In his latest Netflix comedy special, Dave Chappelle deftly addresses a number of the most sacred cows in American life: abortion, gun control, and—of course—race. Given that Chappelle sets his sights on nearly every interest group in the country, one might expect that Chappelle’s critics would come from all corners of the political spectrum. Instead, those decrying Chappelle’s act have come almost exclusively from the political left.
Of course, there is a significant difference between simply not liking one’s art and calling for the artist’s platform to be removed. That distinction appears to have been lost in the eyes of many of today’s keyboard warriors. Cancel culture has gotten so out of control that Steve Carrell has stated that The Office—likely the most popular show on Netflix—probably couldn’t be made today. The title of Chappelle’s special, Sticks and Stones, is itself seemingly a jab at the growing number of people who apparently never heard the children’s rhyme.
While conservatives have long had a reputation for being uptight prudes, progressive puritans are increasingly the gatekeepers of acceptable ideas. Today, Americans across the political spectrum are increasingly afraid to speak their mind. On college campuses, conservatives are highly reluctant to speak up during class discussions related to race, politics, and gender out of fear of retribution from professors and classmates.
It wasn’t always this way. The term “free-speech movement” is synonymous with campus protests that took place at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s. The students involved in those protests generally affiliated themselves with the New Left, and advocated positions that certainly were not considered conservative.
Given all the recent attention that has been paid to attacks on conservative speakers, it’s easy to see how those on the political left might think that free-speech advocates are motivated simply by partisan interests. But as Jonathan Rauch writes in Kindly Inquisitors, free-speech restrictions have targeted all sorts of minorities. Throughout history, those in power have attempted to silence minorities based on their religion, gender, and race. David Yager, the president of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, recently wrote, “Artists over the centuries have suffered censorship, and even persecution, for the expression of their beliefs through their work.” It is not typically conservatives who suffer the oppression of speech restrictions, but those on the creative fringes.
The issue of free speech is not a conservative or progressive issue. It is a wholly American one. The fact that conservative students are currently the most visible opponents of speech restrictions should not render free speech a partisan issue. America was founded on subversive, offensive speech. At different times in our history, both the left and the right have attempted to curb the freedom of speech. It is only through a nonpartisan commitment to the free exchange of ideas that the rights of all minorities can be protected.
I recently met with a state senator to discuss introducing legislation protecting free speech on my state’s public campuses. While the senator was receptive to the idea of the legislation, he expressed some hesitation over entering what is being increasingly seen as a partisan battle. It’s an unfortunate reality that one now has to defend charges of political favoritism when supporting one of our nation’s most cherished rights.
The Founding Fathers left little doubt as to how important freedom of speech was to the American Experiment, especially as it related to the most important issues of the day. George Washington told his army officers, "For if Men are to be precluded from offering their Sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences, that can invite the consideration of Mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of Speech may be taken away, and, dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.” As Washington understood, it is only through open debate on the most controversial of topics that America can flourish.
The inability to speak freely has real implications, especially on college campuses. Instead of dealing with the fallout that comes from discussing difficult topics in class, professors are dropping touchy subjects altogether. In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt cite a number of examples of professors—many self-described progressives—who have either been removed from their positions or voluntarily stepped down over controversial statements. Not only do these events cause a chilling effect on speech that will ripple across the country, they impede the search for truth that is at the very core of higher education’s mission.
Lukianoff and Haidt offer several reasons to explain how we’ve reached our current state of public discourse, where a difference in opinion leads to calls for silencing. One of their most convincing arguments is the fact that Americans are increasingly self-segregating based on political beliefs. Not only are we not living around people with different views, we are not even communicating with them.
I’ve seen this shift in our ability to disagree play out in my own life. In high school, I had regular, vociferous debates with several of my teachers. They also happened to be my favorite teachers and ended up writing my college recommendation letters. Today, however, it seems that all it takes is a minor policy disagreement before epithets are thrown and calls for silencing are made.
America remains the country with the greatest support for freedom of speech. But we seem to be losing our understanding of why that freedom is so vital. As Rauch explains, free speech goes hand-in-hand with the scientific method. Without the ability to question dogma and challenge orthodoxy, progress can never be made. Thomas Jefferson understood the vital nature of open inquiry, writing to his nephew, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” By succumbing to our fears of what might happen when speech is unrestricted, we lose the ability to reason, to weed out bad ideas, and to grow.
Americans do not need to agree on every subject, we don’t even need to agree on most of them. But if we can’t learn to disagree peacefully—to allow those who disagree with us to have their say, without resorting to physical violence—then our polarization will only increase. This is where Americans on all points of the political spectrum should find common ground.