Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort
February 26, 2018
"A newspaper ... isn't supposed to be a form of mental comfort food."
I’d like to express my appreciation for Lynette Clemetson and her team at Knight-Wallace for hosting me in Ann Arbor today. It’s a great honor. I think of Knight-Wallace as a citadel of American journalism. And, Lord knows, we need a few citadels, because journalism today is a profession under several sieges.
To name a few:
There is the economic siege, particularly the collapse of traditional revenue streams, which has undermined the ability of scores of news organizations to remain financially healthy and invest in the kind of in-depth investigative, enterprise, local and foreign reporting this country so desperately needs.
There is a cultural siege, as exemplified by the fact that a growing number of Americans seem to think that if something is reported in the so-called mainstream media, it is ipso facto untrue.
There’s a technological siege, which not only has changed the way we work, and distribute our work, but has also created a new ecosystem in which it is increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from opinion, clickbait from substance, and real news from fake.
Then—need I even mention it?—there is the president of the United States. We are all familiar with the ways in which Donald Trump’s demagogic assault on the press has already normalized presidential mendacity, mainstreamed “alternative facts,” and desensitized millions of Americans to both. I’ll get to him in a moment.
But there is also a fifth siege, and this is the one I want to focus on today: This is the siege of the perpetually enraged part of our audience.
This is no small thing when it comes to the health, reputation and future prospects of our profession. Journalism, by its nature, must necessarily be responsive to its audience, attuned to its interests, sensible to its tastes, alert to its evolution. Fail to do this, and you might not survive as a news organization, never mind as an editor, reporter or columnist.
At the same time, journalism can only be as good as its audience. Intelligent coverage requires intelligent readers, viewers and listeners.
We cannot invest in long-form, in-depth journalism for readers interested only in headlines, first paragraphs, or list-icles. We cannot purchase the services of talented wordsmiths and expert editors if people are indifferent to the quality of prose. We cannot maintain expensive foreign bureaus if audiences are uninterested in the world beyond our shores. We cannot expect columnists to be provocative if readers cancel their subscriptions the moment they feel “triggered” by an opinion they dislike.
In sum, we cannot be the keepers of what you might call liberal civilization—I’m using the word liberal in its broad, philosophical sense, not the narrowly American ideological one—if our readers have illiberal instincts, incurious minds, short attention spans and even shorter fuses.
An example: Last November, The New York Times published a profile of a 29-year-old Ohio man named Tony Hovater. Mr. Hovater is a welder from a suburb of Dayton. He’s happily married, middle class, polite, plays drums, cooks pasta aglio e olio, and loves “Seinfeld.”
He is also a proud and avowed Nazi sympathizer. He started out on the political left, moved over to the Ron Paul right, and ended up marching with the anti-Semitic white nationalists at Charlottesville. He doesn’t believe six million Jews died in the Holocaust, and thinks Hitler was “kind of chill.”
The profile, by Times reporter Richard Fausset, was a brilliant case study in Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” Hovater is not a thug, even if his ideas are thuggish; not a monster, even if he takes inspiration from one; not insane, even if his ideas are crazy. He reminds us that a diabolical ideology gains strength not because devils propagate it, but because ordinary men embrace it. And he warns us, as Bertolt Brecht put it after the war, “The womb is fertile still, from which that crawled.”
Lest anyone doubt what Fausset and his editors at the Times think of Hovater and his ideas, the article was titled “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland.” This is not, to say the least, a neutral way of introducing the subject.
Yet that did not seem enough for some Times readers, who erupted with fury at the publication of the article. Nate Silver, the Times’s former polling guru, said the article did “more to normalize neo-Nazism than anything I’ve read in long time.” An editor at The Washington Post accused us of producing “long, glowing profiles of Nazis” when we should have focused on the “victims of their ideologies.” The Times followed up with an explanatory, and somewhat apologetic, note from the national editor.
No doubt, there may have been ways to improve the profile. There always are. But there was something disproportionate, not to say dismaying, about the way that so many readers rained scorn on The Times’s good-faith effort to better understand just what it is that makes someone like Hovater tick.
Just what do these readers think a newspaper is supposed to do?
A newspaper, after all, isn’t supposed to be a form of mental comfort food. We are not an advocacy group, a support network, a cheering section, or a church affirming a particular faith—except, that is, a faith in hard and relentless questioning. Our authority derives from our willingness to challenge authority, not only the authority of those in power, but also that of commonplace assumptions and conventional wisdom.
In other words, if we aren’t making our readers uncomfortable every day, we aren’t doing our job. There’s an old saying that the role of the journalist is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, but the saying is wrong. The role of the journalist is to afflict, period. News is new—new information, new challenges, new ideas—and it is meant to unsettle us.
That’s a good thing. To be unsettled and discomforted is the world’s great motivator. It is a prick to conscience, a prod to thinking, a rebuke to complacency and a spur to action.
Now, when I say we need to be making our readers uncomfortable, I don’t mean we should gratuitously insult them if we can avoid it. But neither should we make an effort to play to their biases, or feed this or that political narrative, or dish the dirt solely on the people we love to hate, or avoid certain topics for fear of stirring readers’ anger, even if it means a few canceled subscriptions. Especially in an age in which subscribers account for an ever-greater share of our revenue, publishers will have to be as bold in standing up to occasional, if usually empty, threats of mass cancellations for this or that article as they were in standing up to the demands of advertisers in a previous era.
What I mean by making readers uncomfortable is to offer the kind of news that takes aim at your own deeply held convictions and shibboleths. There are people on the political right who don’t like hearing that the correlation between firearms and homicides is positive, not inverse—but a positive correlation is what the data show. Some environmentalists may believe that genetically modified “Frankenfoods” are bad for your health, but the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence tells us they are fine to eat.
The truth may set you free, but first it is going to tick you (or at least a lot of other people) off. This is why free speech requires constitutional protection, especially in a democratic society. Free speech may be the most essential vehicle for getting the truth out. But the truth, as anyone minimally versed in history knows, is rarely popular at first.
Barely 50 years ago, it was an unpopular truth that there was absolutely nothing unnatural about the love that went by the horrible name of “miscegenation.” Other unpopular truths one could mention include gay rights, women’s suffrage, and evolution. These truths could only have made their debut in the public square, and eventually gained broad acceptance, under the armed guard, so to speak, of the First Amendment.
But not just the First Amendment. In addition to a legal sanction, free speech has flourished in the United States because we have had a longstanding cultural bias in favor of the gadfly, the muckraker, the contrarian, the social nuisance. For over a century, editors and publishers and producers—at least the more enlightened ones—have gone out of their way to make allowances for opposing points of view.
They do so not because they have no strong convictions of their own, but rather out of a profound understanding that the astute presentation of divergent views makes us more thoughtful, not less; and that we cannot disagree intelligently unless we first understand profoundly. They do so because they believe that social progress depends on occasionally airing outrageous ideas that, on close reflection, aren’t outrageous at all. They hold firm to the conviction that moving readers out of their political or moral comfort zones, even at the risk of causing upset, is good for mind and soul. Ultimately, they do so because we will not be able to preserve the culture and institutions of a liberal republic unless we are prepared to accept, as Judge Learned Hand put it in 1944, that the “spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right”—and must therefore have the willingness to listen to the other side.
This was what Adolph Ochs knew in 1896, when he promised that under his stewardship The New York Times would “invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.” The Times, like other papers, may not have always lived up to that promise as well as it might have done. But as some of you may have noticed, it most emphatically is now, to the loud consternation of many of our readers.
I do my best to appreciate the concerns of these readers. I understand that many of them—many of us—believe the 2016 election marked a political watershed in which liberties we have long taken for granted are being attacked and possibly jeopardized by a president whose open contempt for a free press has few precedents in American history. I understand the justifiable fear these readers have for a White House in which the truth is merely optional, and in which normal standards of courtesy or decency have lost the purchase they previously had under Democratic and Republican administrations alike.
I also understand that these readers see The New York Times as a citadel, if not the citadel, in standing up to this relentless assault by the president and his minions. I think they are right. The country needs at least one great news organization that understands that the truth is neither relative nor illusory nor a function of the prevailing structure of power—but also that the truth is many-sided; that none of us has a lock on it; and that we can best approach it through the patient accumulation of facts and a vigorous and fair contest of ideas.
That, at any rate, is what I think we are trying to do at The Times, and I can only hope that more people will see its virtue as time goes by. That obviously demands good and consistent communication on our part. But, to return to my theme today, it also requires intelligence on the part of our readers.
How can we get our readers to understand that the purpose of The Times is not to be a tacit partner in the so-called Resistance, which would only validate the administration’s charge that the paper is engaged in veiled partisanship rather than straight-up fact-finding and truth telling?
Some readers, for example, still resent The Times for some of the unflattering coverage of Hillary Clinton throughout the campaign, as if the paper’s patriotic duty was to write fluff pieces about her in order to smooth her way to high office. Again, do these readers comprehend that we are in the business of news, not public relations? And does it not also occur to them that perhaps the real problem was coverage that was not aggressive enough, allowing Mrs. Clinton to dominate the Democratic field in 2016 despite her serious, and only belatedly apparent, shortcomings as a candidate?
As it is, it is not as if there is a great surfeit of pro-Trump news and opinion in the pages of The Times. I think that’s a shortcoming of ours. We are a country in which about 40 percent of voters seem to be solidly behind the president, and it behooves us to understand and even empathize with them, rather than indulge in caricatures. Donald Trump became president because millions of Americans who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 voted Republican four years later. Those who claim this presidency is purely a product of racism need some better explanation to account for that remarkable switch.
The deeper point, however, is that if one really wants to “resist” Trump, especially those of us in the news media, we might start by trying not to imitate him or behave the way he does.
The president is hostile to the First Amendment. Let’s be consistent and expansive champions of the First Amendment. The president belittles and humiliates his political rivals. Let’s listen to and respect our detractors. The president loves to feel insulted and indignant, because his skin is thin and it thrills his base. Let’s hold off on the hair-trigger instinct to take offense. The president accuses first, gathers evidence later. Let’s do the opposite. The president embraces ugly forms of white-identity politics. Let’s eschew identity politics in general in favor of old-fashioned concepts of citizenship and universalism.
I could go on, but you get the point. The answer to a politics of right-wing illiberalism is not a politics of left-wing illiberalism. It is a politics of liberalism, period.
This is politics that believes in the virtues of openness, reason, toleration, dissent, second-guessing, respectful but robust debate, individual conscience and dignity, a sense of decency and also a sense of humor. In a word, Enlightenment. It’s a capacious politics, with plenty of room for the editorials of, say, The New York Times and those of The Wall Street Journal. And it is an uncomfortable politics, because it requires that each side recognize the rights and legitimacy, and perhaps even the value, of the other.
The nomination and election of Trump was, for me, the plainest evidence of the extent to which the liberal spirit has withered on the political right. I’ve written and spoken about this phenomenon many times before, so I won’t get into it here. What worries me is the extent to which it is equally prevalent on the political left.
Case in point: Last month, I wrote a column under the title, “A Modest Immigration Proposal: Ban Jews.”
The word “modest” might have been a tip-off to modestly educated readers that I was not, in fact, proposing to ban Jews at all. My point was to note that Jewish immigrants of a century ago, including my own ancestors, faced the same prejudices that modern-day immigrants from “S-hole” countries face today, and yet went on to great success. In other words, it was a pro-immigration piece, in line with the many other pro-immigration pieces I’ve written for the Times.
Social media went berserk. I was called a “literal Nazi,” guilty of “garden variety bigotry.” Others accused me of giving aid and comfort to neo-Nazis, even if I wasn’t quite a neo-Nazi myself. A great deal of the reaction was abusive and obscene.
By now I’m sufficiently immunized to the way social media works that none of this hurts me personally, at least not too much. And, at its best, platforms such as Twitter are useful for injecting more speech, from a vastly wider and more diverse variety of voices than we ever heard from before, into our national conversation.
What bothers me is that too many people, including those who are supposed to be the gatekeepers of liberal culture, are using these platforms to try to shut down the speech of others, ruin their reputations, and publicly humiliate them.
How many people bother to read before they condemn? Are people genuinely offended, or are they looking for a pretext to be offended—because taking offense is now the shortest route to political empowerment? Am I, as a columnist, no longer allowed to use irony as a rhetorical device because there’s always a risk that bigots and dimwits might take it the wrong way? Can I rely on context to make my point clear, or must I write in fear that any sentence can be ripped out of context and pasted on Twitter to be used against me? Is a plodding, Pravda-like earnestness of tone and substance the only safe way going forward?
Perhaps the most worrisome question is: To what extent are people censoring themselves for fear of arousing the social media frenzies? There’s a reason why Katie Roiphe is writing about the “whisper networks” of women who aren’t 100 percent in line with the #MeToo movement. It should profoundly alarm anyone who cares for #MeToo that such a piece should have needed to be written, in the reliably liberal pages of Harper’s Magazine, no less. The job of #MeToo is to put a firm and hopefully final stop to every form of sexual predation, not to enforce speech codes.
This move toward left-wing illiberalism is not new, and the list of thinkers who have waged war against that illiberalism, from Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in the 1940s to Christopher Hitchens in the 2000s, amounts to a roll call of liberal honor. I think we are awaiting our new Hitchens today, in case any of you want to apply for the job. All you need is a first-class brain and a cast-iron stomach.
So where does this leave us?
I gave this talk the title: “Free Speech and the Necessity of Discomfort.” Yesterday morning, when I retweeted Knight-Wallace’s tweet advertising this speech, someone wrote, “Man, I hope he gets shouted down at some point.” Maybe he was being ironic. At any rate, I’m happy to note that none of you has shouted me down—so far!
I trust that’s because all of you recognize that, even if I may have said some things that made you uncomfortable and with which you profoundly disagree, there is a vast difference between intellectual challenge and verbal thuggishness, between a robust and productive exchange of ideas and mere bombast, between light and heat.
It’s fair to say that Americans of different ideological stripes feel that many things have gone profoundly amiss in our social and political life in recent years. We all have our diagnoses as to what those things are. But one of them, surely, is that we are rapidly losing the ability to talk to one another.
The president has led the way in modeling this uncivil style of discourse. But he has plenty of imitators on the progressive left, who are equally eager to bully or shame their opponents into shutting up because they deem their ideas morally backward or insufficiently “woke.” As each side gathers round in their respective echo chambers and social media silos, the purpose of free speech has become increasingly more obscure.
Its purpose isn’t, or isn’t merely, to allow us to hear our own voices, or the voices of those with whom we already agree. It is also to hear what other people, with other views, often anathema to ours, have to say.
To hear such speech may make us uncomfortable. As well it should. Discomfort is not injury. An intellectual provocation is not a physical assault. It’s a stimulus. Over time, it can improve our own arguments, and sometimes even change our minds.
In either case, it’s hard to see how we can’t benefit from it, if we choose to do so. Make that choice. Democracy is enriched if you do. So are you.