There are two further issues surrounding free speech from a leftist viewpoint. One has to do with power, and the other has to do with fascism.
First, power—and in this context, I mean not just political power, but wealth and celebrity, too. These things give people more access to free speech than an ordinary person has; they can afford a megaphone, so to speak. That isn’t necessarily unjust, but it does mean that the powerful have a disproportionate amount of control over what ideas get megaphoned. Which in turn means that ideas which would be a threat to their power, wealth, or celebrity are likely to get sidelined, no matter what the actual merits of those ideas are. This is not the same thing as censorship, the active suppression of speech by force of law. Nonetheless, it can achieve the same effects, depending on the power of the person controlling The Discourse™.
Is this a bad thing? Well, conservatives certainly complain about it a lot, at lest when it’s universities and the media that are doing the controlling in question. But the truth is, it depends. How did the powerful, the wealthy, and the famous come by these privileges? Are they lending these things to viewpoints that endanger people? Are they suppressing messages that are true and important, but inconvenient or unprofitable? Are they doing the opposite? Are they fostering a real diversity of viewpoints, or are they merely using “free speech” as a legal loophole to promote messages that enhance their profits and prestige?
Speaking of loopholes. One of the weaknesses of the classical Liberal approach to free speech is—unintentionally and sort of indirectly—summed up in a sonorous quote from Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1779:
Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself … she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate …
It’s not only stirring rhetoric, but an attractive idea. But the thing is, when the means of disseminating ideas are controlled by the powerful, humans are interposing. And whether that’s affecting The Discourse™ or not, the view articulated here by Jefferson relies on an unspoken assumption: that all of the participants are acting in good faith. But if a person is skilled at using manipulation and subtext, they can make bad ideas credible. It doesn’t take a lot of dishonesty to wreck the Liberal system, because that system not only relies on honesty, it also willingly attributes it to people.
And fascists rely on that to spread their ideas. They know perfectly well1 that the Left will call them out for their racist, violent beliefs, but they also know that they can tug on Liberal heartstrings by accusing leftists of trying to silence them; and then the Dave Rubins of the world will respond by giving them time on a new platform, with access to that platform’s audience. Fascists spread in other ways too, but this is one of the most important and destructive, because it lets them slowly turn the heat up—make things like casual racism and xenophobic sentiment just a little more mainstream, a little more acceptable, a little more cool—while everyone else still thinks everything is normal. That is why left-wing antifascists are so insistent on deplatforming, as well as criticizing. Giving fascists media power helps them gain political power, and when fascists gain political power, people die.2
If that sounds like a hysterical reaction to our current political situation, well, I’d point back to Bari Weiss, whom I mentioned in the opening of this series. What she drew criticism for was choosing to publish an op-ed in the New York Times penned by Tom Cotton, a sitting Senator, in which he advocated using the military to suppress political protests in American cities.
1 Remember, fascism first took shape in the early twentieth century, during a period of foment between Liberal, leftist, and nationalist ideas in Europe. A lot of early fascists had previously been active in other radical groups, often left-wing ones. Strategically manipulating Liberals and the Left is part of fascist DNA.
2Olly Thorn’s video on antifa goes into a much better explanation of this whole subject. Skip to 39:58 for the discussion of fascist rhetoric and manipulation of Liberalism.