Free speech…free expression generally…is under attack in America and throughout the Western world to a degree not seen in a long time. I think there are seven specific phenomena, incarnated in seven (partially-overlapping) categories of people, which are largely driving this attack, to wit:
The Thugs. As I pointed out in my recent post The United States of Weimar?, illegal actions against political opponents–ranging from theft of newspapers to direct assault and battery–have in recent decades become increasingly common on university campuses, and now are well on track to being normalized as aspects of national political campaigns.
The Assassins. These individuals go beyond the level of violence practiced by the Thugs, and make credible death threats…which they attempt to carry out…against those whose actions or believe they view as unacceptable. The majority of threats and attacks falling in this category have certainly been the doing of radical Muslims; however, some of the more extreme ‘environmentalist’ and ‘animal rights’ groups have also demonstrated Assassin tendencies. At present, however, it is those Assassins who are radical Muslims who have been most successful in inhibiting free expression. Four years in hiding for an American cartoonist.
The Wimps. It seems that among the younger generations in America, there are a disproportionate number of people whose ‘self-esteem’ has been raised to such lofty but brittle levels that they cannot stand any challenge to their belief systems. Hence they are eager to sacrifice their own freedom of speech, as well as that of others, on the altar of ‘safety’ from disturbing words and thoughts.
The Bureaucrats. Bureaucrats, especially in the universities but also increasingly in the private sector, are eager to provide the altars for the sacrifice of free speech, with Star Chamber proceedings and various forms of witch-burnings.
The Regulatory State. The vast expansion of Federal regulatory activities and authority enables a wide range of adverse actions to be taken against individuals without the checks and balances of normal judicial proceedings. Witness, for example, the IRS persecution of conservative-leaning organizations (possibly extended to pro-Israel organizations as well.) And the Bureaucrats in nominally-independent organizations are really often acting as agents and front men for the Regulatory State. (Consider the 2011 ‘Dear Colleague’ letter sent from the Department of Education to colleges and universities, regarding the handling of sexual assault allegations–which has had, the linked article argues, serious negative impact on free speech and due process.)
The Theoreticians. Various academics have developed the concept of ‘oppressive speech’ and have developed models which attempt to break down the distinction between speech and action. Since everyone agrees that actions must be regulated to some degree, this tends to pave the way for tightened regulation of speech. (I think the conflation of speech with action is particularly sellable to those who in their professional lives are Word People and/or Image People. To a farmer or a machinist or even an electrical engineer, the distinction between speech and action is pretty crisp. To a lawyer or an advertising person or to a professor (outside the hard sciences), maybe not so much. And the percentage of Word People and Image People in the overall population has grown greatly.)
The Fragility Feminists. Actually, the word ‘Feminists’ should probably be in quotes, because the argument these people are making is in many ways the direct opposite of that made by the original feminists. There is a significant movement, again especially on college campuses, asserting that women are such fragile flowers that they must be endlessly protected from words that might upset them. See the controversy over the name of the athletic center at the Colorado School of Mines…here I think we have the Bureaucrats and the Fragility Feminists making common cause, as they so often do. For another (and particularly bizarre) case, read about professor Laura Kipnis, whose essay decrying ‘sexual paranoia on campus’ resulted in a Title IX inquisition against her. In a particularly disturbing note, when Kipnis brought a ‘support person’ to her hearing, a Title IX complaint was filed against that person.