The Move to Eradicate Disagreement

What troubles me when the censorious types speak is not that they speak but that their response is to call for less speech.

A pen surrounded by barbed wire
Erik Carter / The Atlantic; Getty

Discovering a point of agreement with a colleague is always alarming. The Atlantic wants more readers rather than fewer, after all, and agreement is poisonous for a subscription base, just as it is for intellectual culture. But here we are: Adam Serwer, in a counterargument to Caitlin Flanagan’s essay and my essay after last month’s attack on Salman Rushdie, agrees that the attack was ghastly and an assault on free speech. Luckily he disagrees with us on everything else, in particular the association Flanagan and I drew between censorious attitudes in the United States and the rather more lethal censoriousness in Iran.

“Americans simply do not live under anything resembling the kind of repression in which people are killed for blasphemy with state or popular support,” Serwer writes. Phew! But there are ways to suppress free thought, other than with a knife to the eyeball of a novelist, or with laws that limit what can be said in schools. Like many others, he is willing to fight for speech against threats of government coercion. But when the threats come from other sources, he leaps out of the trenches and leaves Flanagan and me fixing our bayonets alone.

If I write a detestable column (again, some might say), how might colleagues react? They might stand by me unconditionally and refrain from public criticism. Or they might adopt a stance of neutrality, with nary a word to criticize nor to defend. Or they might, as Serwer has, disagree with me in writing. (Flanagan and I have been in separate trenches before: She signs open letters; I toss them.) Finally, they might—as Serwer has not—call for censorship or my firing, or try to keep my views out of the magazine by seeking to block the hire of anyone similarly deluded.

None of these reactions implicates “free speech” in the legal or physical sense that alarms Serwer. And at a magazine of ideas, only one of these reactions is useful, unless we want to chloroform our readers with harmony. Rancor is good; offense is good; writing a retort, as my colleague did, is good. Trying to get your opponents to shut up or go away is intellectual cowardice. And if you can see why these first two qualities are desirable, perhaps you can also see why the Rushdie attack is indeed related to censorious attitudes by “snowflake libs”—not a phrase I’d ever use, but if Serwer wants to, fine.

Serwer says Rushdie’s persecutors and these libs are different because they use different means. I say they resemble each other because they have the same ends—namely, to eradicate rather than encourage disagreement. Whether one does so by firing squad or just plain firing is a distinction that matters. Most college students, according to a FIRE report published this week, do not believe that speakers who hold various conservative beliefs should be allowed on campus; I am grateful that these students do not (yet) run a whole country, as the ayatollahs do. But each group is striving to purify itself, to scare off deviance, to mark dissent from its orthodoxy as so vile that it cannot even be discussed, and must instead be rendered nonexistent. The Khomeinists call this dissent “blasphemous,” and the American equivalent is “offensive,” which in certain quarters carries a similar weight: unutterable, unpublishable, to be erased rather than argued against. If you find that someone’s writing, or film, or speech, or play offends and provokes you, do you want more of it or less? The ayatollahs and the snowflakes answer in the same pathetic way. “Cancel culture”—another term I find myself forced to use—is this impulse not to critique one’s enemies but to make them go away, shut up, or seek employment elsewhere. It is not critique; it is the absence of critique.

At the core of my disagreement with Serwer is a distinction that goes back at least as far as John Stuart Mill, between coercive threats to free thought and more subtle and insidious ones. Mill knew that government censorship is only part of the problem (but a major one, given that the government can lock you up). In On Liberty, he noted that a deeper—and characteristically modern—problem is self-imposed mental fetters, the inability to think freely because of niggling doubts about how one will be thought of by peers and superiors. “Conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes,” he wrote. “Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke.”

And is there any doubt that the minds are yoked together in sprawling teams, plowing the fields of academia and media today? No one is saying, as Jimmy Carter did in 1989, that Rushdie had committed a great evil by offending Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But that is because they still have a sense of shame, and the near-murder has silenced them. Rushdie’s sin is decades old. A fresh evil, unaccompanied by bloodshed, would attract a freshly craven response, dinging the author for the offense caused and if possible banishing his novel to the great reject pile in the basement of Random House. The shock at the Rushdie stabbing is shock at the stabbing, not at the belief that some speakers are so awful that their vile utterances must be stopped, rather than argued against. FIRE found that on some university campuses, one in five students thinks speakers should be shouted down or otherwise prevented from speaking—not just peppered with hard questions, or subjected to protests, but actually stopped. Pity the students, all five of them. Universities, like magazines, should be kinky: bastions of a kind of intellectual sadomasochism, where we willingly subject ourselves to the arguments of those we most despise, and then retaliate, pitilessly, with our own arguments. None of that happens if they do not speak at all.

Ultimately Serwer accuses me of making “not an assertion of the right to free speech so much as a right to monologue,”—that is, to speak without having to hear a response. But I never questioned the right of PEN members to speak, or their right to suggest that the hurt felt by a few readers of Charlie Hebdo might be weighed against the hurt felt by the eight members of the Charlie Hebdo staff who had their brains blown out by assassins. I do not tell others to shut up, or try to stop them from saying what they want to say. I would not dream of doing such a thing; when my opponents speak, they bless me: I am the beneficiary of their errors. What troubles me when the censorious types speak is not that they speak but that their response is to call for less speech. They can solve the supposed problem of an offensive speaker for themselves with an application of wax to their ear canals. But when they turn their campuses and magazines and theaters and cultures into safe spaces, the resulting inoffensive blandness offends me, too.

“The culture of free speech is always under threat,” Serwer writes. No one ever said this fight was a new one. Fix bayonets. As with school library shelves, there are those who want more books and those who want fewer; there are those who want more speech, and those who want less. On the shelves, I think Serwer and I agree. On speech in general, I am a bit less sure, although we at least prefer dialogue to soliloquy, which is a good start.