Free Speech Advocates Are Often Hypocrites. This Doesn't Make the Cause Less Important.

Adults wearing tape over their mouths to show how they have been censored.
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Censorship has been getting more prevalent in the sciences, and it's driven heavily by scientists themselves. Those are the core findings in a new paper for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, led by behavioral scientist Cory Clark and co-authored by myself and colleagues from several disciplines. We found that the censorship—and self-censorship—is typically motivated by pro-social concerns, such as curbing misinformation or preventing harm to vulnerable populations.

Many on the left view concerns about free speech and viewpoint diversity as bad-faith attempts by privileged people to protect their privilege. According to this line of critique, straight white men were fine with exclusion and censorship until it started to affect people like themselves. Now that they find themselves on the receiving end of the stick, they're suddenly very righteous about open inquiry—at least insofar as it benefits them. Most still have little to say when leftists, anti-racists, queer scholars, and feminists find their freedoms under assault (as they regularly do). Conservatives who condemn DEI-based political litmus tests for hiring and promotion are often comfortable with Fox News witch-hunts against left-leaning professors or legislation that bans the teaching of views they dislike.

Let's grant that this happens. Many people are inconsistent in their support for open inquiry: They're not particularly concerned when views they oppose are censored but grow highly engaged when people and perspectives they support face suppression.

Even if people aren't concerned about a problem until it affects them, it's still a problem when they are, eventually, affected. The appropriate response to selective concern in one direction isn't selective concern in the other direction. That's a recipe for keeping anyone from enjoying a free atmosphere.

More broadly, it's an error to understand the interests of historically disadvantaged and historically dominant groups to be diametrically opposed. When people from historically privileged groups are facing censorship, that doesn't mean people in historically marginalized groups are actually being empowered.

Indeed, although censorial tendencies are frequently justified by the desire to protect vulnerable and underrepresented populations from offensive or hateful speech, speech restrictions generally end up enhancing the position of the already powerful at the expense of the genuinely marginalized and disadvantaged.

Hate speech laws, for instance, have consistently been turned by ruling parties against their opponents. They have regularly been used to justify surveillance and censorship of dissidents and advocates for civil rights and civil liberties—not just in the U.S., but around the world. Many free speech protections currently under assault from the right and the left were established in the 1960s to protect civil rights activism from censorship campaigns.

In the contemporary period, an analysis looking at firings since 2015 found that a majority of faculty dismissed for political speech have been aligned with the left. Female and minority faculty tend to be especially vulnerable to being fired for political speech, because they are significantly less likely to be tenured or tenure-track and are much more likely to teach at public schools, which are beholden to state legislatures and often to politically appointed trustees and governing boards. Hence, rules that make it easier to fire professors for speech deemed "offensive" disproportionately harm women and people of color.

Data from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression bear this out. They identified more than 1,000 attempts to punish professors for their speech since the turn of the century. Their findings show that, although white, male, and tenure-stream faculty are most likely to face sanction attempts, these are not the scholars who are most likely to get fired if they do end up targeted:

(Illustration: Lex Villena)
(Illustration: Lex Villena)

In a similar vein, academic research and audits by media outlets and government agencies consistently find that measures to restrict hate speech online tend to disproportionately silence racial and ethnic minorities, religious minorities, gender and sexual minorities, social justice activists, and political dissenters. Outcomes like these are not unusual outliers in otherwise beneficent and well-conceived systems. They are reflections of how censorial practices typically play out: They are almost invariably designed and enforced by people with power, and they are typically deployed against those with less power.

Alternatively, consider attempts to purge institutions of non-left perspectives. In general, immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities tend to be more religious and more culturally conservative than whites. The same tends to be true of people of more modest socioeconomic backgrounds in comparison to social elites. When an institution inculcates an environment that is hostile to more "traditional" values and worldviews, it may do this in the name of diversity and inclusion, but it will often have the perverse effect of excluding, alienating, and/or creating a more precarious situation for those who are already underrepresented and marginalized in elite spaces.

When we try to understand why so many immigrants, people of color, and people from low-income backgrounds feel as though they don't "belong" in knowledge-economy spaces—whether we're talking about elite K–12 schools, elite colleges, or professional settings—this is likely a big and underexplored part of the story. Rather than being insufficiently progressive, these institutions may instead be too homogenous in their progressive bearings. They may be too fiercely oriented around the ostensibly emancipatory belief systems of white elites.

Of course, even if the current dynamics did leave women, LGBTQ people, and nonwhites well-served, and even if it actually was primarily men, whites, cisgender heterosexuals, and non-left scholars who were most adversely affected, this would not entail that the situation is actually "good."

If the expressive environment for marginalized populations has long been bad, we should strive to help them enjoy the same freedoms enjoyed by dominant groups. The goal should not be to level down and ensure everyone faces the same oppression. Nor should anyone aspire to simply reverse the positions of the subaltern and the dominant, giving the formerly oppressed a chance to be the oppressors for a while.

The goal should be to liberate everyone. And the path forward is for everyone to be more principled, not to respond to the hypocrisy of one's opponents with hypocrisy of one's own.

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