Each and every day we see a new report about something, or someone being “cancelled” by some amorphous group or another. Today, even something as simple as 2 + 2 = 4 is coming under question. Heroic historical figures in all fields are suddenly being removed due to perceived flaws, real or not.
Recently, insightful philosopher, attorney, and author, Alan Dershowitz, drew comparisons between today’s cancel culture and the McCarthy crusade against communism in the 1950s. Yet, in my opinion, today’s cancel culture is much more frightening.
Today’s censors are mostly young people being strongly influenced by academics and high-tech innovators. They have set themselves up to be the arbiters of what is permissible and what is not. But, like every generation, these new young censors are soon to be our future leaders and they will soon be our CEOs, editors-in-chief, deans, and government officials. They will govern what we can read, see, and hear. The end result could easily be that we lose not only the First Amendment, but freedom of thought, expression, and dissent.
Now, here is the next frightening part: many of these young censors are being supported by ordinary Americans. I am sure you have had friends and family talk about how we need to shut those whose opinion we don’t like down. The Left wants to shut the Right down and the Right wants to shut the Left down.
But there is a tremendous irony here: the censors are supported by the First Amendment. If you look at the wording of the first Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Notice that it doesn’t say “Facebook shall not abridge freedom of speech” or “The history professor shall abridge freedom of speech” or “CNN shall abridge freedom of speech.” It could be argued that by censoring others, these non-governmental entities are exercising their First Amendment rights. However, we must come to grips with one inarguable fact: censorship against anyone inevitably leads to censorship against everyone. Free speech for me but not for thee is the first step down the road to free speech for neither me nor thee.
We must remember the words of anti-Nazi Lutheran Minister Martin Niemoller:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Admittedly, freedom of speech comes with a price and that price is sometimes having to defend speech that may not be acceptable and may be, in fact, totally reprehensible. We must defend the rights of others if we want others to defend our rights – and even if others refuse to defend our rights. The struggle for free speech never stays won. It must be fought every day and against every enemy – right, left, and center – in what Thomas Jefferson called “the marketplace of ideas.”