The Constitution forbids government from abridging freedom of speech and of the press. But we, the people, have no such prohibition, because free inquiry means it is the right, if not responsibility, of individuals to counter what they consider bad speech with what they consider good speech.
But in recent years, an impulse has arisen to turn people who break new rules of discourse into permanent pariahs. Now more than 150 writers and intellectuals have struck back, with an important and principled salvo in Harper’s Magazine. Huzzah.
Attacking ideas thought to be offensive is healthy, and sometimes necessary; we’re in the outrage business. But the breathless rush to label legitimate lines of inquiry illegitimate, to oust people from their careers if not the public square for perceived apostasies, indicates an increasing narrowmindedness.
We have seen the problem on college campuses, where students claim they are owed safe spaces and invited speakers are shouted down. Critics of Israel are labeled anti-Semites, critics of Palestinians branded bigots.
We have seen it in esteemed publications, where editors and writers have been ousted for tripping over red lines that keep moving.
We have seen it in children’s literature, where books ready for printing have been scotched and writers intimidated over hypersensitivities.
And we’ve seen it in science, where research is abandoned for fear of the backlash it might provoke.
The term “cancel culture” is overused; intense criticism of awful ideas is frequently well warranted. But as a general rule, open minds advance civilizations. Closed minds ruin them.