Is the Left More Opposed to Free Speech Today than It Used to Be?

In a sharp take on the left, Freddie deBoer asks, “Is the social justice left really abandoning free speech?” Drawing on this report about an incident at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Freddie answers his own question thus:

It’s a question I’ve played around with before. Generally, the response [from the left] is something like “of course not, stop slandering us,” or whatever. But more and more often, I find that the answer from lefties I know in academia or online writing are answering “yes.” And that is, frankly, terrifying and a total betrayal of the fundamental principles we associate with human progress.

Freddie goes on to offer a rousing defense of free speech. I don’t want to enter that debate. I have a different question: Is Freddie’s sense of a change on the left—”more and more often”—accurate?

To be clear, I know exactly the phenomenon Freddie is talking about, so he’s not wrong to point it out. But from my admittedly impressionistic vantage as a middle-aged American academic, it seems far less common than it used to be.

Historically, the left has had an ambivalent relationship to what used to be derisively called “bourgeois freedoms.” From Marx’s On the Jewish Question to Herbert Marcuse’s notion of repressive tolerance, some of the most interesting thinking on the left has been devoted to examining the limits of what for lack of a better word I’ll call the liberal defense of freedom and rights. And of course this tradition of thought has often—and disastrously—been operationalized, whether in the form of Soviet tyranny or the internal authoritarianism of the CPUSA.

But if we think about this issue from the vantage of the 1960s, my sense is that today’s left—whether on campus or in the streets—is far less willing to go down the road of a critique of pure tolerance, as a fascinating text by Marcuse, Barrington Moore, and Robert Paul Woolf once  called it, than it used to be. (As Jeremy Kessler suggests, that absolutist position, which is usually associated with content neutrality, historically went hand in hand with the politics of anti-communism.) Once upon a time, those radical critiques of free speech were where the action was at. So much so that even liberal theorists like Owen Fiss, who ordinarily might have been more inclined to a Millian position on these matters, were pushed by radical theorists like Catharine MacKinnon to take a more critical stance toward freedom of speech. But now that tradition seems to be all but dead.

Something happened on the way to the censor. Whether it was the pitched battle among feminists over the MacKinnon/Dworkin critique of pornography—and their advocacy of anti-porn statutes in Indianapolis and elsewhere—or the collapse of the Berlin Wall, most leftists since the 1990s have been leery of deviations from the absolutist position on free speech. Not just in theory but in practice: just consider the almost fastidious aversion to shutting down any kind of discussion within the Occupy movement. That’s not to say that leftists don’t go there; it’s just that the bar of justification is higher today. The burden is on the radical critic of free speech, not the other way around.

Yes, one can still read of incidents like the one that provoked Freddie’s post (though compared to the past, they seem fewer and farther between). And critical issues like the relationship between money and speech are still argued over on the left. But, again, compared to the kinds of arguments we used to see, this seems like small beer.

My take, as I said, is impressionistic. Am curious to hear whether others have a different impression. And to be clear, I’m talking here about the left, not liberals, who may or may not be, depending on a variety of factors and circumstances, more inclined to defend restrictions on freedom of speech.


  1. Freddie deBoer March 25, 2014 at 9:17 pm | #

    Here’s a little more context for where I’m coming from:

  2. Matt March 25, 2014 at 9:32 pm | #

    I’m curious about the historic left critique of free speech. Could you elaborate on what that looked like? What was the general argument, and more importantly, what was the proposed action in response?

    • Corey Robin March 25, 2014 at 9:38 pm | #

      That’s a very complicated question, and I don’t think I can do it justice here. There were a variety of streams. Some, like Mackinnon, argued that certain forms of speech were better thought of as action, action that actually silenced other people. So far from contributing to freedom of expression, they argued that this kind of speech — pornography in particular, but also hate speech — actually limited freedom of expression. Others argued that free speech in an age of mass consumption and mass propaganda was actually little more than a venue for spreading untruth, that tolerance had become not an instrument of emancipation but of oppression, so that the intolerance — of racism, etc. — had to be countenanced. Still others claimed that in a society of massive inequality, the marketplace ideal of freedom of speech looked an awful lot like the marketplace reality of the economy: that is, it was a mirage. Not everyone had access to speak. So to create access of those who were on the bottom, you had to limit access of those at the top. And there were even more radical arguments about the ways in which people’s interests and ideologies were constructed by forces more powerful than they such that any kind of freedom in a capitalist (or sexist or what have you) society was a mirage. I’m not doing justice to these arguments, and some of them were extremely sophisticated. But that should give you a flavor.

      • Matt March 25, 2014 at 9:49 pm | #

        Thanks! Having found myself in plenty of discussions with fellow activists about this very topic, I can see the appeal of calling for a limit on free speech, but the justifications offered have always seemed to be both theoretically and practically weak. I’m going to look some more into the types of critiques you elaborated upon above, because they do seem to have more to offer. Thanks again!

      • e scott March 31, 2014 at 12:07 pm | #

        Marcuse wrote, in the last paragraph of the essay linked above;
        “Part of this struggle is the fight against an ideology of tolerance which, in reality, favors and fortifies the conservation of the status quo of inequality and discrimination. ”
        His argument seems more true today, exampled by the neutralizing effects of The Fox network on political thinking and the absurd legislative declaration that money is speech and corporations are people.
        The tools of efficiency coupled with increased workloads keeps the leading edge people too occupied to think (not to say thinkers aren’t writing books. They’re just don’t make a difference, (according to Ralph Nader, observing how unlike it is now compared to when his first book and underfunded lobbying changed the auto industry)
        In the 60’s, at the dawn of computerized efficiency, university academics were visualizing the economic shift and social adjustments of the coming leisure society, people reaping the benefits of technology, doubling jobs and halving work weeks.
        Perhaps Marcuse’s qualification to the meaning of “free speech” is wise. Anything carried to extremes produces opposite effects ( that’s a general tenant in Chinese philosophy)

  3. Aaron Gross March 26, 2014 at 1:17 am | #

    De Boer was talking about acts of resistance to unwanted speech and their post hoc support on the left. You’re talking about “radical critiques of free speech.” Are you guys really talking about the same thing? Isn’t it possible that you’re both right? That as explicit, Marcusian critiques of “repressive tolerance,” etc., have mostly disappeared from the left over the last two decades, the left has also become in practice less tolerant?

    I don’t know enough about the left to say whether that’s what actually happened, only pointing out that your opinions don’t necessarily contradict each other.

    On your examples, wouldn’t the free speech in the Occupy movement fit just as well into an anarchist tradition as a liberal one? That is, was it really an absolutist, liberal-like defense of free speech, or just of intramural free speech?

    And on the pro-porn reaction to MacKinnon and Dworkin, that seemed pretty confined to pornography and was again a defense of free expression for “us,” in this case women, which really means those women who might want to do pornography. It doesn’t seem that defending some women’s “right” to do porn was related at all to defending other women’s “right” to protest at abortion clinics. There seems to be a pretty high wall separating “free speech among ourselves” from “free speech for them.”

  4. Jamie March 26, 2014 at 7:48 am | #

    I’m worried that someone being triggered by what is a gross attack on the bodily autonomy of those biologically capable of giving birth is not seen as a big deal here. We really do need to make a distinction between ‘unpalatable’ and views that cause people emotional and physical damage. There is a big difference between a pro-creationist rally that many may find unpalatable but hardly triggering and a homophobic or racist or misogynistic protest that many would find not just triggering but potentially dangerous. Let us not dress it up: anti-abortion rallies are misogynistic. Telling anyone capable of giving birth that they shouldn’t be allowed to make the choice of whether they want to or not is an attack on bodily autonomy and is fundamentally illiberal.

    Also, emotional trauma should not be dismissed so casually. Being triggered can lead to more than just being upset for a few minutes or a day: it can lead to someone who is trying to recover from mental illness being set back by weeks or months. Have you ever considered that many women see anti-abortion rallies, which are attacks on bodily autonomy, feeding into other attacks on bodily autonomy such as rape.

    I think that women have a right to be scared and very angry by protests and rallies that directly threaten their safety and I think people have a right to feel safe in public. Maybe that doesn’t matter to you much being a man and a white man at that who doesn’t have to worry about such things but there you go. It’s hardly a surprise that a white man would be the first to complain about ‘attacks on free speech’ while not having much of a problem with women being scared to leave their house because of such hateful,and yes, triggering protests.

    There are certain things in society that really should not be up for debate sorry. Whether rape is good or bad, whether racism is good or bad, whether homophobia is good or bad, whether misogyny is good or bad… these things are objectively bad. In fact, the reason why these horrible views tend to proliferate is because they are treated as legitimate in the media and political spheres. When people’s safety is at risk, I haven’t got much truck with the white man demanding debate. How do you think black people got their rights? Was it by calmly debating with racists? No, it was by demanding them at the cost of their lives sometimes. The same with women and the same with LGBTQ people.

    The only way that these appalling views on abortion will begin to dissipate is by this direct confrontation with them. They need to be made aware that their views will not be accepted in society anymore. It is not culturally acceptable to be homophobic by and large precisely because people who you would consider to be ‘opponents of free speech’ made it clear that homophobia will be aggressively confronted wherever it pops up and not just quietly accepted. If that means stealing a sign off a homophobic bigot then so be it.

    The difference between racism and anti-racism and feminism and misogyny is something I shouldn’t have to explain to a grown adult never mind a doctoral student. One is fundamentally oppressive and inhumane while the other is not. One is guided by justice and equality and the other is not. These distinctions do matter when we talk about ‘free speech’ because when people are allowed to think that it’s alright to be openly racist and homophobic, which in many parts of America and the world in general it is, these views don’t go away and people continue to be killed because of it.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant March 26, 2014 at 3:11 pm | #

      Have you ever tried to steal a homophobic sign from an anti-gay protester? Would you try to do that to an armed NRA/Tea-Partier gang protesting in a parking lot against a gun safety coffee klatch in a restaurant? You think “direct confrontation” will cure society of its reactionary tendencies finding their expression in speech? Do you really think that freedom of speech is something that people really should put their lives in jeopardy for?

      People will die for the right to vote. I am less convinced that they will die for the ability to keep their eyes from hitting images/seeing signs that offend them. I also think you seriously misapprehend the commitment that homophobes/racists/misogynists have to their own views such that you can assert that “direct confrontation” can have any hope of dissipating such views from the public sphere and from American values altogether. I would caution against trying it; you could be in for an extremely unpleasant surprise. To stop reactionary expression, you are asking people to walk into a buzz saw, and you have no exit strategy when “sh*t jumps off”. The reactionaries’ views will just “dissipate”, you say. Because “we” won’t tolerate them, you claim. Good luck with that. And your “emotional trauma” argument is vague and reads more like speculation mixed with special pleading, than an actual clinical condition, one whose therapeutic response is in the shutting down of the noise from reactionaries. Your insinuation in that same passage that anti-abortion rallies somehow “feed into” rape just don’t wash. You don’t say how (what does “feed into” even mean?!) and you don’t offer any examples. How many rapists have been reported to been motivated by the anti-women/anti-abortion shrieks one hears at such rallies? The FBI would like to have those statistics. When you start talking like that, people will just stop listening to you.

      I actually sympathize with your hostility to reactionary speech. The problem is one of a category error in which you appear to conflate action with “only words”, after the fashion of MacKinnon who suggests that the murder of a person who reads pornography could be seen as something that the pornography “said”. I have always found that example of magical thinking truly arresting. It is also very helpful to allow those of us who protect the “free speech” rights of people whose views we hate to clarify our own position. If this confusion is the might and main of progressive “sign grabbers” who claim that a nasty sign is an inhibition to persons’ personal liberty (instead of, say, “stop and frisk”, or “voter ID laws”, or race segregation laws, or the closing of abortion clinics, or “rape insurance” policies) then I am afraid that a progressive agenda has no hope. Rowdy protesters with hateful ideas have to obey the same public safety laws — from trespassing to stalking to the issuing of death threats — as the rest of us. If they block my path to the voting booth, they will be sorry. If they threaten me — well, I don’t think I will finish that sentence. Blocking my path, issuing threats, burning a cross on my lawn — freedom of speech don’t protect these ACTS.

      I don’t FEAR right-wing speech; I PROTEST right-wing POWER. And yes, I know, that in the age of corporate campaigns to promote this or that reactionary agenda which is also an age of political inequality between persons and corporations which is also an age of vast and growing wealth inequality — it ain’t so easy to disentangle SPEECH from ACTS such that any progressive response does not invite the very outcome that we claim to reject and can come back to bite us on the butt. “Citizens United” only made our work harder, which is the point. The progressive activists that made the United States a more humane society did not go after reactionary speech — they went after reactionary POWER. That is the reason that I, a Black male, can enter a voting booth without being arrested or shot.

      The ONLY way to beat back reactionary speech is to beat back reactionary politics. Justice must pervade all areas of our lives such that reactionary ideas/ideals lose/cannot grab a foothold. Screaming back at screaming wingnuts will just piss them off. That alone would not be so bad if it were not for the fact that reactionaries also believe in the coercive use of political violence as part of the overall conservative political continuum — and are perfectly willing to use violence to confront us. You can’t scream with a mouth full of bullets.

      And speaking of violence, your invocation of violence as an inexorable outcome of reaction beliefs, and thus the suppression of such beliefs thereby equals the suppression of violence, exemplifies the misdirected program you outline (“direct confrontation”). It also betrays an ignorance of the social etiology of political violence. But to the point, besides needlessly putting people at risk, you say absolutely zero about the promotion of social justice. You appear to believe that we can do an end-run around the grunt work of struggling for justice by, instead, imposing a forced silence on the enemies of justice — reactionaries. It is inequality and injustice that both feeds and invites — and are thus very simply the source of — the reactionary capacity for political violence, and not their ability to open their big mouths. A women’s safety on the street, on her way to an abortion clinic, does not derive from the silence of wingnuts, it derives from the vigorous institutional protection of both her physical person and her Constitutional rights. Have you not considered that a women’s loss of access to abortion is a function of a long campaign to force restrictions on women’s medical prerogatives and not a function of crazies in front of an abortion clinic? Exactly WHY do killers think they can shoot doctors who provide abortion services? Where does their sense of safety — even after conviction — come from? Could it have something to do the forty year long push by the religious right and their Republican enablers — and Democratic cowards — to put barrier after barrier between women and their control over their bodies? The right’s speech — and the character it takes — derives from their POWER, a power activated in reaction to the political successes of the progressive movements of the late 1950’s, the 1960’s and early 1970’s, and not the other way around.

      Millions of dollars have been spent, billions of pages in right wing think tank written, the “southernization” of American politics grinds on, and on and on. Anti-abortion protesters are only the TV friendly face of right wing politics. What brought us to the place of un-safety for women and their rights is the work of a long campaign funded by the rich (who don’t carry signs). THEIR silence does not equal (nor does it evidence) OUR safety. Trying to shut up the crazies only feeds into the crazies’ persecution complex (a natural condition of reactionaries, anyway) and does NOTHING to increase the safety of LGBTQ, persons of color, women, the poor. The crazies got the billionaires, they got guns and they got FOX. And they got the corporations and the majority of our elected officials. Grabbing a sign out of a wingnut’s grimy grip will get you a bullet in the head and a reality show for the shooter on FOX. THEY. GOT. POWER.

      There are other ways to defeat these people, ways that work. And yes, these ways have and will cost us, and will continue to do so. But these days undertaking such ways have become a lot less deadly for all than they used to be, and grabbing a winger’s sign out of his hand did not have anything to do with that in any way, shape or form. And the ways I have in mind don’t involve narrowing speech. They involve spreading justice.

      This is not a discussion of what to do about people who have bad beliefs, although you clearly see it that way. Rather, people with bad beliefs who feel compelled to express them will find it harder to do so in a society that moves toward justice. That is because the spread of justice and equality writes its own argument against their opposites: it becomes increasing difficult for reactionaries to try to argue that social unfairness is a good deal for all. Quoting Burke: “You cannot argue a man into slavery!” So they cloak their reactionary arguments in arguments that have a superficial yet strategic resemblance to progressive arguments. Prof. Robin gives some great examples of this in “The Reactionary Mind”. But back to the point: the spread of justice is the REAL reason that homophobes have been losing ground — and that is the work of a long progressive campaign to expand the rights of LGBTQ’s. Confrontation is nice, but it must be carefully thought out: ACT-UP comes to mind. ACT-UP was confrontational, but they were not suicidal. Plus, they had a behind-the-scenes political strategy. And they were not alone. ACT-UP and many, many others helped make America less homophobic. They were part of a larger pro-justice movement. I take pride in having a very, very tiny part in that movement in my youth.

      Let me close by my screed with this observation. I am a little confused as to why you feel it necessary to cast aspersions upon others whose views you feel you understand adequately, such that upon disagreeing with them you feel it appropriate to impugn them and their motives. You accuse Prof. Robin of hiding within or behind his white male force field and that his ability to do so renders him incapable of empathy with the historic victims of reactionary politics. It is clear that you have never read his blog, nor his books (I have), nor his essays (I have). I don’t know your life and thus I don’t know where your MacKinnon-esque rage [] is coming from. And I say this as someone whose own position on the writings of Ms. MacKinnon’s sometime co-author, Andrea Dworkin, has come to be more sympathetic, if not necessarily less critical. What I can say, bluntly, is that such rage has no justification for its expression here — unless you know something about Prof. Robin that the rest of us don’t know.

      I await the “carpet bombing.”

      • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant March 26, 2014 at 3:30 pm | #

        Now matter how well one tries to edit one’s own writing, a grammer goof gets through. In the 3rd ‘graf, second sentence, I meant to write: “The problem is one of a category error in which you appear to conflate action with “only words”, after the fashion of [Catherine] MacKinnon who suggests that the murder BY a person who reads pornography could be seen as something that the pornography “said”.

        Sorry ’bout that typo.

  5. Naomi Schiller March 26, 2014 at 9:28 am | #

    Thanks Corey, this is a fascinating post. I’ve been trying to work out some of these questions in my research with community media producers in Venezuela who are aligned with the government and the broader revolutionary project, as they see it. I’ve found the tradition of radical critiques of free speech helpful, to a point, in trying to assess how community media activists reckon with liberal ideals of press freedom. In my experience, the burden that you reference on expressing radical critiques of free speech is enormous. I’m not sure if the left is abandoning free speech around questions of sexism, racism, homophobia as De Boer suggests. I have found that there is an almost knee-jerk reaction to any suggestion that leftist governments might be clamping down on press freedom–without interest in exploring the complex details of the context–among both liberals and leftists. I’m curious to hear more about how you see the radical tradition of critiques of free speech. Is it one that can or should be renewed?

    Here is a recent article where I explore the question of press freedom in Venezuela ethnographically: “Reckoning with press freedom: Community media, liberalism, and the processual state in Caracas Venezuela.” It’s behind a pay wall, but I’m happy to send to anyone interested.

    • Hector_St_Clare March 27, 2014 at 6:48 pm | #

      The Venezuelan opposition doesn’t deserve press freedom. They’re a bunch of filthy traitors and rebels who need to be beaten down. Venezuela made an irrevocable choice for socialism when they chose Comandante Chavez, and socialism needs to be defended: if not by the ballot, then by the bullet.

      If the Cubans had allowed free speech back in the 1960s, their revolution would have gone the way of Allende’s.

      • s. wallerstein March 27, 2014 at 7:35 pm | #

        Instead of shooting them, we could send them to the gulag or even rent part of Guantánamo to house the filthy traitors.

      • jonnybutter March 27, 2014 at 8:11 pm | #

        Hard to tell for sure if you’re being sarcastic or serious here. I’d point out that the opposition in Venezuela doesn’t have just ‘press freedom’ – it owns most of the national press. Oligarchs own the media in lots of S. American countries. And N. American countries.

  6. Roquentin March 26, 2014 at 9:43 am | #

    I have ambivalent feelings about this. I don’t think picketing and speech are necessarily the same things and anti-abortion protests can get pretty close to the (thankfully dead) Fred Phelps “got hates fags” at funerals type of stuff. The question of when speech becomes action is very difficult to determine.

    Anti-abortion protests are often completely tasteless. I once raise both my middle fingers to one when walking through a “free speech zone” in college. I used to get way more pissed off at fundamentalist Christianity due to how pervasive it was in the environment I was raised in. If they could force me to see a gruesome subway size poster of an aborted fetus they can be forced to see me flipping them the bird. I’d say the professor probably went a little overboard smashing up a sign, and find the use of the “triggered” excuse to be distasteful attempt to avoid responsibility for one’s own actions, but I don’t we really need to be polite to people who want to picket.

    As for tolerance/intolerance on the left, my take is that it isn’t so much about the USSR as it is about the 90s. The focus on politically correctness, policing the language, and absurd heights of identity politics back then did a lot of damage to the left in general. It alienated a great deal of people who were either in agreement or sympathetic and were treated as an absolute laughingstock by the rest of the population. The last thing I want to see is the left heading back in that direction. Also, as far as anti-porn politics are concerned, you may as well oppose the wind. Libidinal impulses can’t be wished away simply because you find it unpleasant, and it’s no big secret the highest porn consumption occurs in the religious and conservative areas which work the hardest to fight it. It’s certainly not my place to define what feminism should and shouldn’t be, but trying to impose a puritanical set of morals on people who want nothing to do with them, even if you want to call it feminism, is a fool’s errand.

  7. Anonymous March 26, 2014 at 2:11 pm | #

    Interestingly enough, I had to leave a therapist I was seeing because he kept scolding me for having leftist views about society, saying that because I was expressing such views, I was being “intolerant” and “unreasonable” and “forcing my opinion on people”. Just by saying my views, you understand. In fact, a lot of recent media (such as some films and video games I could name, but won’t to avoid making this comment too long) has used the liberal idea of tolerance to, ironically, shut off discussion and stop people from saying their views, since we can always decide that they’re hurting us by talking. After all, if there’s no objective reality, we can declare ourselves right about them hurting us by saying their views and asking us to stop hurting them, so we’re justified in continuing to hurt them. Any thoughts?

  8. Chris March 26, 2014 at 3:24 pm | #

    Of course it’s more opposed to free speech than it used to be. Anyone can see that. I’m not talking about since the end of the Cold War. I’m talking about what’s changed in the last 6 or 7 years. Safe spaces killed free speech stone dead.

  9. s. wallerstein March 26, 2014 at 3:36 pm | #

    Maybe my experience is atypical, but I participated in the student movement in the 60’s and I recall free-speech being an unquestioned value. No one I knew read the book of Marcuse you mention, although everyone read or said that they read One Dimensional Man. I think that it always important to distinguish between leftwing intellectuals (who probably read Marcuse’s books) and normal everyday students outraged by the War in Viet Nam and racism in the U.S, who did not study philosophy or sociology or political theory.

    I’ve been out of the U.S. since the mid 70’s and the U.S. left has certainly changed since then. New issues have been added, feminism, gay rights, the disabled person’s movement, transgender people, etc, etc.

    Now back in the 60’s leftwing discourse could be very sexist and homophobic and no one was concerned about discriminating against disabled people or those weighing more than normal (I’m not sure what term is the correct one to use) and hence, one could freely use the word “blind” , for example, to refer to “lack of understanding”, which, I find, is no longer the case.

    Now, I think it’s great that the left broadens it scope to include the problems of gay people, women, transgender people, those with disabilities and those with more body weight than normal, but a coalition representing so many different groups inevitably
    has to be more careful in its speech.

    It’s hard to have it both ways: never to offend anyone and to speak your mind freely at all times.

  10. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant March 26, 2014 at 3:46 pm | #

    It is fascinating that the left (however you want to define it) is even discussing this matter. I think that provides an insight into this imagined [ideological] community, to borrow a pomo phrase. Does the right lie awake over this issue? Our side can do some dopey stuff, but we have an internal system of checks and balances: we argue this stuff out in public. I don’t observe any such discussion on the right. But I will admit to not being all that eager to search it out (basically because I don’t think I will find this debate in the righties’ camp).

    • bensday823 March 29, 2014 at 10:44 am | #

      Familiarize yourself with the right., they have major disagreements that get debated.

  11. jonnybutter March 26, 2014 at 8:00 pm | #

    Corey’s question is very hard to answer since it’s not clear who we’re talking about when we say ‘the left’. Do we mean in the US? Or Anglo-America? In ‘academia and online’, as Freddie says? Some sort of left intellectual vanguard? Seems to me we have only a nascent left in the US anyway (nascent is better than none!!).

    I’m glad he called for the debate though. It is really important. I’m basically with Donald and Freddie. Of course speech can be hurtful and even damaging, but it doesn’t follow from that that we should start *legally* forbidding it as a matter of course. What a horrible idea!

  12. Will G-R March 26, 2014 at 8:35 pm | #

    Since you mention Robert Paul Wolff, one of my favorite pieces of political philosophy is the first chapter from his book *The Poverty of Liberalism* (the fourth chapter of which was adapted from Wolff’s contribution to the Marcuse/Moore book) dealing with the inherent limitations of Mill’s utilitarian defense of absolute liberty and the ways in which 20th-century liberals and conservatives each acknowledge those limitations in certain cases while acting as if they don’t exist in others. Wolff’s money quote is this:

    “In the realm of economics American conservatives defend as unquestioned axioms and first principles the very laisser-faire rules which Mill put forward as inferences from the doctrine of utilitarianism. American liberals, on the other hand, swear fealty to the memory of Mill, but draw non-laisser-faire conclusions from new and different facts. When it comes to the matter of free speech, the roles are reversed. Conservatives treat freedom of speech as a subsidiary principle to be forfeited whenever utilitarian considerations (“of national security”) warrant; modern liberals, on the other hand, have long since elevated free speech to the sanctity of a dogma, forgetting (if they ever knew) that the classical liberal defense was empirical and utilitarian.”

    To depict liberals as defenders of absolute free speech seems obsolete in the present light, but the same reasoning still applies. Any notion of absolute freedom untrammeled by utilitarian considerations is a rhetorical shell game employed for the sake of appearances: in the realm of economics no conservatives are arguing for a total government budget of $0, just as in the realm of speech no liberals are arguing for the right to shout “fire!” in a crowded theater, so it can all be reduced to a hollow tautological defense of “freedom to do anything that isn’t legitimately prohibited.” Everybody draws their lines *somewhere*, and pretending these lines don’t exist at all by simply shouting “FREEDOM!!!” at the top of one’s lungs is a piss-poor excuse for political science.

    • bensday823 March 29, 2014 at 10:48 am | #

      Except in practice the left has been far more censorious than the right; case in point, Canada and hate speech laws.

      • Will G-R March 31, 2014 at 8:00 am | #

        Tell that to the remnants of organized anarchist/communist political parties after the orgy of censorship, blacklisting, espionage, harassment, and straight-up political criminalization perpetrated against the left from the 1910s through 1960s. Oh, right, I forgot… all of that (by which I mean everything from the Palmer raids and the Schenck ruling to the HUAC blacklists and COINTELPRO) doesn’t count as suppression of “free speech,” because it was directed not against “speech” but against “sedition” or “incitement” or “treason” or some such, which magically belong to a totally separate ontological category from “speech” in order to facilitate our imagined self-image as divine guardians of the abstract principle “freedom.”

        Let me know when the legally sanctioned suppression of political organizations like the KKK or the American Nazi Party matches that historically faced by political organizations like the IWW or the CPUSA, and stop pretending that “freedom of speech” means anything more *in principle* than “freedom of any speech that we think it’s safe to allow to be free.” Once you filter out ideologically profound but philosophically trivial buzzwords, the programs of censorship advocated by McCarthy, Stalin, Ron Paul, and Tim Wise are different by degree, not by kind.

      • bensday823 April 13, 2014 at 4:33 pm | #


        I would never call the right unqualified champions of free speech, but in recent years they have a better track record of supporting free speech.


  13. bensday823 March 29, 2014 at 11:22 am | #

    Judging by the comments on crooked timber the radical anti-speech position is alive and well.

    Not that this surprises me, free speech has never been universally popular. Some people will always worry about people being swayed by bad ideas, and think open discourse too risky.

    • bensday823 March 29, 2014 at 11:31 am | #

      Corey Robin may be correct on one thing, there are fewer systematic criticism of free speech.

      • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant March 31, 2014 at 9:55 am | #

        Look, “bensday823”, let’s get it straight. The right DOES NOT debate free speech issues as regards its owns actions — the left does, as this website, The Nation, Mother Jones, and many other outlets clearly demonstrate. THERE IS NO SUCH DISCUSSION IN THE NATIONAL REVIEW, FOX, THE AMERICAN STANDARD…. NONE. ZIP.

        Proof: you came HERE, to a progressive blogsite, to badmouth the censorious left. Can you give us a link to a rightist website where a similiar debate is taking place? One in which the right QUESTIONS ITSELF, on its own suspected censorious tendencies? One in which you submitted a comment in reply to a blog post or to other commenters?

        We’re waiting…..

        • bensday823 April 13, 2014 at 4:27 pm | #

          I have written for three separate conservative publications, none of them censored comments from people on the left. I can only think of one right-wing blog that censors comments, Caroline Glick

          • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant April 14, 2014 at 8:51 am | #

            You did not reply to the request: Find an example of rightist commentary that questions ITS OWN CENSORIOUS TENDENCIES. You claim that the right debates issues and disagreements all the time. Yawn! The left does that too. The question at hand is whether or not the left (a still undefined term for the purposes of the present discussion, but let us ignore that for now) is more censorious now than in the past. I have yet to see any social science put any serious resources into investigating this question. MY OWN point in response is that at least left PUBLICLY DISCUSSES its censorious tendencies — the present discussion even allows some on the left to make the accusation. WHERE IS THE RIGHT’S DISCUSSION on its own censorious tendencies? On this point you are silent. Are we to assume — seriously — that the right is without censorious impulse? Is that the purpose of your evasive replies?

            And to the point that the daily kos heavily censors its comments. Come, now!! Who seriously gives a damn? Is that the best you can do? And are we to believe that you are no longer a democrat because kos censors your comments? Is THAT all it took to get you to leave one the two major political parties? Was your continued membership so tenuous that you’d drop out because your blatherings were — you claim — being censored in, presumably, the comments section of an online web post?

            Really, bensday823, do you really think so little of the intelligence of the readers of this blog?

            We are still waiting for proof that the right discusses its own censorious tendencies, and (as a bonus) that you were part of that discussion.

        • bensday823 April 13, 2014 at 4:37 pm | #

          I have written for three conservative publications and none of them censored people simply because they disagreed.

          Incidentally, the dailykos heavily censors their comments. Which is why I am no longer a Democrat.

  14. Cat Food April 1, 2014 at 9:37 pm | #

    Only tangentially related, but I remember this research study:

    “Liberals are the most likely to have taken each of these steps to block, unfriend, or hide. In all, 28% of liberals have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone on SNS because of one of these reasons, compared with 16% of conservatives and 14% of moderates.”

    As for Corey’s question, It’s contextual. Obviously a leftist Vietnam protester in the US would have had a higher opinion of free speech than an actual Vietcong guerilla. Today we can draw a parallel between an OWS activist in New York and an intellectual in worker’s paradise North Korea. Even in the West, we still have to narrow the focus. A lunatic ‘social justice warrior’ on Tumblr is apt to delete, censor, and even send death threats, whereas I doubt Corey would do such a thing to his foes.

  15. Manta April 3, 2014 at 7:42 am | #

    These two articles address your question, and give several examples and references (the first one is quite spot on, the second is more tangential):

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