There are a few data points that have been making me see “the discourse” differently lately.
1. Large Majorities Dislike Political Correctness.
The results of the 8000-person poll of a nationally-representative sample of Americans are pretty striking. About 80% of Americans think “political correctness is a problem”; and even when you restrict to self-identified liberals, Democrats, or people of color, large majorities agree with the statement. The study identifies “progressive activists” (8% of Americans) as a younger, more extreme, more educated, more politically active left-wing cluster, and even within this cluster, a full 25% agree with “political correctness is a problem.”
And lots of people who agree with statements about hate speech being bad, white people starting out with advantages in life, sexual harassment being a problem, etc, also think political correctness is a problem.
Being “politically incorrect” isn’t just a white thing, a male thing, or even a conservative thing. It’s a hugely common thing.
2. Support for free speech is common, and growing, not shrinking. And it’s not the most left-wing people who most oppose free speech, but the moderate liberals.
Political scientist Justin Murphy has done studies about this, based on the General Social Survey, a large poll on social attitudes that’s been running for decades.
Since the 1970’s, Americans have become more tolerant of allowing people with controversial views to speak in public — communists, people proposing military coups, homosexuals, and opponents of “all churches and religions.” Racism is the exception to the rule — people haven’t become more tolerant of racist speech, even as they have become more tolerant of other varieties of speech.
Keep in mind that legal censorship and centralization of political speech were way more prevalent in mid-20th century America than they are today. Cable television networks didn’t exist till the 1970’s. The Fairness Doctrine didn’t end until 1987. Satellite radio, which allowed obscene language that was regulated on conventional radio and television, only began in 1988, Fox News was founded in 1996, and, of course, the blogosphere didn’t really begin until the early 2000’s.
Murphy notes that “extreme liberals” are consistently the most supportive of permitting controversial speech, and that in fact they have increased their rates of tolerating even racist speech. People who rate themselves as “moderately liberal” and “slightly liberal”, however, have sharply declined in their willingness to tolerate racist speech. If there’s been a “backlash against free speech”, it’s on the moderate left, not the far left.
3. Calls for speech restrictions often come from moderates.
Things like this essay by Renee diResta, which I found chilling — a call for social media to be actively regulated by the US military, which says we should treat people spreading opinions that weaken trust in “the legitimacy of government, the persistence of societal cohesion, even our ability to respond to the impending climate crisis” as “digital combatants.” DiResta says, “More authoritarian regimes, by contrast, would simply turn off the internet. An admirable commitment to the principle of free speech in peace time turns into a sucker position against adversarial psy-ops in wartime.”
Who is DiResta? She’s a writer, technologist, adviser to Congress and the State Department, and the director of research at something called New Knowledge, a firm offering corporations a new kind of service: using algorithms to bury social media scandals that would make them look bad.
In other words, she’s an influential moderate; well-connected in corporate and government worlds, and very troubled by the crisis of declining trust in traditional institutions that the open Internet has enabled.
An Alternative Paradigm: Moderate, Measured Elites vs. The Chaotic, Offensive Populace
What if “free speech” vs. “restricted speech” isn’t a right-vs.-left thing at all?
Lots of people, who are by no means all political conservatives, want the right to say offensive things.
Verbal conflict just isn’t that big a problem to most people, apparently. And how likely you are to violate vs. observe verbal taboos varies a lot based on personality and socioeconomic class.
Swearing is an interesting example of a verbal taboo that’s not especially politicized. Socially low-ranking people swear more. Swearing is negatively correlated with agreeableness. Men swear more than women. Swearing is commonly associated with being working-class, though I haven’t found published evidence of this. Swearing is “inappropriate” in office settings, religious settings, or whenever we’re expected to be formal or respectful.
It’s often corporate caution that drives speech codes that restrict political controversy, obscenity, and muckraking/whistleblowing. It’s not just racist or far-right opinions that get silenced; media and social-media corporations worry about offending prudes, homophobes, Muslim extremists, the Chinese government, the US military, etc, etc.
Some people clearly do have strong ideological opinions about what speech they want to see allowed vs. banned, but I don’t see that as the main driver of what rules actually get put into place. What I think is going on is that decisionmakers in media and PR, and corporate and government elites generally, have a lower tolerance for verbal conflict and taboo violations than the typical individual.
The growth of lots and lots of outlets for more “unofficial” or “raw” self-expression — blogs, yes, but before that cable TV and satellite radio, and long before that, the culture of “journalism” in 18th century America where every guy with a printing press could publish a “newspaper” full of opinions and scurrilous insults — tends to go along with more rudeness, more cursing, more sexual explicitness, more political extremism in all directions, more “trashy” or “lowest common denominator” media, more misinformation and “dumbing down”, but also some innovative/intellectual “niche” media.
Chaos is a centrifugal force; it increases the chance of any unexpected outcome. Good things, bad things, existential threats, brilliant ideas, and a lot of weird, gross, and disturbing stuff.
Some people like parts of that (it’s hard to like everything about chaos), and others find even a little chaos threatening. The most passionate opponents of chaos are likely to be powerful, since change can only knock them off their pedestals.
I think we’re currently in an era of unusually large amounts of free speech that elites are starting to get spooked by and defend against. Most people have high, perhaps even growing, tolerance for controversy and offense, but some find it unacceptable, and these people are disproportionately influential.