David Bromwich essay in the LRB on free speech

There’s a fascinating and – to use an overused phrase – thought-provoking piece in the LRB by David Bromwich about free speech. The early sections deal with the Rushdie affair and Charlie Hebdo, and the contortions of those who defended free speech on something like the grounds of aesthetic quality or the supposed subversive power of satire (as Bromwich points out, satire is very often by the haughty about the lowly) Read the whole thing, as they say… some paragraphs I found worth highlighting from the middle sections which deal with free speech in our time and place and condition:

The commercial democracies in the West have come to be of two minds about free speech. This condition is ratified continually and it remains hidden in plain view; one can feel by now that the pattern almost defies introspection and cure. Freedom is the international face we prepare to meet the faces that we meet – and on that stage the great principle is often restated. The vainglory of adopting free speech as a banner-slogan is recognised but the temptation to strut is not altogether avoided. And yet in our private conduct, and especially in educational institutions where the manners of public debate are learned, the ethic of free speech has taken a very different turn. People know that their words are monitored, beyond their power to calibrate, and the respectable are more cautious than ever before. They take great care not to speak bluntly. In America, the mainstream media follow the protocol of a ‘balance’ of views, according to which two sides must be offered in the discussion of any public question, and control is ceded to a moderator whose questions obey a mindless decorum: ‘Congressman X, what is your reaction to what Senator Y just said?’ In the small change of conversation, in the corporate, professional or academic milieu, a remark signalling strong disagreement is taken to be an impoliteness. The first article of workplace wisdom is that any gesture or word that might cause friction is ‘unhelpful’.

In this new regime of manners, it is impossible to overrate the part played by the soft despotism of social media. Our verbal surroundings online are created by affinity; and each day a hundred small choices close the circle more tightly. You don’t say wrong things: the sort of things that will startle your friends. Or rather, your friends by definition are the people who won’t be startled by anything you are likely to say. What are the implications for free speech? Doublethink, Orwell wrote apropos of life in Oceania, was the mental technique that allowed one to ‘hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them’. The process found its consummation in ‘the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word “doublethink” involved the use of doublethink.’ It is like that with freedom of speech and self-censorship in the West. We must spread freedom of speech in order to make the world free. And to do the job well, we must watch what we say.

Addressing the expanded field for taking offence which is visible any day on the internet and promoted by the identity cultures, Garton Ash is at his most moderate and unsatisfactory. He can see the sense of ‘trigger warnings’. We must take care how we introduce such readings as the rape of Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and realise that the high literature of the West is (what should the word be?) concerning. ‘These texts,’ he dutifully quotes a Columbia student newspaper saying, ‘wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion or oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor.’ It doesn’t say a survivor of what, and Garton Ash doesn’t challenge the sweep of the statement. There are stretches of the book where the effort of empathy tips over into credulity. On the subject of hate speech, for example, Garton Ash cites (with only a mild demur regarding the medical evidence) the judgment by the cultural theorists Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic that ‘the immediate short-term harms of hate speech include rapid breathing, headaches, raised blood pressure, dizziness, rapid pulse rate, drug-taking, risk-taking behaviour and even suicide.’ He has to treat the nonsense with studied politeness because this sort of thing is all over the academic literature on free speech. And it is spreading: a letter to the New York Times on 31 July from an administrator in the city’s Education Department denounces a reading-skills exam that used an extract from Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence; the passage in question begins, ‘It was generally agreed in New York that the Countess Olenska had “lost her looks”’; the complaint is that ‘any girl taking the exam’ will experience the mention of losing your looks as a ‘psychic punch’ that impairs concentration on the rest of the exam.

Taking note of the recent protests that forced the ‘disinviting’ of commencement speakers at Brown, Johns Hopkins, Williams and Haverford, the censorious monitoring at Brandeis University of a teacher who said that Mexican labourers were once called ‘wetbacks’, and many similar incidents over the last three years, the sociologist Jonathan Cole pointed out in the Atlantic that the students at these elite establishments, including the most vigilant of the speech monitors, have followed all their lives ‘a straight and narrow path’. They have never deviated into ‘a passion unrelated to school work, and have not been allowed, therefore, to live what many would consider a normal childhood – to play, to learn by doing, to challenge their teachers, to make mistakes’. They have always been on good behaviour; and they don’t regret it. They are therefore ill-equipped to defend anything the authorities or their activist classmates tell them should count as bad behaviour. These people have grown up, Cole adds, in the years since 2001 when the schools and the popular culture, in America above all, kept up an incessant drone about personal safety, the danger of terrorist attacks, and the opacity of every culture to every other culture. It is a generation in which the word ‘fragile’ is routinely applied to daily shifts of mood.

Few of them have had the experience of being a minority of one, or a little more than one. Admittedly most people have never been in that situation (including, perhaps, most of the people one might call good). But a new keenness of censorious distrust has come from a built-in suspicion of the outliers in public discussion. Social media refer to these people as ‘trolls’ and sometimes as ‘stalkers’; any flicker of curiosity about their ideas is pre-empted by a question that is not a question: ‘What’s wrong with them?’ Meanwhile, those inside a given group have their settled audience of friends and followers, to adopt the revealing jargon of Facebook and Twitter: a self-sufficient collectivity and happy to stay that way. To be ‘friended’ in the Facebook world is to be safe – walled-up and wadded-in by chosen and familiar connections. An unsafe space is a space where, if they knew you were there, they might unfriend you. As Sherry Turkle puts it in Reclaiming Conversation, a penetrating study of the change of manners brought about by social media: ‘If you grew up in the world of “I share, therefore I am,” you may not have confidence that you have a thought unless you are sharing it.’ And it is a full-time regime for the young. ‘Most are already sleeping with their phones,’ Turkle says of the children and teenagers she interviewed. ‘So, if they wake up in the middle of the night, they check their messages.’ But these are messages sent and received within the group; outside, all is uncertain, obscure, and apt to bring on sensations of fragility. Adversarial stimuli are to be ignored where possible and prohibited where necessary.

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