‘Conformity is the enemy of free speech’

Greg Lukianoff on the sad demise of America’s free-speech culture.


Topics Free Speech USA

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The Gaza solidarity encampments that spread across US universities earlier this year showed that free speech is under threat from all sides. Intolerant ‘pro-Palestine’ students wanted to exclude Zionists, Jewish students and anyone not fully committed to their cause from campus. They were happy to disrupt university life and to prevent classes and lectures from taking place. At the same time, some on the pro-Israel side called for these protests to be forcibly shut down, for demonstrators to be arrested and for Israelophobic speech to be censored or punished. Those who are consistent in their support for free speech are becoming rarer by the day.

Greg Lukianoff – president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) – returned to The Brendan O’Neill Show last week to discuss the need for a radical revival of free speech. What follows is an edited extract from the conversation. Listen to the full thing here.

Brendan O’Neill: Where does the left-right divide currently fall on the question of free speech?

Greg Lukianoff: One of the reasons I’m worried about the future of freedom of speech, in the United States and beyond, is that there used to be a contingent of the left that unapologetically defended free expression. These people were always in tension with those totalitarians who believed that, if society was governed by enlightened people like them, censorship would be justified. For the most part, I grew up at a time when freedom of speech was actually considered a left-wing value. But with totalitarian thinking winning on the left and the rise of the populist right, there’s no natural constituency for free speech today other than the centre.

That’s a big problem. For all their good positions on freedom of speech, centrists are naturally going to have more moderate ideas about what speech should and shouldn’t be protected.

This is a worrying situation. It’s why we at FIRE are trying to bring people from all over the political spectrum into our network. We know that there’s still a big middle ground when it comes to support for freedom of speech, but there certainly isn’t a neat 50 / 50 ideological split. In terms of its dominance in higher education and the corporate world, the left today is a much bigger threat to free speech – largely because it has a much more rigid understanding of what counts as an acceptable opinion. This scares me and I think it could all come to a very nasty head in five or 10 years’ time.

What also worries me is that, even though these threats to free speech are getting worse, people on both the left and the right have been lecturing me about why the upcoming presidential election is a more important thing to worry about. They’ve been saying that it’s time to pick a side and that we shouldn’t be worrying about free speech when the stakes are this high. These people have got the whole issue completely backwards. When the stakes are this high, the rules of the road get more important, not less.

O’Neill: What are the main threats to free speech today?

Lukianoff: There is quite a lot of government censorship today, particularly on college campuses. State colleges are legally obliged to uphold the First Amendment and private universities should uphold the very same commitment, but both are failing to do so.

The real fight, however, centres on whether or not cancel culture – which usually involves angry, often left-wing mobs demanding that someone be fired for something they’ve said – is acceptable.

Some argue that it’s fine, insisting that one form of speech is just as good as any other. This is the argument that writer and attorney Ken White makes. He believes that there’s no such thing as free-speech culture and that the threat posed by cancel culture is overblown. I find this whole argument mystifying. Where does he think free speech comes from? He can’t argue that it started as law, because laws are written by people.

The real problem with the cancellers, though, is that their speech is both illiberal and conformist. John Stuart Mill’s defence of free speech in On Liberty (1859) explored this issue at length. He argued that while there were signs that the state of free speech in Britain was actually quite good from a legal standpoint, the real issue was the stifling culture of conformity in Victorian England.

A culture of conformity can be a terrible weapon against authenticity, creativity and free speech. You have to actually be willing to fight this culture, as well as defend free speech as a legal right, if you want free expression to survive. One really striking discovery I made when co-authoring The Cancelling of the American Mind with Rikki Schlott is that her generation didn’t grow up in the sort of free-speech culture that I was raised in. We used to have all these everyday, common-sense idioms, like ‘Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion’, ‘To each their own’, ‘Not my cup of tea’. All of these sayings summed up the idea that it isn’t really on you to decide what everyone else gets to think and that we should keep checking ourselves.

Today, the idiom for college graduates seems to be: ‘My way or the highway.’ Everybody who disagrees with them is painted as fascist. Those who still think that calling for someone to be fired for merely expressing their political opinion is not a threat to free speech is engaging in some serious mental gymnastics. These people would immediately understand the problem if someone they agreed with was on the other side of the mob.

Greg Lukianoff was talking to Brendan O’Neill on The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:

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Topics Free Speech USA


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