Why don’t liberals support free speech anymore?
Traditionally, supporters of unpopular causes advocate freedom of speech. But when majorities of the population support minority rights, liberals have incentives to adopt censorship.
Liberals are losing confidence in freedom of speech. Though freedom of speech continues to be an important liberal value, many liberals worry about harm to individuals. This is particularly so among young liberals, surveys showing that high proportions support censorship of offensive views. This reflects rival conceptions of freedom of speech. According to Teresa Bejan, first amendment traditionalists are inheritors of the parrhesia tradition, which stresses the right to offend; social justice liberals are inheritors of the isegoria tradition, which emphasizes equal rights to speech. The new Oxford Handbook of Freedom of Speech argues in related terms, noting the changing bases of arguments for freedom of speech.
Notwithstanding the importance of this literature, changing values also explain new attitudes to freedom of speech. Traditionally, supporters of unpopular causes advocate freedom of speech. From early modern nonconformists to the 20th century gay rights movement, freedom of speech guaranteed minority rights in cold societal climates. This informed liberal arguments for freedom of speech, these focusing on the rights of individuals and the need to restrain power. Such concerns became embedded within the liberal tradition, resonating to this day.
But this equilibrium is breaking down. In recent decades, liberal values have achieved hegemony. As postmaterial values have spread among populations, associated with better economic conditions, several liberal causes have become more popular. Reflecting liberal history, many of these causes concern the rights of ethnic and sexual minorities. Crucially, support for these rights has attained reverse polarity, entailing social pressure to adopt these stances. Fifty years ago, conformists tended to oppose gay rights. Today, conformists tend to support this issue.
This process is complex. Some liberal positions continue to be unpopular among majorities, certain transgender rights being examples. But as I have argued, ideology is selected at group level, suiting the aggregate interests of groups and obscuring nuances. Increasingly, liberalism exists in a world in which majorities support its positions. In these conditions, liberals have incentives to support censorship. Recently, Andrew Sullivan asked why the LGBT+ movement was becoming censorious, this movement once being very tolerant. The changing balance of power helps explain this.
Admittedly, changes will be uneven. Among many liberals, ideological commitment to freedom of speech remains profound, reflecting liberal history and being embedded in the ideology’s path dependency. Certain members of minorities are aware of the importance of freedom of speech, recalling more difficult conditions. Despite these caveats, the popularity of liberal values is a major threat to liberal dedication to freedom of speech; this commitment may not last many decades.
Given the decline of liberal commitment to freedom of speech, we may wonder about alternative sources of support. Conservatives may become more dedicated, reflecting the minority status of many conservative positions. But there are tensions between conservatism and freedom of speech. Conservatism is pragmatic, tending to respond to developments rather than formulating universal principles. This pragmatism can be invaluable, enabling political agility, but could form a stronger basis for the defence of freedom of speech. Harder variants of conservatism are particularly inauspicious. Religious conservatives are poor at defending slights on their religion, whilst right populism is authoritarian, seldom defending the rights of outgroups.
Reflecting this legacy, the record of contemporary conservatives is unencouraging. Despite those conservatives who genuinely care about freedom of speech, many conservatives use freedom of speech as a weapon in the culture war. We may note conservative attitudes towards protests against racism within sport. 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.
Freedom of speech faces an uncertain future. Given shifts in the status of liberal values, probably irreversible, liberals are unlikely to change course. The trenchant attitudes of young liberals are ominous; these people will be the elites of the future. Some might argue that the isegoria tradition is an equally valid form of freedom of speech; I am unconvinced. In its social justice form, the position prohibits the frank exchange of ideas. This precludes the pursuit of truth and individual liberties, both of which are central to traditional conceptions of freedom of speech. Conservatives may become better defenders of freedom of speech, but this will take generations. For advocates of freedom of speech, coming decades may be challenging. But defenders will keep persevering. As John Milton wrote, ‘the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely… [is] above all liberties’.
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