract this insanity, and replace the entire editorial board.” Not terribly relevant, but amusing still, was the reaction of actor George Takei, who said, “It’s like Bill Maher is now on the New York Times Editorial board.”

The main objection of most of the pilers-on involved the lede of the Times piece, which really was a maladroit piece of writing:

For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.

There’s obviously no legal right in America to voice an opinion without being criticized, so this line is indeed an error and an embarrassing one, for a labored-over first line of a major New York Times editorial. On the other hand, a lot of great liberal thinkers decried shaming tactics as utterly opposite to the spirit of free speech, with John Stuart Mill’s warning of a “social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression” being just one example. So, while the Times technically screwed up, cheering shaming and shunning as normal and healthy elements of life in free societies is a pretty weird gotcha. In any case, this bollocksed lede introduced a piece that had been in the works for a while, and came complete with a poll the paper commissioned in conjunction with Siena College.

Its premise, tied to the uncontroversial observation that America has become dangerously polarized, is that “the political left and the right are caught in a destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination.” Citing a poll that 84% of Americans (including 84% of black Americans) who said it was either a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem that people are now afraid to voice opinions out of fear of “retaliation or harsh criticism,” the Times said “when speech is stifled or when dissenters are shut out,” that “a society also loses its ability to resolve conflict, and… faces the risk of political violence.”

The Times piece is pretty transparently a marketing ploy, designed to regain a foothold with the slew of demographics lost to the paper in recent years. It’s a campaign that deserves to fail if it somehow doesn’t. The internal Times debate over whether or not to broaden its ideological horizons has for years run along humorously obnoxious lines, like “Should we hire one never-Trump Republican columnist, or none?” Even this latest offering wringing hands about America’s lack of ideological tolerance doesn’t wonder at the paper’s own near-total absence of columnists and reporters positively disposed (or even just indifferent) to Bernie Sanders, or really any political viewpoint outside the two dominant theologies.

Still, the Times was careful — conspicuously, agonizingly, excessively careful — to point out that the speech issue was not exclusive to one political side or another. They wrote that Republicans, “for all their braying about cancel culture, have embraced an even more extreme version of censoriousness” in the form of official bans on certain books or classroom ideas. Their approach here was similar to the now-infamous open letter in support of free speech in Harper’s from two summers ago, in which a handful of academics, authors, artists, and journalists, including Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie, J.K. Rowling, Wynton Marsalis, and others decried “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”

In an effort to head off blowback, the Harper’s letterauthors went to absurd lengths to create the most inoffensive conceivable statement in support of free expression, to the point where more than a dozen mainstream outlets ranging from The Daily Beastto the Washington Postto The New Yorkerand beyond (as well as at least one of the signatories) used the term “anodyne” to describe it.

“We went through dozens and dozens of drafts with a lot of input from various signatories to strike as nuanced a balance as possible,” says Thomas Chatterton Williams, one of the authors of the “Harper’s letter.” This was done, he said, “to make it clear that it wasn’t a one-sided attack on the left but an attempt to call attention to a problem that transcends the political binary.”

The caution not only didn’t help, but made things worse. The letter stimulated a host of bizarre controversies, including complaints from Vox staffers that kinda-sorta led to the exit of signatory/co-founder Matt Yglesias, whose crime was co-appearing on the Harper’s letter with people whose views on trans issues were deemed objectionable. Several signatories withdrew when they found out who else was signing (seeming to defeat the purpose of making a statement in favor of tolerating differing views, as signatories like Malcolm Gladwell pointed out). There were so many freakouts in the letter’s wake that Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland commented it “might be a rare example of the reaction to a text making the text’s case rather better than the text itself.”

This Times editorial is watered down almost the level of a public service announcement written for the Cartoon Networkor maybe a fortune cookie (“Free speech is a process, not a destination. Winning numbers 4, 9, 11, 32, 46…”). It made the Harper’s letter read like a bin Laden fatwa, but it’s somehow arousing a bigger panic. Its critics view the mention of Republican legislative bans in conjunction with canceling as a monstrous affront, a felony case of both-sidesism. Obviously any implication that there’s any moral comparison between Republicans banning speech by law and Democrats doing it by way of informal backroom deals with unaccountable tech monopolies is unacceptable. Beyond that now, much of the commentariat seems to believe the op-ed page has outlived its usefulness unless it’s engaged in fulsome denunciations of correct targets. …

“We need more shaming and shunning, not less,” is how Froomkin put it, putting the names of opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury and deputy opinion editor Patrick Healy up near the top of his piece “for the record,” in case anyone wanted to know who needs teeing up for the next #FireARandomPerson campaign.

It would be ironic if Kingsbury were forced out for running a lukewarm editorial in support of free speech, since she replaced the last Times opinion editor beheaded in the wake of a social media and staff meltdown, James Bennet. The latter’s offense two years ago was running an editorial by Republican Senator Tom Cotton that called for invoking the Insurrection Act to deploy troops during the George Floyd protests.

When I asked Froomkin if the idea was to keep cycling through Times opinion editors “until you get one who’s appropriately focused in the direction you like,” he replied: “Yes, I would like them replaced with people who stake out bold, defensible, not-brainless positions, while publishing a very wide range of perspectives from others.” He then linked to an essay of his arguing that publishing “wide perspectives” would essentially entail coating any articles with which the “bold” op-ed board disagreed all over with warnings pointing out where they’re wrong, arguing in bad faith, or are “morally abhorrent.” (This incidentally is how the Cotton piece looks online now, a 970-word op-ed preceded by a 300-word Editor’s Note explaining why it sucks and shouldn’t have been published).

This is the same terror of uncontextualized thought that’s spurred everything from the campaigns to place more controls on Joe Rogan to the mountains of flags and warning labels platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube pile on all kinds of content now (“Are you sure you want to read this debunked wrongthinker? Click yes/no”) to the bizarre new “fact-checking” movement that takes factually true statements and objects to them at length for “missing context.”

The underlying premise of all these formats is the conviction that the ordinary schlub media consumer will make the wrong decision if the correct message isn’t hammered out everywhere for him or her in all caps by mental superiors. This idea isn’t just insulting but usually incorrect, like thinking Lord Haw Haw broadcasts would make English soldiers bayonet each other rather than laugh or fight harder. Even just on the level of commercial self-preservation, one would think media people would eventually realize there’s a limit to how many times you can tell people they’re too dumb to be trusted with controversial ideas, and still keep any audience. But they never do.

There may be plenty of reasons to roll eyes at the Times piece, but the poll numbers in there speak to this exhaustion, with what Chatterton Williams calls the “consensus enforcers who feverishly insist there’s no problem, and the fact that you disagree is evidence that you should resign your position.” It was crazy enough when jobs were lost over the Harper’s letter. But calling for firings over this? An editorial that drives two miles an hour down the middle of the middle of the middle of the road? If this is anybody’s idea of a taboo, we really have lost it.

What did the Times say that was so horrible?

For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.

This social silencing, this depluralizing of America, has been evident for years, but dealing with it stirs yet more fear. It feels like a third rail, dangerous. For a strong nation and open society, that is dangerous.

How has this happened? In large part, it’s because the political left and the right are caught in a destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination around cancel culture. Many on the left refuse to acknowledge that cancel culture exists at all, believing that those who complain about it are offering cover for bigots to peddle hate speech. Many on the right, for all their braying about cancel culture, have embraced an even more extreme version of censoriousness as a bulwark against a rapidly changing society, with laws that would ban books, stifle teachers and discourage open discussion in classrooms.

Many Americans are understandably confused, then, about what they can say and where they can say it. People should be able to put forward viewpoints, ask questions and make mistakes and take unpopular but good-faith positions on issues that society is still working through — all without fearing cancellation.

However you define cancel culture, Americans know it exists and feel its burden. In a new national poll commissioned by Times Opinion and Siena College, only 34 percent of Americans said they believed that all Americans enjoyed freedom of speech completely. The poll found that 84 percent of adults said it is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem that some Americans do not speak freely in everyday situations because of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism.

This poll and other recent surveys from the Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation reveal a crisis of confidence around one of America’s most basic values. Freedom of speech and expression is vital to human beings’ search for truth and knowledge about our world. A society that values freedom of speech can benefit from the full diversity of its people and their ideas. At the individual level, human beings cannot flourish without the confidence to take risks, pursue ideas and express thoughts that others might reject.

Most important, freedom of speech is the bedrock of democratic self-government. If people feel free to express their views in their communities, the democratic process can respond to and resolve competing ideas. Ideas that go unchallenged by opposing views risk becoming weak and brittle rather than being strengthened by tough scrutiny. When speech is stifled or when dissenters are shut out of public discourse, a society also loses its ability to resolve conflict, and it faces the risk of political violence.

The Times Opinion/Siena College poll found that 46 percent of respondents said they felt less free to talk about politics compared to a decade ago. Thirty percent said they felt the same. Only 21 percent of people reported feeling freer, even though in the past decade there was a vast expansion of voices in the public square through social media.

“There’s a crisis around the freedom of speech now because many people don’t understand it, they weren’t taught what it means and why it matters,” said Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, a free speech organization. “Safeguards for free speech have been essential to almost all social progress in the country, from the civil rights movement to women’s suffrage to the current fights over racial justice and the police.”

Times Opinion commissioned the poll to provide more data and insight that can inform a debate mired in extremes. This editorial board plans to identify a wide range of threats to freedom of speech in the coming months and to offer possible solutions. Freedom of speech requires not just a commitment to openness and tolerance in the abstract. It demands conscientiousness about both the power of speech and its potential harms. We believe it isn’t enough for Americans to just believe in the rights of others to speak freely; they should also find ways to actively support and protect those rights.

We are under no illusion that this is easy. Our era, especially, is not made for this; social media is awash in speech of the point-scoring, picking-apart, piling-on, put-down variety. A deluge of misinformation and disinformation online has heightened this tension. Making the internet a more gracious place does not seem high on anyone’s agenda, and certainly not for most of the tech companies that control it.

But the old lesson of “think before you speak” has given way to the new lesson of “speak at your peril.” You can’t consider yourself a supporter of free speech and be policing and punishing speech more than protecting it. Free speech demands a greater willingness to engage with ideas we dislike and greater self-restraint in the face of words that challenge and even unsettle us.

It is worth noting here the important distinction between what the First Amendment protects (freedom from government restrictions on expression) and the popular conception of free speech (the affirmative right to speak your mind in public, on which the law is silent). The world is witnessing, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the strangling of free speech through government censorship and imprisonment. That is not the kind of threat to freedom of expression that Americans face. Yet something has been lost; the poll clearly shows a dissatisfaction with free speech as it is experienced and understood by Americans today.

There is no other permissible position for a news media outlet to take. The fact that this got criticized says all you need to know about the critics of free speech.

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