There’s a running joke on the Left about people who claim to have been silenced for their conservative views — while standing atop the platform of a podcast, TV show, or newspaper column that has an audience of millions. You can’t have been silenced, goes the punchline, if someone can hear your scream.
This argument gets big applause on Twitter, but it is also, generally speaking, a cheap shot. For every commentator who has achieved too-big-to-cancel status, there are five who’ve found themselves sidelined, de-platformed or otherwise shut out of a public discourse in which the range of acceptable views seems to be ever-narrowing and strictly enforced. J.K. Rowling may be safe from ruination, but plenty of ordinary people who run afoul of the new norms aren’t so lucky.
More importantly, there are countless more who see these incidents as cautionary tales and self-censor accordingly so as not to draw ire. The threat of professional and social death imposed by cancellation is like a shark attack: it doesn’t have to happen very often for people to be genuinely and justifiably afraid of it.
That said, there is something ironic about the back-to-back release of two books this month by conservative authors, both with massive platforms, and both arguing that the battle for free speech has been all but lost to Left-wing authoritarianism. Michael Knowles’s Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds, and Ben Shapiro’s The Authoritarian Moment: How the Left Weaponized America’s Institutions Against Dissent, argue that the illiberal woke have conspired to push dissenting voices out of the public square. They both issue from mainstream publishers.
While Knowles draws a meandering line through history from the American revolution to Marxism to 1990s political correctness to contemporary cancellations, Shapiro keeps it current, proclaiming that the entire mess is basically Barack Obama’s fault. But both argue that free speech is in dire straits, if not outright doomed.
Shapiro is the more optimistic of the two: according to him, only a fierce and organised resistance can save the America he knows and loves. Knowles, on the other hand, says it’s entirely too late: “Conservatives have wasted decades attempting to thwart political correctness through dime-store philosophizing over ‘free speech,’ progressively abandoning their substantive cultural inheritance for a misbegotten notion of liberty that can never exist in practice,” he writes. The problem, in other words, is not the suppression of speech overall; it’s just that conservatives, not liberals, ought to be the ones doing it.
It’s not hard to see where the pessimism comes from. Over the past ten years, a militant faction on the Left has managed to lace its ideology into the bureaucracies of influential institutions — in academia, the media, technology and the arts — such that a small group of people has been able to impose a fairly radical set of sensibilities on the culture, the news, and the products that all Americans consume. The sudden appearance of preferred pronouns in bios and email signatures; the obsession with diversity, representation, and racial or sexual identity in popular culture; the clunker of a “nasty woman” joke in the most recent Jurassic Park film — as Shapiro notes, “membership in the New Ruling Class comes with clear cultural signifiers”.
Liberal professors outnumber conservative ones by a ratio of 10 to 1; in departments like anthropology or sociology, it’s more like 100 to 1 (that is, if there are any Righties in the ranks at all). The most educated Americans — the ones who graduate with advanced degrees and go into prestige professions — lean overwhelmingly Left. They write the books and articles that set the national conversation; they make the movies, music, and art; and they dedicate their disposable income and abundant free time to moral self-improvement projects like anti-racist colouring books.
Meanwhile, a multi-billion dollar diversity industry sells corporations pricey seminars that mostly serve to protect the leadership from discrimination lawsuits — and to keep their workers too distracted and distrustful of each other to ever think about organising. And yes, the faction of the Left that approves of this industry has also made political shaming into a spectator sport.
But who is this a problem for? Who actually gets threatened, shamed or fired for failing to fall in step with the social justice Left? The fact is, it’s not conservatives.
What the free speech fretting from the political Right often misses is that this culture war is largely a Left-wing civil war — and its worst casualties tend to be self-inflicted wounds. American society is increasingly segregated along political lines: we live, work, befriend and marry people with whom our primary point of commonality is that we all vote the same way.
So when Shapiro describes the grave consequences people have faced for so much as nodding toward a conservative perspective — the newspaper reporter who was fired for mentioning the n-word in a discussion about offensive speech, or the Hollywood director who was dog-piled on Twitter for saying something nice about Shapiro himself — the people he’s talking about generally aren’t on the Right. They’re liberals, being excommunicated from their professional and social networks by members of their own tribe.
When Senator Tom Cotton published a NYT op-ed arguing for the use of federal troops to quell civil unrest during last summer’s protests, the staff revolted — not against Republican Cotton, but against the Left-leaning editor who’d approved the piece. The people who lost friends and professional opportunities because they signed the Harper’s Letter in defence of free speech? All liberals. The group of women founders ousted from their own companies last year for crimes against diversity and inclusion had not a single Trump voter among them.
The function of all this speech policing is to enforce hegemony on the Left, a phenomenon that writer Freddie de Boer has identified as The Iron Law of Institutions in action: people care more about maintaining status among their fellow progressives than they do about advancing the progressive cause itself.
And indeed, the Left has struggled continuously in recent years to form meaningful coalitions that would allow them to obtain political power — in part because they’re far more interested in the internecine sniping and status-seeking that ends up pushing would-be allies away. There’s a reason why, despite four years of shrill #resistance, we still only barely managed to vote Donald Trump out of office.
If we did somehow manage to win the culture wars, as Shapiro and Knowles insist, it’s only because the Right all but gave it away during the second George W. Bush administration, by leaning too hard into purity-obsessed, bible-thumping and anti-gay rhetoric at a time when the nation was becoming broadly more secular and sexually liberal. Outside their immediate bubble of similarly militant progressives, the Left’s authoritarians don’t wield much authority at all; most people find their rhetoric exhausting and alienating, if not morally reprehensible.
And even as commentators wring their hands over the death of free speech, there are already signs of a renaissance everywhere. Concerned parents are swarming school board meetings, speaking out against race essentialist curriculum in classrooms. Innovative alternatives to Robin DiAngelo-style diversity trainings are beginning to gain traction; so is organised pushback against discriminatory ones. A legion of writers pushed out of legacy media are launching a mini-revolution on Substack. Cancel culture is getting more unpopular by day, especially with younger Americans. Our legislators are beginning — albeit in their usual, halting, bumbling way — to address the difficult question of how to preserve America’s speech protections in an age when most of it takes place on digital platforms.
The problems identified by Knowles and Shapiro are real, but we know this. We’re working on it. And while ordinary Americans slowly move the culture back in the direction of living and letting live, the bubble in which the Left’s most hardcore authoritarians seek to insulate themselves is getting smaller and less populous — not just because they keep eating each other, but because moderate liberals increasingly want nothing to do with them.
Salem, McCarthyism, the patriotism purity tests of post-9/11: as Knowles points out, spasms of intolerance are a recurring feature of American history. (Not that he mentions that last one, perhaps because he thinks it was good; indeed, Knowles’ idea of a solution is for the Right to simply engage in an endless tug-of-war to win back the censor’s authoritarian power). All of these moments were hard to live through. All of them inflicted enormous and unnecessary suffering on blameless people. But all eventually passed, always for the same reasons. People began to revolt and speak out. The pendulum swings back.
Of course, it doesn’t need to swing at all. If we really wanted to, we could declare a ceasefire in the culture wars and simply leave each other alone. There’s more than enough room in the America for people to live, and let live, pretty much any way they want to — and to settle disagreements quietly instead of turning them into a public bloodsport. But people like Knowles and Shapiro won’t sell any books that way; to make money you need pessimism, alarm bells, proclamations of imminent doom and an audience of outraged and frightened people who genuinely believe that their way of life is under attack.
And so the culture wars rage on. But hey, if we’re lucky, we’ll get a decade or so before the audience becomes an army, and a bunch of Right-wing authoritarians energised by books like Speechless start campaigning in earnest, in their own way, to punish those who disagree with them.