June 3, 2019 2:59PM

Free Speech and Identity Politics

I think Arnold Kling is one of the most insightful bloggers around so I am pleased that he likes my latest Cato policy analysis. He remarks:

My worry is that American culture no longer supports free speech…But hurting someone’s feelings should not count as direct harm. Racist remarks or Holocaust denial may be uncouth, but in a culture of free speech they should be permitted.

I agree with Kling about extreme speech. I am not sure that the culture for free speech has changed all that much. We first learned in the 1950s that while Americans overwhelmingly supported the First Amendment in the abstract, majorities or significant minorities often opposed freedom of speech in concrete cases (like letting unpopular minorities speak). But beyond America’s general culture of free speech, things have changed. In the past elites supported free speech. Now I wonder if they do.

Some attribute the problems of free speech (especially among elites) to the rise of identity politics. In his excellent book Identity, Francis Fukuyama sees identity politics as the demand for public recognition of the dignity of each person’s inner self. That inner self should be authentic rather than imposed by society. Authenticity in turn implies connections to a group and to history. Speech that offends this dignity of the inner self contravenes identity politics.

But need identity and free speech be at odds?  Free speech is, itself, vital to the realization and expression of authentic identity. It is possible to imagine a society of mutually recognizing individuals, each secure in reciprocal recognition of their inner selves. The culture of such a society would discourage speech that denigrates the identities of others. Giving such offense would be a kind of attack on the underlying framework of mutual recognition. Perhaps such a society would censor offensive speech to defend its foundations in mutual recognition. However, we might imagine that the members of such a society would tolerate free speech. Its citizens might see offensive speech as an opportunity to recall why mutual recognition is valuable.

That story might seem fanciful. Such a society would surely be illiberal. Perhaps, but I do not think the problem is necessarily identity per se. Rather, in our society identity politics are often associated with a politics of the oppressed. Let me explain.

In his book The Three Languages of Politics, Arnold Kling notes that Progressives generally see the world as divided between oppressors and the oppressed. (I would add a third group, the Guardians or the political class). Some social groups are oppressors, others their victims, the oppressed. The job of the Guardians is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” or more generally, help the oppressed in their endless struggle against their oppressors. In this view of the world, speech may just be a weapon used in several ways by the oppressors to subjugate the oppressed. It directly attacks the dignity of the oppressed.  Oppressors cast doubt on the harms to the dignity of the oppressed. The speech of the oppressor justifies a society marked by oppression. He demands recognition of a universal self that excludes the lived experiences of the oppressed. In this world with these harms, censorship is not really an abuse of power. It is an obligation of the Guardians, a necessary task for the good ruler. It is this view of politics – oppressed versus oppressor – that transforms identity into censorship.

That we can imagine a liberal politics of identity does not make it so in reality. Perhaps the interests and ideals that animate our politics mean the politics of identity and oppression are united for the foreseeable future. Perhaps vindicating identity will prompt our Guardians to censor offensive speech; doing otherwise would foster “oppressive tolerance.” But if a world of mutual recognition can be imagined, it might also be realized, thereby reconciling free speech and identity and proving the resilience of liberalism along the way. But realizing that dream will require much from everyone, and it is far from clear than anyone can or will meet that challenge.