A decade ago, I got a hard lesson in practical freedom. My summer boss—a famous media personality—told myself and the other interns that if we ever disagreed with him on any subject, he would debate us then and there—proof of his commitment to freedom of thought and speech. I took him on one day about a controversy in the news. He gave me the floor, then respectfully mopped the floor with me.
Today, he holds precisely the opposite position on that issue, loudly taking up my old position in recent months. (Perhaps someone more persuasive came along.) The practical freedom we had to reason together worked.
As turmoil has swept our streets and our Facebook feeds, we’ve lost sight of the importance of our free speech culture: human beings are both fallible and redeemable, so words can change minds and reorient hearts. But following horrific images of callous death mingled with riots and police tear gas, too many Americans are learning the wrong lesson about how we need to respond: say the wrong thing, or fail to say the right thing, and you might find yourself cancelled, life ruined, with no hope of redemption from your fifteen minutes of shame. While the formal First Amendment remains, the practical freedom to speak slips away.
As Tucker Carlson reported this week, 62 percent of likely voters have a favorable opinion of Black Lives Matter, an organization named after an incontrovertible fact that has been denied too often by the law.
I suspect there are many reasons for such significant public support, chiefly that the ends of law and order do not justify the means of police brutality, especially not when it was not long ago that this country explicitly subordinated blacks under the law. That utilitarian bargain of brutality for order, which has persisted in many American cities for generations, ignores the nature of beings created in the image of God—persons deserving equal protection, due process, and the freedom to speak and be heard.
Still, too many in the name of Black Lives Matter have neglected these universal principles, embracing the same utilitarian calculus they purport to resist. If you do not publicly support their specific platform, without reservation, you risk being made into an example. If you are in the path of a real or digital mob, your destruction may become a means to the ends of this cause. And many activists will say, “we tried speaking, we tried kneeling, and nothing changed.” So now a phalanx of activists and HR departments resort to policing speech while criticizing the police.
Carlson rightly pointed this out Monday night. In a monologue that drew over 4 million viewers—he truthfully reported that many people who respectfully disagreed with Black Lives Matter have been summarily cast out of their jobs, hit with a digital scarlet letter staining their Google results forever. But it got meta, fast: Carlson’s critique of Black Lives Matter for silencing anyone who critiqued Black Lives Matter was met with activists trying to silence him by threatening his advertisers.
Those who disagree with Carlson are doing a wonderful job proving him right.
There is no comparison between being cancelled and being killed. George Floyd will never take another breath, yet we cannot solve the deep interlocking problems that led to his torturous last eight minutes and forty-six seconds if we are more concerned about the consequences of our conversations than the consequences of the status quo for black men and women.
We may believe this time is different, that 2020's exhausting cycle of plague, protest, and purge is exceptional and justifies setting aside our normal tolerance. Wrong. The first half of 2020 follows the historical norm, where the Hobbesian wheel of oppressed and oppressor crushes dissent. What is exceptional—what we must do the work to preserve—are those fleeting periods where a culture of civility and free speech allows the flourishing of ideas for new frontiers of justice and peace.
Silencing your opponents fundamentally undermines social justice. Hard stop. This is true even if the argument they are making not only threatens your worldview but feels like it denies your right to exist. Denying their rights back solves nothing. The utilitarian logic, that we must turn the volume down on some people before they do it to us, has no end. After all, who gets the remote?
More important, muting your opponents will not change their minds or make them disappear. Too many people think politics works like a comic book movie, where winning an election or firing your opposition is like the snap of a finger that makes all the villains turn to dust minutes before the credits roll.
Wrong again. We have to live with the people who get cancelled, to share a country with them. Sooner or later, those who have been cancelled will become yet another aggrieved crowd. Just as an eye for an eye would leave the world blind, stamping out everyone you disagree with leaves the world talking without speaking, hearing without listening.
In case it wasn’t obvious, it was Tucker Carlson who debated me as an intern, and later changed his mind. And he is right: we must reaffirm that no person, organization, or cause, no matter how righteous, is above criticism or beyond persuasion, to make it possible to share a big, diverse nation once more.
T. Elliot Gaiser, of Ohio, is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.