It seems that, nowadays, cries for “free speech” ring from campus to campus. The term has become quite famous and quite popular. Perhaps it owes its popularity to how vague it is. It generally comes from conservatives in response to some sort of censoring of ideas. In its own way, "free speech" has become conservatives' rhetorical weapon of choice, defended by right-leaning groups and thinkers both on and off campus. Recently, Professor John Londregan and some of his fellows wrote a letter calling for an end to the “shared and pervasive reality of growing hostility to free expression on college campuses across the country and around the world.” But what exactly is free expression, or “free speech?”
Conservatives would have you believe that their insistence on free speech is related to a desire for intellectual diversity and openness of discussion. When conservatives appeal to “free speech,” it is actually a calculated political move, designed to open up avenues of political discourse while shaming others from moving in active political opposition. I argue that when conservatives resort to this move, they can be safely ignored, as they are appealing to a right that does not exist. In my belief, when conservative ideas are opposed, there is no right that is being infringed.
We must begin with a fact: speech is intensely political. Speech is biased, opinionated. Anything we say, anything we don’t say, has political content and weighs on the scale of politics. Be aware then, that a call for “free speech” is as political as all speech is, because it reflects an opinion of what speech ought to be. And opinions are politics. Because “free speech” is a cornerstone of our rights under the Constitution, it can appear that conservatives’ socially free speech has this constitutional tradition as its backbone. However, this speech is something much different. As seen with many conservative groups, such as the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, conservatives are interested in being able to propose their ideas without any political opposition to their right to speech. I am not arguing that conservatives do not expect intellectual opposition to their content; instead, I am arguing against their right to be heard and accepted. I should clarify that I use “conservative” broadly to mean both those politically opposed to progressive aims, but also in particular to refer to those who invoke “free speech” to defend their access to political debate and to forestall political opposition to their viewpoints. Finally, I want to make clear that “opposition” in this case refers to political opposition, which includes disinvitations, protests, and boycotts.
Yet, that has never been a right in private, nor at a university. If one presents an idea, one must be prepared to receive some type of response. Agreement is a possibility as much as outrage is. When conservatives propose this idea, they are demanding a private political right vis-à-vis other citizens to declare their views without opposition. But, opposition is not only allowed, but morally required, whether by pen, by protest, by boycott, or by disinvitation. Speech is political, and it is therefore within the realm of politics to oppose speech by any acceptable political means. I am not condoning violence; violence is unacceptable. To speak politically and demand that your political opponents hold back, however — this is not a right that society provides.
Indeed, there is something insulting and condescending about conservative appeals to free speech, and appeals to “free speech” make conservative arguments sound weak. It is as if they think, “If only the poor children listened to our ideas! If they didn’t simply reject our ideas out of hand, they would be listened to! We are right!” This, of course, ignores an obvious possibility: that conservative ideas have been listened to, that they have been weighed, and that they have been rejected. If conservative arguments were strong, they would be convincing, and if they were convincing, they would not meet political opposition. If conservative arguments were strong, they would stand without desperate appeals to the idea of “free speech.” If the only justification conservatives can offer for their ideas is that they merely exist, then let me say as Trotsky did: “You are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out; go where you ought to go — into the dustbin of history!”
When dealing with ultra-conservative factions (those on the alternative right, such as Nazis or white supremacists), “free speech,” or speech without fierce and unrelenting opposition, must be rejected entirely. There is no need to hear the arguments of hate, to engage in a “dialogue,” or to “hear the other side.” These arguments have been heard, and they were smashed at Gettysburg, resisted at Charlottesville, undone at Normandy, condemned at Nuremburg, and laid to rest at Dachau. Anyone who enjoys living in a democracy or a republic or appreciates human rights should be in political opposition to the alternative right, Republicans and Democrats alike. Fascists cannot appeal to the very principles of freedom they aim to dismantle, and no human is under the obligation to listen to what has already been refuted.
For conservatives, I honestly believe they are better off evaluating and reshaping their arguments rather than resorting to the argument of “free speech.” They are better off without it. Many conservative ideas are still valuable in moderation or require their fair day in court. As I have argued before, plurality and diversity of opinion is useful and valuable. Nothing is more advantageous to an argument than resistance, and intellectual diversity is useful. But, some ideas will be opposed, whether they can be justifiably offered or not, and this opposition may come in the form of political opposition. But some ideas will already have been judged wanting. Conservatives ought to question why some ideas are so stringently opposed and then adapt their arguments, instead of begging for “free speech.”
Just like conservatives, liberals and progressives do owe it to themselves to think critically about what is said and to pay attention to their arguments, both within their factions and when appealing to conservatives. I should not be considered to be arguing for a type of political groupthink, or a type of rabid crusaderdom. The ability to think critically ought to be praised and ought to play a role in campus discourse and in any political group, internally and externally. As I have suggested, liberals should aim to reach out to conservatives and moderates by appealing to how they think, which can require a critical approach. Liberals do benefit from being able to engage conservatives, to bring them around to new opinions through an understanding of their views. Certainly this is a fine argument for intellectual free speech. But, it does not make intellectual free speech a moral necessity. It is merely a pragmatic aid, just like any other sort of thought exercise.
Conservatives are not heroes for calling for people to exercise their critical thinking, to entertain their arguments; I have no fear that in a country and a campus of intelligent and independent people, voices will be heard. A voice is a political thing, and to raise it is a political action that can be opposed by political means. There is no such thing as “social free speech,” where “free” refers to a right to speak free from obstinate opposition. And if conservatives disagree, they are welcome to it. I, and others, are happy to respond accordingly. Really, that’s the problem, what conservatives can’t stand, what they can’t imagine could be true: speech is free.