Free speech is not a priority for most Americans
The media's enduring obsession with speech issues is completely disconnected from how Americans think about this.
Alex Jones has been fined $1 billion dollars for defamation in the Sandy Hook trial, and like the overwhelming majority of Americans, I don’t give a damn. Who cares. Watching Jones lose all of his money is like watching Mr. Burns lose all of his money or watching Baron Corbin lose all of his money: whether you approve of it nor not, we all know that this isn’t actually going to change much about our lives.
That point deserves to be underlined because there’s a wild disconnect these days between the media’s obsessive fixation on free speech issues and the problems that Americans actually care about. To hear his defenders in corporate and small business media, government censorship is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and Americans have either been brainwashed into approving of the verdict or are absolutely outraged by this intolerable assault on free speech.
The polls, however, are completely unambiguous on both questions. Let’s look at two released by YouGov in just the past week. If you ask Americans to name their most important issue, only 3% will say civil liberties. That ranks it at 13 on a list of 15, below inflation, health care, jobs, climate change, immigration, and so on. How many Americans, meanwhile, are either dancing in the streets or outrages by the Alex Jones verdict? Not many:
Turns out that 69% of Americans have heard a little of the trial at best, and there are nearly as many people who’ve heard nothing at all (29%) as there are people who’ve heard a lot (31%). And it’s not because of some lack of media coverage; over the past two months, Jones has gotten 29% more coverage than Jeff Bezos, 18% more than AOC, and only 40% less than the current Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. This isn’t a conspiracy of silence — this is Americans turning the channel.
Polls like these are pretty consistent in their findings, and they place in important context other data points that the media likes to bring up in order to justify their wildly disproportionate coverage. In a single day back in March, for example, a stampede of journalists — about 140 verified Twitter accounts, by my reckoning — shared a New York Times free speech op-ed written around a key number:
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 played into the larger “cancel culture” discourse, of course, which lumps everything from criticism to state censorship in the same category of rising illiberalism. One obvious problem with it, however, was that while it asked “How much of a problem” censorship is, you could only answer by saying how much of a serious problem censorship is: very, somewhat, not very, or not at all. Thus, even though the “moderate” affirmative answer actually prevailed (44% “somewhat serious” vs. 40% “very serious”), this middling outcome could still be paraphrased as “serious”.
But the bigger problem is that without political context, just about anything can be a “serious problem”. One can easily find polls with a majority saying that screen-time induced myopia (62%), tax loophole accounting (55%), and youth football concussions (80%) are “serious problems”. Personally, I think that the way Amazon’s Rings of Power portrays Elven aging is a serious problem.1 If you ask me “compared to what,” however, it will become clear pretty quickly that I don’t consider this problem a priority, or even all that consequential in the grand scheme of things.
Fortunately, we can get some minimal context for the 84% figure by looking at the same poll. In question three, The New York Times asks respondents how much they enjoy each of FDR’s “four freedoms”: freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear. With a simple Likert calculation we can compare their answers on a scale of 1-4, with 1 being “I do not enjoy this freedom at all” and 4 being “I enjoy this freedom completely”:
Now we see what that 84% figure means: an overwhelming majority of people may see speech restrictions as a “serious problem”, but the same people also say that want and fear are even bigger problems. And this directly mirrors the first poll we looked at where Americans said that their top concerns revolved around economic issues and climate change.
The picture that emerges from all of this data, by my reading, is that Americans think barriers to free speech are both immoral and practically inconsequential. Free speech champions may warn of a growing culture of censoriousness in our country, but this just isn’t supported by the numbers: 91% of Americans believe that “protecting free speech is an important part of American democracy,” 90% agree that “people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions”. And their views on this are also extremely rigid: fewer Americans (17%) have changed their mind on free speech than on any other issue, according to YouGov. At the same time, however, Americans just don’t see dealing with threats to free speech as an everyday problem that’s at all comparable with all of the other stuff they have to deal with.
Whether Americans ought to make free speech a priority, of course, is a different question. The standard argument seems to be something about how even though it isn’t healthcare or rent, winning an optimal censorship-free marketplace of ideas is going to eventually help me get healthcare and rent. Maybe there’s something to that, but I can’t say that I’m impressed with the results so far, and evidently most Americans aren’t, either.
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Tolkien, in his notes, explains that when they hit twenty Elves still look 7 years old, and that they don’t hit puberty until 50; their minds, meanwhile, age more quickly than those of humans. Conservatively, the “children” in the opening scene of Rings of Power are probably in their late 20s to early 40s, and this means that they should probably have the maturity of a human in their 50s. They obviously do not! These are late-middle aged Elven adults behaving like grade school humans, playing simple blindfold games, learning that a paper boat can float, getting into a playground fight, learning valuable life lessons from big brother, and so on. This kind of problem has persisted throughout the series.