I found some exceptions to that rule yesterday on Twitter during the truly incredible fracas over the amazingly benign letter a number of prominent liberal media types signed for Harper's Magazine. The letter made the argument, which should be entirely non-controversial, that free speech is a valuable thing in American society and that the robust exchange of ideas should be encouraged, even when those ideas are contrary to current liberal orthodoxy.
The letter itself was full of generalities and platitudes, but sprinkled in some apparently highly controversial statements like, "We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms."
If you had slept through the last 10 years or so, you might think that these statements could not possibly generate controversy. Who, in America, would speak out publicly against the very idea that both sides of an issue deserve a public airing?
Enter some of the Vox colleagues of Matt Yglesias, who signed the letter. Apparently, Yglesias' decision to sign such a letter was so disturbing to these individuals that they not only felt the need to tell him they disagreed with him, but they actually went public with what amounted to HR complaints against Yglesias for literally making them feel less safe in their workplace.
I am not kidding.
I sent a version of this to the editors of Vox. (I have redacted some bits that are internal to Vox and shouldn’t b… https://t.co/zm2gtCx85w— Emily VanDerWerff 😎 (@Emily VanDerWerff 😎) 1594149131.0
Now, the Harper's letter is three paragraphs long. I have read it several times. It does not refer to transgenderism at all, even obliquely. In fact, there are no issues whatsoever in particular that are discussed. It doesn't discuss abortion, taxes, spending, foreign policy, LGBTQ issues, or any specific issues of any kind. There are no dog whistles of any sort, unless you think that the concept of free speech is an anti-trans dog whistle.
I feel very strongly about some political issues that affect us in this day and age. I feel even more strongly that people who disagree with me should be allowed to say so without losing their freedom or their jobs. If people want to go on Twitter and say that we should raise taxes, drastically increase government spending, keep America locked down forever, or anything else I disagree with, then I encourage them to do so. I will disagree with them, but I believe in the benefit of allowing their beliefs to be aired. People who are on the fence should be able to choose.
And that also goes for my coworkers. I disagree with them, a lot. It is a daily occurrence that someone who works for this company says or does something in public that I don't agree with. But as a grown adult, I understand that they don't speak for me, that I am capable of speaking for myself, and the fact that I work with people who disagree with me about some things does not make me in any way less safe or valued as an employee.
Belief in the free exchange of ideas is perhaps the core concept of America. Our Founders enshrined the right to free speech in the Constitution to ensure that individuals would be free from harassment from their government for participating in that exchange of ideas.
Obviously, it's a different animal when the pressure applied against speech is not exerted by government but rather by a mob of angry Twitterati. No one is suggesting that cancel culture should be illegal or that it should be illegal for businesses to fire people who are caught up in the midst of it. But its very existence is antithetical to the values that make America — or any free society, for that matter — great.
That also goes, by the way, for Yglesias' painfully fragile coworkers. They're entitled to publicly air an opinion, even if I consider it to be a fundamentally un-American one. Whether they keep their jobs or not is between them and their employer. I will say that I hope that if any action is taken against them, it isn't because of the content of what they said, but rather because they chose to engage in grossly unprofessional behavior by essentially tweeting their HR complaints about a fellow employee for the whole world to see before the company had the chance to act on it.
A society that immediately hounds anyone who is guilty of wrongthink into perpetual unemployment cannot be said to value free speech, or even freedom itself, even if cancel culture isn't or shouldn't be illegal. The people who disagree with this don't just disagree with my opinions about public policy, they disagree with one of the core values of a free society.
The people who signed the letter in Harper's are, for the most part, people whom I disagree with about almost everything from a political standpoint, but they aren't enemies of America. The people who are criticizing them, however, are.