The script for our completely fake debate over free speech
Ten points that the left's free speech critics always stick to.
As soon as the right-wing establishment decided to launch its Freedom Convoy protests it was obvious that the left was in for some lectures about free speech. I have zero interest in arguing about this specific incident, but I do think it’s worth spelling out the general ten point script this line of criticism always follows:
The left’s critics pretend that we have historically held some kind of unanimous liberal position on liberal free speech rights. This is just demonstrably untrue: free speech liberalism has long been met with Marxist criticism, “hate speech” criticism, definitional controversies (does spending count as speech?), and so on. But all of this is consistently ignored by reactionaries who want to paint the existing left as some kind of uniquely unprincipled historical aberration — and even by free speech leftists who want to claim the mantle of historical legitimacy.
Perhaps the most revealing thing is that the right will present this as a shocking new aberration from long-held principles even though they have been presenting it as a shocking new aberration from long-held principles for years on end.
The left’s critics then make a similar move with the existing left: instead of acknowledging that it is a live controversy, and that many (probably most) leftists continue to take liberal positions on free speech rights, they pretend that the left now unanimously opposes them. This is generally accomplished through the usual rhetorical strategy of broad, unqualified generalizations about “the left” or “the liberal-left” and pointing to convenient leftists as if they are representative.
The left’s critics will also usually find a leftist who supports free speech liberalism — ideally one who criticizes other leftists who are not doing so. But instead of acknowledging this as proof that the left does not have a consensus position on free speech, the left’s critics characterize the highlighted figure as a rare principled rebel against other leftists.
The left’s critics will usually have an easily demonstrable history of ignoring assaults on left speech rights — and even actively participating in them. If they do acknowledge that the left is being censored, it will always be as a prelude to a victim-blaming argument that they have brought this upon themselves.
The left’s critics, when confronted about their tactical silences and selective defenses of free speech, will often plea that “we must defend the speech of those we disagree with the most” — even when it is clear that the people they disagree with the most are on the left.
The left’s critics will not only insist that we oppose censorship of the right in particular instances, but that we make speaking out and mobilizing political opposition our priority, and that failure to do so proves our position about it. This is not an expectation anyone maintains on most issues and it is certainly not one the left’s critics hold themselves to, but here it is paramount.
The left’s critics will refuse to distinguish between “support for free speech” and “support for free speech through the specific strategy of calling it a legal right, hoping that the implications of this right will be clear and uncontroversial, and hoping that it will be universally upheld for everyone in all cases.” They will not, in other words, concede that they are really just defending a particular strategy for ensuring free speech as widely and absolutely as possible, and that supporting alternative strategies (such as the historical communist approach) does not amount to opposing free speech as such.
The left’s critics will tend to fixate on violations of free speech by the government and threats that are just as or more serious in the private sector. When they do acknowledge this the threats will usually come from private sector competitors to their favored oligarchs, and even then these threats will usually be related in some way back to government intervention or characterized as some kind of divergence from true capitalism.
The left’s critics will often find hilariously tenuous ways to shift blame away from the immediate agents of censorship onto leftists who did not plausibly play any significant role. Crackdowns on activists in other countries, for example, will be somehow linked to a comment by an obscure Twitter account in the United States rather than to the right-wing dictator ordering them.
The left’s allegedly unanimous opposition to free speech will often be cited as proof that its broader politics cannot be defended and that reactionary politics are correct — instead of actually making these arguments on the merits. Leftists have repeatedly put forward thoughtful and extended arguments for mandatory vaccinations, for example, and Covid libertarians have plenty of platforms where they can engage with this arguments and contest them; but instead, their standard move has been to pretend that they have no platform where they can make their case, and that leftists who have laid out arguments against them have not, but instead are somehow responsible for censorship from tech companies and government institutions. And that all of this, somehow, proves that Covid libertarians are right about vaccines and mandates.
There are some important (and interesting) debates to be had about free speech, but they just aren’t going to happen as long as the critics of the left are following this script.