What Free Speech v. Social Justice Debates Are Really About

A defense of line-drawing

Are debates about free speech and social justice primarily about whether speech should be free, or about which speech should be socially acceptable? And does this distinction matter?

Writing about free speech in City Journal, Oliver Traldi criticizes me and other proponents of what he calls “the line-drawing argument,” which he describes like this:

the debate isn’t really about free speech or censorship, because everyone agrees that some speech should be restricted. Instead, the debate is about “where to draw the line” — about just how bad speech must be, how much harm it must cause or how easily it must be proven false or destructive, to merit restriction.

I’d say it’s also about appropriate responses to speech one deems over the line—government action? job loss? deplatforming? pointed criticism? polite discussion? silent acceptance?—but otherwise, that’s close enough.

Traldi rejects this argument, dismissing line-drawing as arbitrary, almost nihilistic. It’s premised, he says, on waving “away free speech and censorship as irrelevant,” and “if the line-drawing argument is right, then it would not be an affront to free speech to ban, for instance, pornography, criticism of Israel, advocacy of Communism, or negative newspaper articles about certain public figures.” Taking this further, Traldi asserts that “by the logic of the line-drawing argument… no moral or political debate could ever be about anything.”

This misunderstands the line-drawing argument. It’s not based on the absence of principle. Without any principles, how could one draw lines? I suppose it could be based entirely on power and self-interest — whatever benefits me goes on the acceptable side of the line, and whatever doesn’t, including people doing exactly what I do but in ways that don’t benefit me, goes on the other — but while some may think that, or at least act like they do, I don’t. And any principle, including free speech, can be abused like that (I can say whatever I want and you can’t criticize me for it).

Nor is this particular exercise in line-drawing based on the belief that free speech has no moral value. Quite the opposite. Line-drawing arises — indeed, I’d argue, becomes necessary — when different moral principles are in tension. In this case, one must think free speech is in general good, and expression that causes harm (e.g. bigotry) is in general bad, such that society should tolerate some harmful expression in the name of free speech and restrict some speech in the name of reducing harm.

But which speech? And restricted how?

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Using one of Traldi’s examples, it’s easy to believe banning pornography would be an affront to free speech and still support penalties for child pornography. You don’t have to declare free speech irrelevant to ban child pornography, you just have to think that, in this specific instance, the value of harm reduction outweighs the value of free speech.

You can think that and still oppose bans on criticizing Israel or advocating communism, because those are political expressions, and laws against them would be a greater affront to free speech than laws against child pornography. And if you oppose laws against political expression — such as new red state bills cracking down on protests or preventing universities from teaching “divisive concepts” — you can still find some expressions harmful and advocate negative reactions like denunciation or shunning, because social penalties are less an affront to free speech than government bans.

In other words, you weigh various factors and draw lines.

About “About”

Traldi doesn’t just dispute the line-drawing argument, he finds the entire exercise suspect:

In general, we should be skeptical of people who try to argue by attempting to shift our sense of what some debate or event is “about.” “Aboutness” itself isn’t about much of anything. When someone starts haranguing about what some debate is or isn’t about, interpret it as a sign of what they do or don’t want to talk about.

Here’s why I think this “about” discussion has value (including Traldi’s contribution): Figuring out what a debate is actually about — where the real points of contention lie — can focus it, and change it from a preaching-to-the-choir competition among mutually hostile camps into a dialogue that can produce something actionable.

In this case, it’s not wrong to say the debate falls between the poles of free speech and harm reduction. It is, however, not especially productive to debate those two things at an abstract, ideological level.

For a while, I’ve watched this debate — social justice vs. anti-SJW, woke v. anti-woke, free speech, cancel culture, whatever you want to call it — and found it quite frustrating, because it’s dominated by ideologues with a tendency to hyperbolize and catastrophize, features a lot of nutpicking and performative dunking, and involves more yelling past each other than engaging each other’s ideas.

I think both sides of this debate make some good points, but are prone to excess, and include loud advocates who sound absurd. Referring to fights over statues, I described the latter as “two dueling, symbiotic moral panics.” I know some readers will bristle at this “Both Sides” stance, but while I don’t think the two are identical and equivalent, I reject claims that this is a zero-sum battle for the future of civilization, and that everyone must pick one of only two possible choices. I do not see culture as war.

I observe these discussions, and see participants — many of whom mistake what happens to cross their social media feeds for What Everyone Thinks — talking past each other, as if another reiteration of the ideological claim (racism is bad!; free speech is good!) will solve the problem. So yes, it’s fair to accuse me of trying to shape what others talk about. I want people involved in this debate to talk specifics.

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Most people think both free speech and harm reduction are good values. That’s why restating the goodness of one or the other does little to move the discussion forward. It ducks the harder, and therefore more important, question of how to balance values when they come into conflict, and fails to recognize that this varies by case.

This is why it’s worth noting that much of the free speech camp accepts treating some speech as over the line, unwelcome in mainstream society, and meriting some social sanction (e.g. the n-word, Holocaust denial). If there’s some property of those expressions that people deem offensive that makes shunning them okay, and that property is absent from other expressions people deem offensive, which makes shunning them not okay, it’d be more productive to identify that property than to claim shunning any speech is wrong when you evidently don’t believe that.

For example, a lot of the speech-harm debate concerns gender identity, especially regarding trans people. Some say statements like “there are only two genders, it’s fixed at birth, and anyone who says otherwise has mental issues” should be treated similar to statements like “the Holocaust never happened, it’s just a lie Jews tell to manipulate you.” Others disagree, and think those statements belong on opposite sides of the socially acceptable line.

In my lifetime, the anti-gay slur “f****t” moved from one side of the line to the other. It happened not by government edict, but by argument, activism, representation in art, and social sanction. I think that’s a positive development — it’s a meanspirited word, one that treats a class of people as inherently less than — and if you disagree, if you think this cultural change is an unacceptable violation of free speech, then say why the anti-gay slur is categorically different from anti-black slurs. But if you agree that the decline in usage of “f****t” is, on balance, a societal improvement, you acknowledge that it isn’t inherently wrong for people to try to shift how society treats some expressions.

Anti-trans expressions appear to be following a similar trajectory, as is treatment of trans people in comedy and other art. If you think it’s going too far—if some aspect is different from anti-gay expressions that used to be socially acceptable but now aren’t, such that free speech outweighs one but not the other—then explain why.

It’s more productive to identify and examine your line — or, really, lines — than to say “free speech” and call it a day.

Details Matter

Traldi’s piece mentions only one specific case: “Alexi McCammond, appointed as editor of Teen Vogue before being fired for decade-old anti-Asian tweets.” (Technically she resigned, but did so under pressure, which is close enough). I also criticized Teen Vogue’s decision, which makes this a useful case to demonstrate the value of line-drawing.

For Traldi, Teen Vogue pushing out McCammond violated the principle of free speech, social media users circulating McCammond’s old tweets and calling for Teen Vogue to fire her violated free speech, and violating free speech is wrong.

I think that’s part of it, but the appeal to abstract principle does not provide guidelines for socially acceptable behavior (other than don’t do what Teen Vogue and these social media users did). Traldi, like many who argue along these lines, seems to think it’s obvious what’s wrong here, and how someone who believes in free speech would’ve acted differently. But it’s not. One reason it isn’t obvious is this argument partially contradicts itself, deeming speech such as “Alexi McCammond hates Asians, Teen Vogue needs to fire her” over the line; maybe not to the point that anyone who said it should lose their job, but at least that it should be frowned upon, with more social pressure against doing it.

For me, the problem in the McCammond case is a mismatch between consequence and behavior. In particular, (1) she was 17 years old, (2) it was ten years ago, (3) the statements, while wrong, weren’t that bad, and (4) she acknowledged those tweets as wrong and publicly apologized for them long before being considered for editor-in-chief. Given all that, pushing her out of the job seems overly harsh.

Here are two of the decade-old comments that got McCammond in hot water: “Now googling how to not wake up with swollen, asian eyes” and “Give me a 2/10 on my chem problem, cross out all of my work and don’t explain what i did wrong… thanks a lot stupid asian T.A. you’re great.”

I think most would agree with me, many of McCammond’s critics, and McCammond herself that these contain elements of anti-Asian bigotry, that society would be better off with less bigotry, and that, as far as bigoted expressions go, it’s relatively mild.

Does Traldi think any of these factors matter? Doesn’t say. Rejects this sort of line-drawing question.

What if she wrote the same things this year, at 27, instead of ten years ago as a minor? For me, that makes a substantial difference. If it were recent, it’d be reasonable for Teen Vogue to see it as a sign that she might act in a bigoted way towards Asians who work under her, might make various coworkers uncomfortable, and, at minimum, lacks the PR savvy to protect and advance the magazine’s brand. But since it was a long time ago, and she was a teenager, that’s not the case.

Does Traldi think recency and age are irrelevant? Doesn’t say. Rejects this sort of line-drawing question.

Choosing to hire or fire someone is free association, choosing to call for someone’s firing is free speech, and if we’re going to tell people they’re wrong to exercise their rights of association and speech in this manner, it’s important to articulate what, exactly, is wrong about it.

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With McCammond, what’s wrong is not that she faced consequences for speech per se — that’s too broad — but that it’s wrong to treat offensive speech from teenagers as a permanent stain for which there can be no forgiveness. Thanks to smartphones and social media, a lot of teenage behavior that once disappeared into the past now gets recorded, and can go viral. Treating it as a permanent stain denies people the ability to grow up, learn, apologize and do better.

This is a more specific and actionable standard, because it draws a line (in this case between minors and adults). And yet it’s still full of variables. What, exactly, is just dumb teenage behavior? Is there teenage speech so far over the line that some adult consequences, such as difficulty getting a job they’re otherwise qualified for, is appropriate? (Repeated, passionate defenses of Hitler or of lynching, perhaps?) If something is over the “yes, that’s bigotry” line, but falls short of the “such egregious bigotry that it should follow a teenager into adulthood” line,  like Alexi McCammond’s posts, then which reactions are appropriate and which are (here we go again), over the line?

In Search of a Widely Acceptable Balance

Consider a more difficult case than McCammond’s. Earlier this year, Disney fired Mandalorian actress Gina Carano over social media posts, including some that critics identified as antisemitic, transphobic, or promoting lies about 2020 election results. Carano is an adult and the posts in question are recent, so principles from the McCammond case don’t apply. She lost a job over expression outside of work, which violates the principle of free speech. It was partially a reaction to online criticism, which displays an illiberal mobbing effect, but the individuals involved are expressing themselves, and stifling that would also be illiberal. Her job involved publicity, and telling Disney it cannot factor in how her behavior affects its brand, and that there’s a moral obligation to keep paying her no matter how they think she’s hurting their bottom line, would violate the principles of free association and free enterprise.

How should we balance these principles? Which sort of expressions should be acceptable such that, even if you passionately disagree, even if you find them hateful, no one should be fired for them? (Example: “Donald Trump is the best and if you didn’t vote for him you’re un-American.”) Which justify non-governmental sanction, such as harsh criticism, shunning, or even job loss? (I’d put slurs like “n****r” and “f****t” here). And which are in a gray area, where it should be a judgment call by those involved, such that it’s more appropriate to react with “I’m not sure I agree, but it’s up to them” than with “this is awful, another sign They are taking over, free speech is dead”? (This is where I think the Carano case belongs).

If your response to these questions is “we just need to honor free speech,” you’re not providing an actionable answer. It might be satisfying in a structured debate, but it’s of limited use to corporations, media organizations, and social media users navigating nuanced situations in a time of changing social norms, not all of which are unreasonable.