The Right Loves Free Speech…When It’s Convenient
What an odd time for the quiet gameJohn Moore / Getty Politics Features Ken Storey
Ken Storey at the University of Tampa was dismissed for tweeting that Harvey was karma for Texans voting for Trump. At roughly the same time the Post reported that a “liberal think tank” funded by Google dismissed an employee who criticized the search giant:
… New America has pushed out scholar Barry Lynn and his team on the foundation’s Open Markets initiative. This happened shortly after Lynn published a piece for New America praising the European Union for fining Google. Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet (the holding company that controls Google), is a major funder of New America and had sent an email to New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter expressing unhappiness about Lynn’s piece. … the facts as initially presented in the Times article suggest that this episode is yet another example of a growing problem. As Washington Post contributor Daniel Drezner discusses in his new book, “The Ideas Industry,” the key sources of policy ideas are increasingly beholden to big funders, who very often have their own financial interests.
Storey’s comment was repulsive. Yet the conservative world, always so quick to protect offensive speech, was strangely indifferent to his firing, and to Lynn’s. To quote Roy Edroso:
Look up “free speech” at Chicks on the Right, and you’ll find literally hundreds of stories, mostly about how campus leftists and SJWs are trying to suppress speech and speakers they find offensive (“Student government’s response? Free speech? That might hurt people’s FEEEEEEEEELINGS”). They are especially warm for the speech rights of controversial wingnuts such as Milo Yiannopoulos, as when he was deprived of his constitutionally protected access to Twitter by their “glorified speech police,” and they are of course right on top of every conservative campus speech cause célèbre, such as Evergreen State …
Edroso notes that Chicks on the Right’s reaction to Storey’s firing was approval. They wrote: “It’s not often liberal professors get fired for their distasteful comments. Glad someone at the University of Tampa has some sense.”
Edroso concludes by replying:
If you forget everything else about these people, never forget that they’re totally full of shit. For them, free speech isn’t a principle, it’s just another tactic in their arsenal of victim poses.
Free speech matters to the far right. Except when it doesn’t.
As a large number of commenters both off and online have pointed out, the far right is in love with the free speech defense—what the subreddit /r/shitredditsays calls “freeze peaches”—when it suits them. May every single member of the Weird Twitter circle forgive me for quoting the web comic xkcd, but it’s just that important. On April 18, 2014, Randall Munroe wrote this:
The right to free speech means the government can’t arrest you for what you say. It doesn’t mean that anyone else has to listen to your bullshit, or host you while you share it. The 1st Amendment doesn’t shield you from criticism or consequences. If you’re yelled at, boycotted, have your show canceled, or get banned from an Internet community, your free speech rights aren’t being violated. It’s just that the people listening think you’re an asshole, and they’re showing you the door
The far right, as usual, wants everything for itself, and nothing for others. The free speech defense is the ultimate escape valve, because it accomplishes two things at once: it allows them to troll libs, and to say whatever hurtful, ignorant thing they like.
But they don’t believe in actual free speech. There are three vises of free speech in this country. The far right believes in using all three of them.
The first vise, as Munroe points out, is the government. The government can’t put you in a headlock for preaching offense. The far right loves the government when it prosecutes leakers; they hate that information about our war crimes sees the light of day. Storey’s example is instructive. State universities are public institutions, funded by the government. Why wasn’t the far right concerned about the government relieving this guy of his position? They do not believe in free speech in the first case.
The second vise is private centers of power—the corporations and businesses most Americans work for. Either you believe in worker protections for speech, or you don’t believe in them at all. The crucial question here is, should people be fired if they say something that their employer dislikes?
Conservatives are absolutely, one-hundred percent fine with your boss controlling what you say in the workplace. It’s strange, then, that the far right wept so much when James Damore got axed by Google. They were fine with the Florida professor’s dismissal, but not Damore’s. They were in love with Damore’s beliefs, and love blinds your eyes. Even those of us who despise Damore’s viewpoints disagreed with the principle of being fired at-will by employers. The far right has no such consistency. They only care when it’s one of their own who gets slapped down. They do not believe in free speech in the second case.
The third vise, and the most powerful, is Mrs. Grundy. “Mrs. Grundy” is a British term, referring to the force of social approval. Mrs. Grundy is the unspoken code of communal rules which dictate our behavior in public, the nagging whisper of “But what will the neighbors think?” Here again, the far right is strangely compromised. When Mrs. Grundy informs them they cannot make racist jokes, they are aghast. “Wow, thought police much?”
Mrs. Grundy allows the far right to claim that they are rebels, that they are triggering liberals, beating political correctness, etc. But I ask you, who is more likely to take offense at the smallest trifle, but a member of the far right? Who assembled to defend a dead man’s statue in Charlottesville? Who was offended by Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction many Superbowls ago? Who screams when a politician wants to get onstage without a flag lapel? Who will never forgive Colin Kaepernick for not engaging in reflexive performative nationalistic bullshit? Who fetishizes the power of cars to run down protesters who are literally enacting the First Amendment? The far right. The far right do not resent the power of Mrs. Grundy at all; they merely covet it for their own. Duck Dynasty forever, Kaepernick never. They do not believe in free speech in the third case.
What remains then? An obvious conclusion: The far right are not serious about free speech, in principle or in deed. They only care about its consequences. It’s not enough that the law gives us freedom to speak; the far right wants you obligated to listen. They are endlessly offended that their words are no longer the law of society, and their retrograde bullshit is no longer taken at face value. To paraphrase Edroso again, the far right are preachers for the free market, who are offended by what the free market brings them.
At some deep, bird-seeking-north level, they understand that the tide of culture has forever shifted against them. Any time there is a legitimate free speech question, where marginalized people are denied the chance to speak, what happens? The far right is inevitably found on the other side, shouting them down. They believe in free speech like the IRS believes in Tax Day: about once a year, according to their own convenience.