Illiberalism Isn't to Blame for the Death of Good-Faith Debate - 2020-07-12
A number of public thinkers are pining for a culture capable of hosting spirited debate in a neutral "marketplace" of ideas. In this vision, intellectual exchange is unencumbered by personal attacks or harsh judgment or, indeed—to preserve freedom of inquiry—the risk of professional consequences. And at the moment, many intellectuals seem most focused on curbing these "illiberal" tendencies on the left. The left, they say, have declared certain ideas off-limits for debate, dismissing those who want to debate them with insults or social opprobrium or even calls for firing. This leftist speech, the lament goes, is having a "chilling effect," impeding the free flow of ideas, and making good thinkers hesitant and risk-averse. If you espouse the wrong position, you may pay with an internet pile-on or even your livelihood.
This sounds like a nightmarish state of affairs indeed. But there's something crucial missing in these analyses, which grow vague and blame "the present climate" when they draw their comparisons to Orwell's 1984. To hear them say it, it's this climate that is responsible for unjust firings, even more than the actual employers. This climate is angry. This climate won't be reasoned with. But what I think is largely responsible for this phenomenon they're observing—without understanding—is Twitter. And the internet at large. And how years of arguing on social platforms, mixed with the incentives that they supply, has distorted not just the way most of us talk about things but also the way we manage ideological dissent. In short: Political discourse has been warped less because of "cancel culture" or "illiberalism" than by the way social media platforms have been poisoned, like wells, that poison us in turn.
I get the longing for better discourse. I even share it. But blaming people on the internet—as most of us are, helplessly—for not engaging in "good-faith debate" doesn't just misdiagnose the problem; it's stunningly naïve. Have you met the internet? Chilled speech isn't new. Members of marginalized groups online have from the start dealt with threats, insults, and harassment campaigns for the crime of articulating their ideas in public. But free speech defenders didn't sound the alarm about the marketplace of ideas then. I'm not sure what's changed.