Those sympathetic to libertarianism and classical liberalism tend to take free speech seriously. Beyond opposing the state regulation of speech, those sympathetic to libertarianism and classical liberalism also tend to favor social norms that are more, rather than less, permissive of different kinds of speech. Recently, however, members of the popular culture have expressed support for social norms that are less permissive of different kinds of speech, specifically for members of marginalized groups. This is evidenced by the growing number of people who are content to deride Black opponents of race-based affirmative action policies as “Uncle Toms” and “Aunt Jemimahs,” as well as by those who are content to lambast pro-life women for being traitors who’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy to hold the views they hold. For the remainder of this post, I will show the problems with a line of argument someone could take to defend these liberty-constraining norms. By doing so, I hope to provide those sympathetic to libertarianism and classical liberalism something in the way of a response to those who favor social norms that are punishing toward those members of marginalized groups who express certain controversial views.
Someone might argue that people, and especially members of the Black community, are permitted to meet the criticisms of race-based affirmative action policies made by a Black conservative with racially charged epithets, threats of ostracism, and ostracism by appealing to the value of solidarity. They might say that in order to overcome the threats of anti-Black racism in liberal society, Black people ought to show a united front. A single Black person alone cannot significantly change how racist their society is, but perhaps all or most Black people can. So all or most Black people should express support for policies and norms that are likely to significantly change how racist their society is. A Black person’s failure to support such policies and norms might be claimed to set back the interests of other Black people, since all or most Black people must show a united front to confront anti-Black racism in society. Alternatively, a Black person’s failure to support such policies and norms might be claimed to be unfair, since other Black people have burdened themselves to the benefit of the Black person in question by engaging in certain kinds of activism but the Black person in question does not likewise burden herself to the benefit of other Black people who have arguably benefited her.
I draw issue, however, with the claim that members of a marginalized group such as the Black community must show a united front to overcome the oppression they face as group members. It seems that dissident members of marginalized groups have been positively instrumental to the end of overcoming the oppressions that members of these groups face. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois were engaged in debates about what was necessary for Black liberation to be brought about in America. Dubois strongly disagreed with Washington’s views about how Black people bear the brunt of the responsibility for making something of themselves in American society, and wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that “Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched,––criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led,––this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society” (36). As Dubois says, it appears that dissent within marginalized groups about matters that affect group members is crucial to these group members identifying viable means through which to resist the oppression they face.
We can see this insight at work especially when we consider the cases of Andrew Sullivan and Camille Paglia as dissenting members of the LGBT+ community. In 1989, Andrew Sullivan (a gay, conservative political commentator) published the first national cover story in defense of same-sex marriage legalization in The New Republic. The principles he appealed to in this piece, however, were not those that were embraced by all, or even most, gay people. And in 1990, Camille Paglia (a lesbian academic) published Sexual Personae, a work in which she offers a compelling defense of androgynous gender presentation, albeit by predicating her view on traditionalistic understandings of gender of which members of the LGBT+ community are skeptical. The contributions that both of these thinkers made to public discourse on the matters they wrote about were profound. And if we were content to enact social sanctions against them for being heterodox members of the LGBT+ community, we might find ourselves deprived of the social progress they may have in part been responsible for since they would be deterred from speaking their minds. This, I think, speaks in favor of norms that are more, rather than less, permissive of members of marginalized groups speaking their minds when their views stand in tension with the “consensus” views of their communities.
Even if it were true that liberation for marginalized people is possible only by getting all or most members of each respective group on the same ideological page, it would not follow that dissenters in these groups do anything wrong by dissenting. Consider a parallel context in which a problem of collective action does not generate obligations for individuals to resolve the problem. It might be true that one of the only ways to put a stop to the atrocities that take place on factory farms, for example, is by getting everyone to adhere to a vegan lifestyle. Still, it would be inappropriate to claim that individuals are obligated to adhere to a vegan lifestyle on these grounds, because any individual’s adherence to a vegan lifestyle will not make a difference to the number of animals being brutally slaughtered on factory farms. Likewise, it would be inappropriate to claim that dissident members of marginalized groups are obligated to suppress their views, because any individual’s choice to suppress their views, at least in the vast majority of cases, will not make a difference for how oppressed other members of their groups are. And if dissident members of marginalized groups have no obligation to suppress their views, the strongest basis for justifying social sanctions against them is unavailable to those who wish to belittle or ostracize these members for expressing their views.
There is obviously much more to be said about these issues. There might, for example, be other lines of argument one could take to justify the claim that members of marginalized groups are obligated to suppress their dissident views. Or, one might be concerned with justifying the claim that dissident members of marginalized groups have moral reasons, rather than a moral obligation, to abstain from expressing their views. I do not have enough space to address these arguments in this post, though I hope to take them up in future posts. Still, I think it is useful and important to know that at least one of the arguments that could be offered to justify less permissive speech norms for members of marginalized groups is unsuccessful.
Thanks to Andrew Jason Cohen for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this post.