A decade ago, I got a hard lesson in practical freedom. My summer boss — then and now a famous media personality — told me and the other interns that if we ever disagreed with him on any subject, he would debate us then and there, proof of his commitment to freedom of thought and speech.
I took him on one day about a controversy in the news. He gave me the floor, then respectfully mopped it with me. Today, he holds the opposite position on that issue, loudly taking up my old position in recent months. Perhaps someone more persuasive came along. The practical freedom we had to reason together worked.
As turmoil has swept our streets and Facebook feeds, however, we’ve lost sight of the importance of our free speech culture: Human beings are both fallible and redeemable, so words can change minds and reorient hearts.
But following horrific images of callous death mingled with riots, too many Americans are learning the wrong lesson about how we need to respond: Say the wrong thing, or fail to say the right thing, and you might find yourself canceled, life ruined, with no hope of redemption from your 15 minutes of shame. While the formal First Amendment remains, the practical freedom to speak slips away.
Black Lives Matter Goes After Tucker Carlson
As Tucker Carlson reported last week, 62 percent of likely voters have a favorable view of Black Lives Matter, an organization named after an incontrovertible fact that has been too often denied by the law.
I suspect there are many reasons for such significant public support, chiefly that the ends of law and order do not justify the means of police brutality, especially considering it was not so long ago that this country explicitly subordinated blacks under the law. That utilitarian bargain of brutality for order, which has persisted in many American cities for generations, ignores the nature of beings created in God’s image — persons deserving equal protection, due process, and the freedom to speak and be heard.
Still, too many in the name of Black Lives Matter have neglected these universal principles, embracing the same utilitarian calculus they purport to resist. If you do not publicly support their specific platform, without reservation, you risk being made into an example.
If you are in the path of a real or digital mob, your destruction may become a means to the ends of this cause. Many activists will say, “We tried speaking, we tried kneeling, and nothing changed.” So now a phalanx of activists and HR departments resort to policing speech while criticizing the police.
Carlson rightly pointed this out last Monday night. In a monologue that drew more than 4 million viewers, he truthfully reported that many people who respectfully disagreed with Black Lives Matter have been summarily cast out of their jobs, hit with a digital scarlet letter staining their Google results forever.
But it got meta, fast: Carlson’s critique of Black Lives Matter for silencing anyone who critiqued it was met with activists trying to silence him by threatening his advertisers. Those who disagree with Carlson are doing a wonderful job proving him right.
There Is No End to Silencing Opponents
There is no comparison between being canceled and being killed. George Floyd will never take another breath, yet we cannot solve the deep interlocking problems that led to his torturous last eight minutes and 46 seconds if we are more concerned about the consequences of our conversations than the consequences of the status quo for black men and women.
We may believe this time is different, that 2020’s exhausting cycle of plague, protest, and purge is exceptional and justifies setting aside our normal tolerance. Wrong. The first half of 2020 follows the historical norm, where the Hobbesian wheel of oppressed and oppressor crushes dissent. What is exceptional — what we must work to preserve — are those fleeting periods in which a culture of civility and free speech allows the flourishing of ideas for new frontiers of justice and peace.
Silencing your opponents fundamentally undermines social justice. This is true even if the argument they are making not only threatens your worldview but seems to deny your right to exist. Reciprocally denying their rights solves nothing. The utilitarian logic, that we must turn down the volume on some people before they do it to us, has no end. After all, who gets the remote?
More important, muting your opponents will not change their minds nor make them disappear. Too many people think politics works like a comic book movie, where winning an election or firing your opposition is like the snap of a finger that makes all the villains turn to dust minutes before the credits roll.
Wrong again. We have to live with the people who get canceled, to share a country with them. Sooner or later, the canceled will become yet another aggrieved crowd. Just as an eye for an eye would leave the world blind, stamping out everyone you disagree with leaves the world talking without speaking, hearing without listening.
In case it wasn’t obvious, it was Tucker Carlson who debated “intern me,” and later changed his mind. He is right: We must reaffirm that no person, organization, or cause, no matter how righteous, is above criticism or beyond persuasion, to reintroduce the possibility of sharing a big, diverse nation once more.