Michelle Goldberg: The left really does have a free speech problem

I almost never agree with anything NY Times’ columnist Michelle Goldberg writes but today is the exception. Goldberg was one of the people who signed ‘the Letter‘ about cancel culture published by Harper’s Magazine. Today she offers and explanation for that decision:


From my (privileged) vantage point, several things are happening simultaneously. The mass uprising following the killing of George Floyd has led to a necessary expansion of the boundaries of mainstream speech. Space has been created for daring left-wing ideas, like abolishing the police, that were once marginalized. Cultural institutions are reckoning with the racism that leads to mostly white leadership.

At the same time, a climate of punitive heretic-hunting, a recurrent feature of left-wing politics, has set in, enforced, in some cases, through workplace discipline, including firings. It’s the involvement of human resources departments in compelling adherence with rapidly changing new norms of speech and debate that worries me the most…

One reason many on the right want to be seen as free speech defenders is that they understand that the power to break taboos can be even more potent than the power to create them. Even sympathetic people will come to resent a left that refuses to make distinctions between deliberate slurs, awkward mistakes and legitimate disagreements. Cowing people is not the same as converting them.

I agree with Goldberg as far as she goes but it’s worth saying that she doesn’t go nearly far enough. She mentions the firing of data analyst David Shor but doesnt mention the recent resignation this week of Bari Weiss or the ousting of James Bennet. Still, Goldberg deserves some credit for defending the content of ‘the Letter’ rather than running away from it dishonestly as some did.


As is often the case, some of the comments from Times readers are pretty solid. There is clearly awareness on the left that a new strain of illiberalism is spreading:

  • Progressives do indeed have a free speech problem, as described here and elsewhere. In our pursuit of idealogical purity we are alienating allies, ultimately reducing our political power and hurting our cause.
  • The illiberal left has crossed a line when it tries to get people fired from their jobs. This goes way beyond criticizing people for their opinions. This is Cuba-class thought policing.
  • As a left-leaning individual, I have strong feelings and thoughts to share on this vital topic and many others, but will share my thoughts only with people I completely trust. Sorry, but that is the reality today.
  • I’m pretty far left myself and have been shut down merely for asking questions that have needled at leftist orthodoxy. Shut down, as in, asking questions that I was grappling with myself seeking sincere opinions and instead of people taking the chance to have a conversation about ideas, a refusal to engage. That’s no crime, but it’s not in the spirit of free speech.
  • The most idiotic example in recent days is the Goya beans uproar. The CEO made a complimentary comment to President Trump, which he likewise did in the presence of President Obama, and AOC and other illiberals flew off their chairs calling for an immediate boycott and take-down of beans. Not because of the product itself, but because of a comment. Now, I get the concept of being personally outraged about what the guy said, but I don’t get the tactic of making sure to try to damage his business, or worse, alienate more people in this country who will find the entire exercise just picayune and juvenile.
  • The direction this country is moving to reminds more and more of the old Soviet Union where I grew up. You can talk freely only with people you trust behind closed doors. And this was supposed to be a country of the FREE speech!

This is just a small fraction of the more than 1,000 comments left on this article but I think it’s fair to say a significant percentage of them run in this same vein. Many of the people writing them, like Goldberg herself, are on the left. But they are aware of the need for self-censorship of their own ideas lest they cross a line some woke individual doesn’t want crossed.

And yet, even though I could probably pick out 300 comments like this from this one article, there are lots of people on the left who are still heavily invested in the idea that cancel culture, call-out culture, and all the rest of it doesn’t really exist. It clearly does but they’ll keep denying it because, in truth, a lot of them like the idea of having a cadre of online shock troops on their side.

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