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Why conservatives won’t save freedom of speech
Conservatives increasingly emphasize freedom of speech, but are their arguments genuine?
The future of freedom of speech increasingly rests with conservatives. As I have written before, this reflects the majority status of liberal values; when majorities support liberal attitudes, liberals have reduced incentive to support freedom of speech. Conservatism has undergone a converse change. As conservative values have attained minority status, conservatives have emphasized rights to freedom of speech. This raises fascinating questions about the future of conservatism and freedom of speech. Though the attachment of some conservatives to freedom of speech is genuine, often reflecting Burkean elements of conservatism, I worry that conservative support for freedom of speech has weak foundations, many conservatives wielding the principle as a weapon against outgroups. Given the decline of liberal defences of freedom of speech, some worry that the principle will become orphaned.
Though the popularity of certain values helps explain attitudes towards freedom of speech, such interpretations only take us so far. Psychological factors also underpin attitudes towards freedom of speech. Liberals tend to be more creative and open to new experiences, these attitudes underpinning traditional liberal attitudes towards freedom of speech. If one embraces challenges, diverse viewpoints tend to be less threatening. Conservatives are different, tending to be more fearful; most studies find an association between conservatism and anxieties such as the fear of death. This is unfavourable to freedom of speech; the principle thrives when attitudes are open.
Admittedly, distinct parts of conservatism reflect these traits in different ways. On one level, conservatism is an ideology which is merely sceptical of change, this being the key tenet of Burkean conservatism. Though this form of conservatism is poor at formulating coherent principles, reflecting its focus on resisting change, there is no necessary contradiction with freedom of speech, particularly when conservatives perceive freedom of speech as a traditional right. For example, Burke critiqued the French revolution’s attack on traditional freedoms, arguing for the superiority of the English system.
But many forms of conservatism are also authoritarian. Authoritarians advocate hierarchy and reject pluralism, supporting causes such as the death penalty and tight abortion laws; in these areas, there is overlap between conservatism and right-wing populism. Though fear is associated with Burkean conservatism, negative emotions are pronounced among authoritarians, studies associating authoritarianism with aggression and dominance. It is difficult to imagine many authoritarians being genuinely committed to freedom of speech. Rather than emphasizing universal rights, authoritarians divide the world into ingroups and outgroups. Resultingly, one worries that authoritarians evoke freedom of speech cynically, wielding the principle as a weapon against outgroups.
Reflecting this legacy, the record of contemporary conservatives is not encouraging. Despite those conservatives who genuinely care about freedom of speech, many conservatives use freedom of speech as a weapon in the culture war. Attitudes towards protests against racism within sport are notable. It is difficult to achieve a consistent position on this issue, principles of neutrality being important and cases being specific, yet many conservatives have been reluctant to defend the rights of opponents. In the UK, the position of GB News has been egregious. The channel stresses freedom of speech, but suspended presenter Guto Harri for taking the knee.
Admittedly, ideologies can change; conservatism has undergone multiple transformations. If minorities hold conservative attitudes, more conservatives may become genuinely committed to freedom of speech. But there are barriers to this. On one level, such a transformation would raise the question of whether this ideology was still conservatism. Scholars of ideologies emphasize that ideologies have core elements, without which they become something else. Notwithstanding those parts of conservatism which merely resist change, compatible with freedom of speech, authoritarianism is central to many versions of conservatism, the values and personalities of right-wingers underpinning this. Conservatism is also path dependent, meaning that historical concerns of the ideology remain pertinent. And in many contexts, majorities continue to hold conservative attitudes, implying that desires for censorship will remain prominent.
One reflects on implications for freedom of speech. Given problems with conservative defences of the principle, one might worry that freedom of speech will become orphaned, few parties mounting genuine defences of the principle. This would reinforce global trends against freedom of speech. And as anthropologists remind us, freedom of speech is not a natural value, humans being better at pursuing tribal agendas. But in my view, this is overly pessimistic. Aside from those conservatives who genuinely cherish freedom of speech, certain liberals will remain attached to the principle, reflecting the path dependency of liberalism. More broadly, capitalist economies have a need for freedom of speech, reflecting a mode of production which depends upon initiative and innovation. And one day, liberal values might again be in minority status in the West; historically, this has been the case. In these conditions, traditional patterns of support for freedom of speech might re-emerge.
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