Free speech, safety, and ‘the letter’
Last week, Harper’s published an open letter arguing that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” The letter had a long list of signatories, and triggered an instant controversy, not so much for what it said as a text as for how it was being used as a political document. This is a hot debate on both sides because it traces the issue most central not just to journalists’ hearts, but to our jobs: Can we speak the truth, as best we understand it? And who, even, is “we”?
I believe in the free exchange of information and ideas. I’ve committed my life to it. But I also worry those values are sometimes deployed as political positioning rather than democratic practice. The term "free speech" is often used here, but we're not dealing with laws regulating speech. We're dealing with media platforms that make editorial decisions as a matter of course. No one has the right to a New York Times op-ed column, or a warm reception on social media. But fear of losing your job, or your status, can chill speech — as, of course, can fear of physical or legislative harm. As such, I've come to think the core of this debate isn't freedom, but safety. The word has become polarizing, but the yearning for it is ubiquitous. To speak freely, you must feel safe, or at least safe enough. That’s what the letter’s signatories are asking for. That’s also what its critics are asking for.
Yascha Mounk is a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, a columnist at the Atlantic, the host of the Good Fight podcast, and now the founder of a new journal, Persuasion, dedicated to pushing back on the illiberalism he sees infecting the discourse. Yascha and I agree on most issues, and I think hold similar values, but often find ourselves arguing over this topic. So I asked him on the show to see if we could figure out why. We discuss liberalism and illiberalism, what to do with speech that restricts others from speaking, the component parts of what gets called “cancel culture,” whether the zone of debate has widened or narrowed over the past 20 years, the differing cultures of Twitter and Reddit, The NYT's Tom Cotton controversy, whether safety and free speech are truly in tension, what the word “unsafe” means to people who have daily reason to fear for their freedom and futures, and much more.
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Producer/Editer - Jeff Geld
Researcher - Roge Karma
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