Is There A Free Speech Crisis On The Left?

Today, I’m going to talk about the part of the recent Micahel Shermer interview on the Rubin Report, where Shermer and Rubin discussed things around free speech. Shermer presented a history of the Left’s support for free speech, from the early 20th century, through to the Free Speech movement by 1960s student activists. He illustrated that it was only more recently that the Left began to turn against free speech. I would even argue that it is an extremely recent phenomenon. Back when I was in college, the Left certainly tolerated a lot more of free speech, on issues from Bush-43’s Iraq War, to gay marriage, and even rap music and video games. So, yes, I may be a lot younger than Shermer, but even I grew up in a world where the Left were relatively more tolerant of free speech and dissent than the Right. To this day, I still feel weird about some people on the Right championing free speech, while some people on the Left champion so-called ‘safe speech’.

But is it true that, the Left doesn’t support free speech anymore, that it has become what the Right used to be, shutting down dissent and so on? I don’t necessarily think so. Just in the last year, we saw Tulsi Gabbard, who is clearly on the Left, make free speech one of the big issues of her campaign for the Democratic nomination. Furthermore, if you dive deeper into their politics, you will see that many online free speech activists actually have left-leaning economic views. And then, there’s the anti-PC left, represented by new media, which has been gaining a lot of strength in the past 2 years. In other words, the culture of free speech and dissent is alive and well on the Left. What I think is happening, is that a small minority of loud individuals and well organized groups in the Marcusean and postmodernist part of the Left, are pushing the narrative that Shermer described, like how certain speech is harmful, and how harmful speech (even where it isn’t hateful) is a form of violence and so on. This is all based in Marcusean critical theory and postmodernist thinking, but these ideas are certainly not accepted by the whole of the Left.

I get the feeling that the majority of the Left probably don’t agree with this ‘controversial speech equals violence’ view. However, they don’t feel like pushing back either, perhaps because they think that it distracts from the economic issues, or perhaps because they fear that certain activists may come after them. This gives the false impression that the whole Left is now in agreement with this essentially fringe view.

As a Trad Lib, i.e. a ‘traditionalist liberal’, I think that we can advocate for New Deal style economics and free speech at the same time. We don’t have to apologize for being a free speech absolutist, even as we advocate for things like a UBI and universal health care. There’s no reason why these things don’t go together. As I said in the last episode, in this brave new world of politics, where the traditional left and right factions are breaking into pieces, and where many of us increasingly identify as neither Left nor Right, it is much easier to stand up for what your own conscience believes. And my own conscience certainly believes there is not enough free speech right now. Just ask yourself, have there been times in the past year where you wanted to say something but didn’t dare to say it, for fear of possible backlash or worse? There definitely have been times like these for me, and it’s only increasing in frequency. While I care about the economic issues, I’m equally concerned about the state of free speech and the free market of ideas, and I can’t pretend to not care. As Trad Libs, we can stay true to our values, both by supporting New Deal style economics, and by opposing the influence of critical theory and postmodernism. For me, personally, it is two parts of the same goal, the goal of restoring the liberal ideal as it existed before 1968 or so, before the post-68 cultural radicals and economic neoliberals alike ruined it.

Finally, I would like to remind people like Rubin and Shermer that, while the Right has come a long way in terms of free speech, they are still far from perfect there. Just last year, conservative intellectual Sohrab Ahmari kept making a big deal about the need for government intervention into culture. My argument was that, while you can certainly disagree with ‘Drag Queen Story Hour’, government intervention would still constitute a violation of free speech, and the widespread sympathy for Ahmari’s position is of concern for libertarians of all stripes. While I certainly think the libertarian-Right is an important and worthy partner for us Trad Libs going forward on the issue of free speech, I still have my concerns about the authoritarian-Right.

Originally published at

TaraElla is a singer-songwriter, independent journalist and author, who is passionate about free speech, liberty and equality. She is the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which focus on developing a moral case for freedom-based politics in the 21st century.



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