You Have the Right to Remain Politically Silent

Stop compelling political speech

There is something to be said for the idea of “freedom from.” For example, any freedom of religion worth having implies a right not to be legally forced to join a church—which is another way of saying secularists have the legal right to make certain demands in the name of their freedom from religion. Also, in a tolerant society, atheists wouldn’t have to affirm any religious dogma in order in order to maintain their employment and social respectability.

Something similar can be said about another right guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: freedom of speech.

There is no “freedom from speech” in the sense of a right to silence others—that is for sure. But freedom of speech generally encompasses the right not to be legally forced to engage in political speech. And as in the case of religion there’s an important cultural corollary to this legal freedom: in a tolerant society, the social costs for maintaining political silence aren’t normally unbearable. A society in which people must affirm political doctrines in order to maintain employment and respectability is no better than one in which atheists must pretend to accept religion to get by.

Hyper-politicization undermines freedom of speech in this broader sense. If most major corporations, scientific organizations, universities, and other prominent entities are committed to political goals—especially the same political goals—then personal neutrality will be difficult or impossible to maintain. Many people will be conscripted into political speech when they’d rather remain silent. Some of this will be mere lip service, but presumably some people will actually rush to comply under social pressure. Some will resolve their cognitive dissonance by changing their convictions to be consistent with their assertions, rather than the other way around.

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How does politicization do this? One example comes from a friend of mine, a tenured philosophy professor in the U.S. whom I’ll keep anonymous. Last year, he declined to endorse a petition in favor of so-called “anti-racist pedagogy” circulating in his department because he thought it was racist in the traditional sense: its methods involved treating students differently according to race. My friend felt free to decline only because he had tenure. But he realized: sign or don’t sign, people will know where you stand. A junior colleague whose contract was up for renewal did sign it; my friend suspects this was because he was afraid to reveal his true views by not signing it. (I’ve since heard a similar story from someone else).

Here’s another example from academia. Last summer when the George Floyd protests were at peak intensity, I spoke to another academic who runs a small ethics center. He observed that every organization seemed to be issuing some sort of “anti-racist” statement. Indeed, my inbox was then filling up with emails making such statements, including one from the CEO of the sports equipment company Under Armour. This professor, who disagreed with these statements, said he nonetheless felt pressure to issue one. He resisted the temptation, but we can surmise from the flurry of signaling that some similarly situated people gave in.  

These episodes and others remind me of something that Vaclav Havel says in his essay about dissent in Communist Eastern Europe, “The Power of the Powerless”:

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. … He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.

Dissent in Communist-controlled Europe could bring severe punishment. But a society can be creepily authoritarian without any state coercion taking place. David Eggers’s novel, The Circle, illustrates this dystopian possibility. Personally, I’d rather pay a hefty fine, and even serve some time in prison, than permanently lose my job, my friends, and my reputation. Legally free speech doesn’t benefit us much when it’s well understood that all of this is at stake, and when every institution outside of the state conspires to bring us into line. Even totalitarian regimes usually rely on informal mechanisms like peer pressure to shore up state control.

The subtler point is that in a such a society, there’s no option not to signal something important about your political values. If every other shopkeeper on your street has a picture of Vladimir Lenin on his window, choosing not to hang one up broadcasts your dissent almost as loudly as if you had a sign reading: “I love capitalism!” You may at your peril decide that’s what you want to say. What you cannot do is say nothing. When a particular expression is expected from everyone, refusing to go along is automatically a countermessage. There’s no possibility of opting out of significant political communication altogether. We’re in danger of ending up in a society like this.

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Don’t people have the right to circulate petitions at work? Shouldn’t corporations be free to endorse political causes? Legally, individuals and organizations should be free in this way. But institutions need prudent policies. Scientific American should be free to endorse Joe Biden for president, but it would be better if scientific publications stayed clear of partisan politics. Likewise, corporations should resist the urge to join political choruses. Most places of work probably should have policies against political behavior in the workplace (such as circulating petitions). And I think it would be better if athletes weren’t put in the position of publicly having to stand for the anthem, kneel during it, or improvise some compromise like standing beside a kneeling colleague.

Politics has its place, but that place shouldn’t be everywhere, all the time. When politics is pervasive, it is worse. There must be space for political neutrality, and this means that we must be able to remain silent on political matters in most contexts without (too many) adverse social consequences.

One objection I’ll surely hear is that there’s no such thing as political neutrality; so-called neutrality is really an endorsement of the status quo. This view rests on an equivocation. It’s true that everything within society has some political significance. But it’s obvious that some activities are more political than others. Voter registration drives are more political than bowling club meet-ups, for instance. We can coherently say that society becomes more politicized as political activity intensifies, and that this intensification could have bad consequences.

We would do well to remember that in living memory the boot was on the other foot. Was it bad that in the 1950s people in Hollywood and in government lost their jobs for supposedly being subversive communists? The so-called “McCarthy era” is still talked about as a dark chapter in our nation's history, and a lot of it was indeed bad. But much of the compelled speech from that era strikes me as relatively tame compared with today’s. Consider the dreaded “loyalty oaths.” To take a prominent example, in 1949, the University of California board of regents demanded that employees swear to the following:

I do not believe in, and I am not a member of, nor do I support any party or organization that believes in, advocates, or teaches the overthrow of the United States Government, by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional means, that I am not a member of the Communist Party or under any oath or a party to any agreement or under any commitment that is in conflict with my obligations under this oath.

Substantively this required only that employees not support the illegal overthrow of the U.S. government (their employer), and that they not be members of the Communist Party, which at the time was credibly linked to Joseph Stalin. There is nothing there about being a Marxist, or even about having been a member of the Communist Party in the past. The board of regents didn't require applicants for university positions to submit their own statements about their personal opposition to Communism, or to detail their plans to resist Communism once employed. Today, however, applicants to University of California positions must include pro-diversity statements, ideally with those specifics. So in some respects we can say that the current moment is even less tolerant than the McCarthy era was. 

Dozens of people lost their jobs or resigned because they refused to sign this anti-Communist oath. According to an article on the episode in The Harvard Crimson, a group of 412 dissenters who refused to sign any loyalty oath, including a modified one, said the following in defense of their uncompromising stance:

Academic freedom means freedom of teachers and students to examine all theories in the light of the facts with complete assurance that no particular ideas are politically required or politically forbidden. A political test for academic employment forbids by decree the reaching of certain conclusions.

Today this sounds conservative because political tests at universities now favor left-wing positions. The idea of tolerating dissent generally sounds better to dissenters. But we should be consistent about this. We shouldn't appeal to one set of principles when we have the upper hand and another set when we don't. My contention here is that a culture in which institutions try to remain politically neutral for the most part would serve us best overall. 

The standard Miranda Warning that police give to suspects in their custody begins: "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” I think there’s a lot to be said for the right to say nothing. Sadly, as society increasingly politicizes, political silence becomes harder to maintain. And there’s reason to worry that what we say can and will be used against us in a different sort of court.