The ‘Left vs. Right‘ paradigm is one that’s dying, and its pending demise is necessary if we want to build on the legitimate progress made by our forebears. But in today’s world, those labels still have meaning and so I’ll discuss them a little before examining (in admittedly verbose and, at times, rambling fashion) their roles in the ongoing Free Speech battle in Western Civilization.
The concept of a linear, one-dimensional political spectrum which starts at the ‘Right’ end of the line and runs to the ‘Left’ is one with which most of us are familiar. The idea is simple (which is why we all have a meaningful degree of familiarity and understanding with this paradigm): if you’re on the Right side of the spectrum, you’re a ‘Conservative‘ (meaning you err toward caution when presented with opportunities to reform a given facet of society/tradition) and if you’re on the Left side, you’re a ‘liberal’ (though this label no longer means what it ought to, so a better way to think of someone on the Left is as a Progressive). But what does any of that even mean? This post isn’t an attempt to answer that particular question–instead, it’s an attempt to determine why that question is one most of us find ourselves asking at one point or another.
There is also a lot of discussion about ‘horseshoe theory‘ when discussing the Left vs. Right (predominantly false) dichotomy. Most of us will hear people say ‘I’m a fiscal conservative, but a social liberal,’ or some variation on that theme, which suggests that in spite of its simplicity a lot of people are still confused by the ultra-simplified Left vs. Right paradigm.
And they should be confused, because asking someone if they are on the Left or the Right of the political is a rigged question for anyone who’s actually interested in learning the answer. But more on that later. As the headline suggests, this essay is primarily about the purpose and value of free speech in Western society.
To understand why Free Speech is even a thing, we need to understand our species’ history to a minimum degree. Throughout human history, there have been people who wanted to dictate, from positions of authority, how others lived. An accurate term used to describe these people is ‘Authoritarian‘–and the dirty little secret that we’re waking up to is that Authoritarians aren’t uniquely ‘Left,’ or ‘Right,’ or ‘Religious,’ or anything else. Authoritarianism is hard-coded into human nature, so learning how to deal with it and keep it in check is important.
That’s where Free Speech comes into play.
Back in the 60s the Free Speech movement was most certainly ‘Leftist’ or, more pointedly, anti-Right/anti-Conservative. And they were right to rail against the excesses of state influence over speech, thought, and media. Having been born long after their rebellion’s flames had turned to smoldering embers, I can’t comment directly on the radicals’ motives–thankfully I’ve got people like Camille Paglia and Christina Hoff Sommers (aka, The Factual Feminist), both dyed-in-the-wool feminists and free speakers from that era, to do that for me.
Back in the 60’s, it seems to me that a major (probably even primary) reason for the government stepping in as hard as it did in attempting to influence culture, thought, and speech, was deceptively simple: the global rise of communism. The government, falling into a trap as old as vested power itself, decided against battling the core *ideas* of communism in the marketplace of ideas and instead decided to apply state force to keep communism from gaining purchase. Those in power, be they in the government, media, or even the business world, opted to employ Authoritarian tactics to coerce conformity in the 1950’s rather than waging the harder, but more meaningful battle in the arena of ideas. Their intentions might have been good, and it’s hard to argue with any chosen course that seeks to eradicate the real-world horrors of communism from the face of the planet, but you probably already know where a road paved with good intentions might lead…
Fast forward to today and the script has flipped 100% on just about every single issue. The hard ‘Left’ activists are pro-communism, and they gain immense support in the media and popular culture while people who want the country to go back to the way it was are sneered at by virtually everyone with a microphone or live camera feed. The pendulum swung too far to the Right in the 50’s and 60’s, and now it’s gone too far to the Left to lead off this century. And the most powerful, nonlethal weapon in our arsenal which we can use to dampen the eccentricities of that pendulum’s increasingly severe movement is Free Speech.
The good news is that we’ve been through cultural upheavals like this before. We’re all still here, the skyscrapers in our metropolises are still standing, the heartland continues to be the beating heart of both our economy and identity, and all in all life keeps a-goin’. So with that in mind it becomes important to recognize that cultural revolutions are not only acceptable, they’re NECESSARY. Such revolutions are a core reason why the First Amendment got top billing over the Second Amendment. It’s better to wage a war of ideas than it is to wage a war of arms, so Free Speech got primacy over all other itemized freedoms in the USA’s founding principles. But in order for a real war of ideas to commence, all involved parties need to have the unrestricted ability to transmit, receive, and process information independently.
It’s probably obvious by now that Free Speech and Authoritarianism cannot coexist. Free Speech was specifically designed to prevent Authoritarianism from dominating society by distributing information-processing throughout society rather than keeping information-processing (and, by extension, decision-making) sequestered within the Corridors of Power. So naturally Authoritarians want to be able to control what is or isn’t said by the general public–because they know, just like Mr. Style Over Substance Noam Chomsky himself knows, that language plays a crucial role in shaping much of how we think. So if an Authoritarian can control how a person speaks, he/she also gains control over how that person thinks. None of this is rocket surgery, but I think it warrants stating anyway.
I’ve got more to say on the subject, and I expect I’ll do just that in the weeks to come, but for now I’d like to end on a conciliatory note.
We all get into discussions with people, and where those discussions take place (on the internet, around the water cooler, in the bleachers while we watch our kids perform/compete, or anywhere else) is less important than how we conduct ourselves during them. Authoritarianism isn’t the only hard-wired piece of social psychology each of us is born with–tribalism is another one, and it’s probably even more prominent than the desire to exert power which underpins Authoritarianism. Free Speech and tribalism, however, are almost as incompatible as Free Speech and Authoritarianism–and if they’re not incompatible, per se, then they’re far from synergistic.
When we talk with like-minded people (meaning people who largely share our views) we often improve our understanding and perspective but, perhaps alarmingly, we also put ourselves in a position where we might fall victim to confirmation bias. Speaking with people who disagree with us is difficult-bordering-on-impossible, but it’s only by speaking with people who don’t share our views that we can genuinely expand our horizons and determine which ideas are strong and which ones are weak.
So the next time any of us feels like rolling our eyes and dismissing a conversation partner with whom we’ve stumbled into one of the proverbial political landmines of our time, and with whom we disagree on an important issue, take a second to realize that you have an opportunity not to win an argument or debate with that person. Instead, recognize you have a chance to lay bare each others’ ideas and supporting thoughts, evidence, and experiences in the hope that you’ll come away with a stronger understanding of the subject than you had going in.
If you can do that, you’ll recognize that precious few people are ‘Right’ or ‘Left,’ and that most of the people around you with whom you engage in vigorous, spirited, and meaningful discussions are clustered tightly around the Center–just like you.
Don’t let wedge issues divide us into a false Left vs. Right conflict. If you can avoid that particular pitfall, the Authoritarians who hail from all extreme points of the political spectrum will be every bit as powerless as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, and John Adams wanted them to be.