Cultural Censorship Is as Bad as Government Censorship, and Neither is a Path to Truth or Justice

Debates about the meaning and limits of free speech typically center on the relationship between the individual and government. Court cases involving the First Amendment are examples.

But efforts to define and restrict speech do not always pit government against individuals. Increasingly in American society, controversies involving speech happen in workplaces, on social media, in commercial settings, and at educational institutions.

Arguably, government protections of free expression in the United States have never been stronger than they are today. Free speech is not under attack by government censorship.

In contrast, however, free expression is increasingly under attack by American culture. This should concern anyone who understands that the application of reason to ideas and evidence freely expressed in society is the only path to truth.

The 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill discussed the pitfalls of cultural censorship. In this context, there isn’t a government authority repressing anyone’s speech; nevertheless, the outcome can be worse than government censorship.

In On Liberty, Mill’s 1859 canonical defense of free expression, he warned of “a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression.” He characterized it as a collectively enforced conformity that “leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”

Today, much of American culture is obsessed with political correctness, especially its “woke” variant, which is a larger world view. Younger people, in particular, are so steeped in this collective conformity that they increasingly recoil at the notion of free speech. Trigger warnings, safe spaces, cancel culture, and the too common assertions that “speech is violence” or “free speech kills,” act to silence speech, silo speech, or shield a wider audience from speech.

The cultural assault on open expression can be more dangerous than government censorship because it is self-policed. One never knows when he or she will be the target of a cancel mob, or for what reason, so people are fearful of openly discussing and debating ideas. People suppress their honest sentiments as a result. Self-muzzling chokes ideas before they see the light of day. Ideas die in the mind.

This chilling effect is exactly what practitioners of cultural censorship want: create widespread uncertainty and fear of being exiled from social and professional circles.

But achieving strong cultural norms favoring free expression is possible if Americans remember that throughout history free speech and free assembly have been allies of those who have been genuinely oppressed. Consider quotes from leaders of freedom movements.

Abolition of Slavery in the United States

No right was deemed by the fathers of the Government more sacred than the right of speech. It was in their eyes, as in the eyes of all thoughtful men, the great moral renovator of society and government. Daniel Webster called it a homebred right, a fireside privilege. Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions have ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgment to come in their presence. Slavery cannot tolerate free speech. Five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South. They will have none of it there, for they have the power. But shall it be so here?

–Frederick Douglass, “Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston,” December 9, 1860

Those words by Douglass were in response to a mob disrupting and shutting down a gathering of abolitionists in Boston six days earlier, preventing Douglass and others from speaking at a public meeting hall on the topic of “How Can American Slavery Be Abolished?”

Today, crowds too frequently shout down speakers with whom they disagree, violating what Douglass called the Right to Hear, “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money.”

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States to Establish Equality Under the Law

All we say to America is, “Be true to what you said on paper.” If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.

–Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” 1968

Fellow civil rights leader John Lewis said often, “If it had not been for the press, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song.”

The Movement to End the Military Draft in the United States

People are trying to find ways to open up the dialog on Vietnam that has been missing on the street level. . . . We would urge people to have nothing to do whatsoever with all the machinery of the war. But more than that, trying to take the idea of resistance into the communities and organize around it.

–Tom Hayden, president, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), 1960s, “The Draft

For many groups opposed to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, including SDS, resistance often involved public speeches and protests targeting the military draft:

The unique thing about the draft was that it got your attention, it froze you, you knew it was coming. . . . The draft was the message that you couldn’t escape. Because you had a number, and nothing gets your attention like that number.

–Tom Hayden, 2015, “The Draft

Nobody used free expression more effectively to oppose the military draft than Muhammad Ali. After being convicted in 1967 of illegally refusing induction into the U.S. Army, and out on bail while appealing the conviction, the former heavyweight champion, now stripped of his title and banned from boxing, cobbled together a living by speaking on college campuses about his decision to refuse military service:

My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. . . . Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people?

The Worldwide Movement to End Apartheid in South Africa

[Only a free press] can be the vigilant watchdog of the public interest against the temptation on the part of those who wield it to abuse that power. . . . You, the world’s media, laid bare darkest days of apartheid.

–Nelson Mandela, International Press Institute World Congress, 1994

It is never my custom to use words lightly. If 27 years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.

–Nelson Mandela, “Closing Address at the 13th International AIDS Conference,” 2000

Many more examples exist. Throughout history, leaders of movements to free people who were truly oppressed triumphed because of speech, assembly, and a vigorous press, often in the face of laws that sought to silence them. Those leaders understood that free expression was their strongest weapon to fight injustice. They sought open discourse, not safe spaces.

Today, the tide of cultural censorship increasingly drowns speech due to cancel activists, hypersensitivity to anything that might be considered objectionable by someone, and intolerance to ideas that question firmly held views. For example, in her Constitution Day lecture at Princeton University in 2017, anthropology professor Carolyn Rouse said that a climate-change skeptic has no right to make “claims about climate change, as if all the science discovered over the last X-number of centuries were irrelevant.” But unpopular and uncomfortable ideas need the fullest protection by governments and cultures to ensure that ideas rise or fall based on their merits. “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” said George Orwell.

Why do people work so hard to restrict and silence speech? Part of the answer is old-fashioned tribalism. But there is also a larger strategy in play to eliminate dissent and elevate views that could not otherwise hold up to scrutiny. “Black Lives Matter” is a slogan that is shouted as a substitute for the hard work of serious inquiry and vigorous debate of public policies, presuppositions, data-driven evidence, and detailed recommendations.

The path to truth involves applying reason to ideas and evidence that are freely expressed and thoroughly examined by people in a community. This will never change. Restricting speech, or hiding from speech, is not a path to enlightenment or justice.

More than 160 years ago, John Stuart Mill said that circumscribing cultural censorship to favor individual expression is “as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.” We have much work to do, as it is better to err on the side of too much speech than too little.

Lawrence J. McQuillan is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation at the Independent Institute. He is the author of the Independent book California Dreaming.
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