Published June 7, 2020
If you’ve followed the news in recent weeks, you’ll have noticed that the Left’s social-justice brigades have not cooled in their passion for banishing speech with which they disagree. But these days have also revealed a more dangerous tactic: conscripting speech by means of social pressure. Instead of enforcing strict silence, progressives aim to craft a public square in which we are all obliged to echo their views.
It is abundantly clear that social-justice activists — and, increasingly, mainstream left-wing Americans — do not intend to relent in wielding the cultural power of rage mobs to erase all trace of contrary opinions. Consider three examples from the last week alone.
The New York Times published an op-ed by Republican senator Tom Cotton, arguing that the president should invoke the Insurrection Act, sending federal troops to help restore order across the country. In response, reporters and editors at the Times took to Twitter to insist that the paper must “retract” Cotton’s op-ed as it “puts Black New York Times staff in danger.”
Failing to offer an iota of evidence that the article contained substantial errors, they and other journalists asserted en masse that Cotton’s argument causes literal danger, leveraging their social power to insist that the Times is morally obligated to rectify the mistake of having published it. It worked.
By nightfall on Thursday, a spokesperson for the Times had faulted the paper for inadequately fact-checking the op-ed — without identifying a factual error — and promised, in essence, that nothing of the sort would happen again. Eventually, a lengthy editor’s note was appended to the piece, saying, among other things, that it shouldn’t have been published at all.
Earlier last week, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees offered his opinion that he would never support kneeling during the National Anthem, suggesting that to do so is “disrespectful.” Within a day, Brees had knelt before the livid masses, offering not one but two obsequious apologies for having voiced this supposedly insensitive view.
Finally, on Thursday, a progressive writer at Vox was bullied by his peers on the Left into deleting tweets that acknowledged he had been wrong to think campus silencing tactics would stay confined to the campus. The irony was breathtaking to behold.
Over the course of the same few hours, one of his colleagues at Vox was shamed into apologizing for having uttered the heretical view that perhaps rushing to defund or abolish the police — as activists are now demanding — might not be the most prudent course of action.
As Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, restrictive speech taboos that were once confined to college campuses have reached the professional ranks. We are witnessing the “woke” brigades, trained in shutting down speech on college campuses, grown up and working alongside us in the real world, striving to cancel any of us who would dare offend their delicate sensibilities. A quip from our own Michael Brendan Dougherty aptly summarizes their absurd position: “Opeds are violence, acts of arson are opeds.”
But the Left’s view of speech is growing more insidious even than that. As the current social unrest has unfolded, vast numbers of Americans have taken to the streets to peacefully protest the unjust killing of George Floyd — a laudable choice, if a bit surprising in light of the global pandemic — or to engage in vandalism, looting, and arson. Many more have taken to social media to promote Black Lives Matter and fundraise for bail funds to release rioters from jail. Almost uniformly, these culture warriors have begun parroting the troubling notion that “silence is complicity,” demanding that we all vocally sign on to their agenda.
According to this view, if you fail to use your platform to speak out about the progressive issue du jour, you are guilty of perpetrating injustice against the oppressed. It is our civic responsibility and obligation to “educate ourselves” — by which they mean accepting and memorizing the prevailing progressive dogma — and then to repeat what we’ve learned, faithful comrades in their holy war.
On one hand, then, progressives work to ensure that contrary beliefs are disallowed in polite discourse. On the other, they insist that we are compelled by the demands of justice to speak publicly about every social-justice issue. If we articulate a view that challenges the progressive creed, they will drum us out of polite company. If we do not speak at all, we are guilty of sinning by omission.
What are we to make of these two contrasting tactics?
The only way to reconcile them is in an insidious belief: that each and every one of us must speak — so as not to be complicit in evil — but only to utter the words that the progressive movement puts in our mouths. The result is ideological servitude, a society in which a culturally powerful, tyrannical minority owns the voice of every person willing to go along.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.