As befits an old fart, I spend a lot of time ranting about how young people today are just terrible, particularly about freedom of expression. If I avoid being a cloud-shouting caricature, it's because I admit this is my generation's fault: young people are just adopting the awful values that we taught them.
Today's example is the notion that speech silences us.
Yesterday I mentioned a free speech tumult at Wesleyan University, where a student op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement led to controversy. Scott Greenfield wrote about the dispute as well, and we both picked on one particular student for saying that the op-ed ought to be censored because it "silenced" speech:
The biggest problem with treating this as a freedom of speech issue is that this speech actively silences other speech.
This proposition — "this isn't free speech, it's silencing speech" — is simply an iteration of Trope Six: "this isn't free speech, it's [other invented category]."
It's also something the student could have picked up from us — and by "us" I mean the community of adults who talk about politics and free speech. The student has applied the lesson to complain about "conservative speech," but could have picked it up from listening to people complain about "liberal speech." Our student has listed to people saying "you called me a racist and that stifles my free speech" and simply reworked it a bit to "you spoke like a racist and that stifles my free speech."
This shouldn't be a surprise. For years we've been indulging in the "Speech Is Tyranny!" and "criticism is censorship" tropes. We complain that "you can't say [x] any more," where [X] is some conservative viewpoint. What we mean is that we cannot say [x] without being criticized, perhaps in very harsh terms. We call it things like "systematic silencing":
Powers revealed that in "The Silencing," she focuses on the attack on free speech from the media and on college campuses.
"It's a systematic silencing that is going on," Powers said. "And they use the same tactics. I also am not talking about disagreement. I'm not talking about people being civil. I'm talking about these are people who will not have a debate. They will attack you: 'You are racist. You are misogynist.' It's never about what the actual issue is."
"And it's really impinging people's ability to debate issues, because there is no debate. They tell you there is no debate because you're a racist."
So. How can we really blame our angry Wesleyan student for using a rhetorical trope we have taught him?
I look forward to the protestations that's different. Surely not every cry "you're silencing me" is the same. But just as we should use critical thinking to evaluate this student's claim that speech silences him, shouldn't we also think critically about our own claims to be silenced by criticism and what we term "call-out culture"?
I may not buy the argument that the Black Lives Matter critique silences anyone (though I do find it nauseatingly bootlicking). But neither do I buy that it silences the author to tell him that it's ignorant, or racist. Rejecting the former but buying the latter seems to depend on a magical view of speech: that most speech encourages more speech except for a set of magically debilitating words (like "racist" and "sexist" and so forth) that destroy it. That purported dichotomy deserves scrutiny.
Imagine some examples. If I tell a gay person that they are outside of God's love and going to Hell unless they repent, and they call me a bigot, have I encouraged speech and they silenced it? If you're an HBD fan and tell black people that they are inherently intellectually inferior and they call you racist, have you encouraged speech and they've suppressed it?
To put it rudely, are we really buying the premise that being a dick encourages speech but calling someone a dick suppresses it?
I find that unpersuasive.