Most Americans would say they cherish the First Amendment because it protects some of our most basic rights – including the right to freely express our thoughts, opinions and ideas. But mountains of modern anecdotal evidence reveal that our culture is shrugging off the principles that undergird the First Amendment they say they revere.
The recent flap over a mild, thoughtful article by former Business Insider columnist Daniella Greenbaum is a perfect example. Greenbaum’s column defended actress Scarlett Johansson for playing the part of a transgender man in an upcoming movie. It challenged the logic of members of the transgender community who charged that Johansson’s acceptance of the role amounted to “steal[ing] our narrative and our opportunity,” and was culturally insensitive to people who identify themselves as transgender in real life.
Greenbaum pointed out that “stealing narratives” is the whole idea of acting; that actors make a living by portraying people other than themselves. That was all. The column did not contain a single unkind or derogatory comment about any person or group. There was no attack on anyone’s dignity. There was no hatred or slander. Moreover, the content was entirely logical and well-reasoned. Any reasonable person would have read it and thought, “She makes a good point.”
But alas, we have arrived at a time in history when otherwise intelligent individuals are willing to shut down the logical components of their brains under certain circumstances. They will cease to deal in reason each time they are confronted with an idea that could be classified as “insensitive” under the lexicon of the new so-called progressive orthodoxy.
Thus, as soon as Greenbaum’s colleagues complained to her editors that the column was “insensitive,” the editors removed it from their website and instituted a new policy requiring “culturally sensitive” pieces to undergo additional layers of review before publication.
This shunning of ideas, or even facts, because of their potential effects on people’s feelings is a growing phenomenon. And it is a serious threat to the values underlying free speech. Foremost among those values is the pursuit of Truth through an open, robust exchange of ideas in a free marketplace.
But where our culture once valued a willingness to follow Truth and Reason wherever they lead, today it values instead the willingness to embrace ideas not because they are true, but because they are “progressive.” And what Americans need to understand is that the First Amendment alone cannot protect us against this willful slide into a cultural compact of delusion.
While the First Amendment protects citizens against having their expression forbidden or silenced by the government, it leaves private citizens, businesses and media outlets free to pick and choose what kinds of speech they will tolerate and promote in the marketplace of ideas, and to what extent. This is why Business Insider acted perfectly within its rights in taking down Greenbaum’s respectful, thought-provoking article. Picking and choosing which kinds of speech we will follow, “like,” retweet, publish, condone or purchase is the rightful prerogative of private citizens, businesses and publishers.
My message is for these private citizens, businesses and publishers: Make wise use of your power to shun and shame or praise and promote. Use it to press your friends, neighbors, community, consumers – our culture – toward Truth and Virtue.
There is plenty of “expression” today that our culture should be marginalizing, but isn’t. We should give the cold shoulder to lies, lewdness, cruelty, hatred, profanity, idle gossip and gratuitous violence, which do nothing to aid us in our quest for Truth and much to harm us in our pursuit of Virtue.
But we should never shut out ideas because they are difficult, inconvenient, or “insensitive.” We should never censor honest disagreement. We should instead celebrate any civil, thought-provoking expression of an idea, opinion, or fact – even those with which we disagree. And we should learn, in turn, to express our disagreement in a civil, thought-provoking way.
This present cultural willingness to shun genuine, civilly expressed ideas foreshadows a future in which the First Amendment itself may be vulnerable. Once we accept and normalize the private silencing of opinions solely because of our disagreement with them or our concern over others’ feelings, it’s not hard to imagine the emergence of a majority who would extend that prerogative to the government.
If you truly oppose government censorship, then be diligent in challenging private censorship when it is used to promote the “progressive” orthodoxy by suppressing Truth and Reason.