One of the most welcome political developments of my lifetime is the growing suspicion with which attempts to cloak even the most detestable utterances under the mantle of “free speech” is regarded.
From the misogynistic obscurantism of #GamerGate (years later I still can’t find anyone who can tell me what the “-gate” was) and the painfully unfunny parody of stand-up comedy performed on college campuses by the expatriate employer of ghostwriters known as Milo Yiannopoulos to the latter-day phrenology of the so-called alt-right and the unabashed Holocaust denial of Stormfront, there are expressions that most of us consider on their face unacceptable and undeserving of a platform. The difference is that now increasingly it looks as if people have concluded that it is our duty to make sure they are denied one. Thank God for SJWs!
This was not always the case. There is a long history in this country of making grandiose blanket defenses of freedom of speech that extend to bigots, frauds, pornographers, genocidal enthusiasts, propagators of terrorism and sedition, and kooks emotionally invested in nonsense and villainy of every conceivable variety. People who make arguments defending, say, the rights of pseudo-historians to argue that the Nazis did not murder millions of European Jews or the ancient liberty of perverts to create simulations of child pornography call themselves “free speech absolutists.” Their position has never been tenable, but it has long enjoyed a mainstream currency in the United States, in classrooms, and in the pages of newspapers and magazines — and even on the bench of the Supreme Court.
This is because freedom of speech in the way that is usually discussed in this country is a cartoonish fantasy. There has never been a community in which certain ideas have not been considered open for discussion or debate. As Stanley Fish argued in his famous essay “There is no such thing as free speech, and it’s a good thing, too,” the liberal concept of freedom of speech is not some kind of immutable principle woven into the fabric of reality; it is an idea and a very new, albeit frequently misunderstood one.