Harsanyi: Be worried about the future of free speech
‘Ads That Perpetuate Gender Stereotypes Will Be Banned in U.K., but Not in the Good Ol’ USA!” reads a recent headline on the website Jezebel. Yay to the good ol’ USA for continuing to value the fundamental right of free expression, you might say. Or maybe not.
Why would a feminist — or anyone, for that matter — celebrate the idea of empowering bureaucrats to decide how we talk about gender stereotypes? Because these days, foundational values mean increasingly little to those who believe hearing something disagreeable is the worst thing that could happen to them.
Sometimes you need a censor, this Jezebel writer points out, because nefarious conglomerates like “Big Yogurt” have been “targeting women for decades.” She, and the British, apparently, don’t believe that women have the capacity to make consumer choices or the inner strength to ignore ads peddling probiotic yogurts.
This is why the U.K. Committee of Advertising Practice (and, boy, it takes a lot of willpower not to use the cliche “Orwellian” to describe a group that hits it on the nose with this kind of ferocity) is such a smart idea. It will ban, among others, commercials in which family members “create a mess, while a woman has sole responsibility for cleaning it up,” ones that suggest that “an activity is inappropriate for a girl because it is stereotypically associated with boys, or vice versa,” and ones in which “a man tries and fails to perform simple parental or household tasks.”
If you believe this kind of thing is the bailiwick of the state, it’s unlikely you have much use for the Constitution. I’m not trying to pick on this one writer. Acceptance of speech restrictions is a growing problem among millennials and Democrats. For them, opaque notions of “fairness” and “tolerance” have risen to overpower freedom of expression in importance.
You can see it with TV personalities like Chris Cuomo, former Democratic Party presidential hopeful Howard Dean, mayors of big cities and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It is Sen. Dianne Feinstein arguing for hecklers’ vetoes in public university systems. It’s major political candidates arguing that open discourse gives “aid and comfort” to our enemies.
If it’s not Big Yogurt, it’s Big Oil or Big Somethingorother. Democrats have for years campaigned to overturn the First Amendment and ban political speech because of “fairness.” This position and its justifications all run on the very same ideological fuel. Believe it or not, though, allowing the state to ban documentaries is a bigger threat to the First Amendment than President Donald Trump’s tweets mocking CNN.
It’s about authoritarians like Laura Beth Nielsen, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University and research professor at the American Bar Foundation, who argues in favor of censorship in a major newspaper like Los Angeles Times. She claims that hate speech should be restricted, and that “Racist hate speech has been linked to cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and requires complex coping strategies.” Nearly every censor in the history of mankind has argued that speech should be curbed to balance out some harmful consequence. And nearly every censor in history, sooner or later, kept expanding the definition of harm until the rights of their political opponents were shut down.
When I was young, liberals would often offer some iteration of the quote misattributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
You don’t hear much of that today. You’re more likely to hear “I disapprove of what you say, so shut up.” Idealism isn’t found in the notions of enlightenment but in identity and indignation. And if you don’t believe this demand to mollycoddle every notion on the left portends danger of freedom of expression, you haven’t been paying attention.
David Harsanyi is a senior editor at the Federalist.