Despite the regular outcry from conservatives, cancel culture continues to do its work on dismantling free speech. The latest victim of cancel culture was the alt-right troll Nick Fuentes, who discovered that he was placed on a no-fly list by the TSA. One doesn’t have to be a fan of Fuentes to see a problem with this. Because of his views, he is now being classified alongside terrorists and denied the right to fly.
As bad as this is, most people have come to accept this kind of thing. Whether it’s a writer who discusses transgenderism, a children’s book with potentially offensive stereotypes, or a former president who dared to question the last election, most people tend to proceed as they always have. Yes, the right to free speech is effectively curtailed by elites who now control the public square, but no one really thinks it poses a serious threat to the country. In fact, for many college students, censoring and removing certain viewpoints from the public square altogether is considered a good thing.
More than the nefarious schemes of Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, it’s this widespread complacency and hostility that accounts for the erosion of free speech. But everyone should worry about the loss of free speech much more than they do. It’s not a matter of a few outliers running afoul of the PC police and potentially being canceled; losing free speech will result in nothing less than civilizational ruin.
This is because free speech has five important functions that are essential to a free and prosperous society. It works to 1) inform the community, 2) solve the community’s problems, 3) challenge abuses of power, 4) empower individuals, and 5) unite the community.
These functions each build on one another. When people have the freedom to express themselves, they can teach one another and learn about life. As Ralph Waldo Emerson explains in his essay Education, “One burns to tell the new fact, the other burns to hear it.” Consequently, a more informed population can better solve community problems through discussing different solutions and using objective reasoning and consensus to determine the best course of action.
If the problem happens to be a leader abusing his or her authority, free speech allows people publicly to identify the problem and again debate the best solutions for the situation. In turn, allowing all members of the community to have a voice as well as an ear in the general discussion gives them a certain measure of power. Finally, the inclusivity that comes from all members having a role in the discussion unites members in one community, even if they may disagree with one another on most issues.
The whole of American history before the past decade attests to the great benefits of free speech. Nevertheless, those on the Left will insist the opposite. They will argue that free speech misinforms the community, prevents solutions, promotes abuses of power, weakens the individual, and divides the community.
So, which side is right? A good case study that answers this question is the nation’s response to COVID-19 since this was the first major instance of society’s elites controlling and regulating speech. In the interest of public health, discussions about the virus and ways to treat it were limited to certain experts and public authorities. In many cases, major media outlets and academic institutions either censored or marginalized dissenting voices to bring about conformity.
Although few like to admit it, this approach proved to be catastrophic. First, it has led to people knowing little about the virus and how it spreads—so little, in fact, that even leftist comedian Bill Maher made a point about this in one of his monologues.
This ignorance, along with the accompanying fear that resulted from it, led people to accept without question the terrible solutions that experts and authorities enforced, namely lockdowns. Nearly 800,000 signed the Great Barrington Declaration, which explains how “Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health.” The World Health Organization also agrees.
An open discussion about this could have spared the world so much hardship and led to more effective less painful solutions. Instead, the Great Barrington Declaration and the many videos of experts expressing similar thoughts were either censored outright or utterly ignored. Disagreements with mask mandates, social distancing, and vaccines are treated similarly.
With no one to call them out, political leaders and favored experts are incentivized to rule the country like tyrants. Countless governors, mayors, and judges have also terrorized their citizens, supposedly for the sake of health. Meanwhile, so-called experts like Anthony Fauci (who is a bureaucrat who has not practiced medicine in decades and is, in any case, not trained in epidemiology) enjoy celebrity status despite contradicting themselves at every turn.
Quite naturally, this situation has made normal Americans feel as small as ever. They have learned to submit quietly even if their common sense tells them that so many of these restrictions do nothing. They know their doubts will only be met with derision and accusations that they are “literally killing people.”
Far from creating stability, this suppression of free speech has fueled resentment and anger among everyone. It’s no coincidence that extremism and fears of extremism have risen dramatically everywhere. Whereas people in the past could still maintain friendships with people with whom they disagreed, these types of friendships are increasingly rare. Many have seen their social circle shrink and homogenize because COVID-19. Simultaneously, the list of enemies continues to grow. For all of Biden’s promises of “unity” in his inaugural address, real unity becomes impossible when it becomes clear that they mean to achieve it by silencing certain voices in favor of others.
Overall, it is fair to say that limitations on free speech have left the country dumber, sicker, less free, less happy, and hopelessly divided.
Judging from the prevailing indifference to free speech, this miserable outcome will continue to repeat itself with other controversies—gun control, race relations, immigration, political elections, and climate change, to name a few. The logic works for all of it: in order to save lives (or the very planet itself), speech must be regulated and everyone must follow the chosen experts.
And this won’t change until Americans of all political stripes realize what’s at stake and resist these constraints on speech. Speech is a power that precedes law, and they need to take back this power. Americans shouldn’t wait for government or the leaders of Big Tech, because they are the ones who benefit from a muzzled culture. A change must come from the people themselves—it’s their voices, after all, that are being silenced. As Gina Carano, a victim of cancel culture herself, recently tweeted, “If you think the government will ever give you an ‘all clear’ to go back to normal, they will not. You have to go back to normal first, and then they will pretend they were always going to let you go back to normal.”