The Illiberalism of Speech Apologies

Matthew J. Mayhew recently posted this essay in Inside Higher Ed. It is an earnest and exceedingly odd sequel to his first essay, “Why America Needs College Football.” He has learned that there was an implicit racism in his initial essay that has “deepened the pain experienced by my ignorance related to Black male athletes and the Black community.” He has learned his lesson and the sequel apologizes for the “hurt, sadness, frustration, fatigue, exhaustion and pain this article has caused anyone.” He expresses so much contrition about the “deep ache for the damage I have done” that it feels like a piece from The Onion. That it is not in fact a piece from the Onion points to a more troubling development in the current discourse about freee speech.

First I would say that the vitality of constitutionalism depends on free speech. Free and open political discourse in the public sphere makes liberal politics itself possible. Without it, we will succumb to existing power structures intent on preserving their power for the benefit of themselves and the likely detriment of everyone else. Although the speech censorship of Facebook, Twitter, and other online platforms should be the subject of another post, it should worry anyone who values open discourse and the ability to “speak truth to power” that open discourse makes possible. Trump-haters might like that they silenced Trump, but should worry when these technology giants silence those who suggest that the government should regulate them more.

But, Mayhew’s contrition for his speech represents an even more insidious threat to open discourse. This threat doesn’t directly suppress his speech: he was free to write the original essay and he wasn’t necessarily compelled to publish his latter contrition. Although the very real threat that publishing the “wrong” thing poses to one’s livelihood, he still doesn’t face any criminal punishment for his college football essay.

Instead, it is the language of contrition itself that poses this threat. Perhaps he is right that his original college football essay was mistaken in some important way, the value of free speech is that others can challenge his argument and expose his misunderstanding. In fact, that exchange itself will often strengthen the arguments of those who argue against him. If his initial “mistaken” college football essay does contain certain forms of implicit racism, then his detractors could use this opportunity to teach their readers something about the meaning and signs of implicit racism. If, however, he had not published his initial essay because he had been aware of the “hurt and pain” it would cause, then that valuable exchange would have been lost. Speech inevitably causes hurt feelings at times. As liberal, strong, and truth-loving citizens, we must learn to accept those hurt feelings because of the advantages that freedom of speech, unrestrained by the supposed violence of its words, brings to our political culture. Closing off certain speech because it might cause someone’s feelings to be hurt inevitably degrades our public discourse. As citizens of a liberal democracy, we need to be tougher than that! This is true, I would argue, even from the perspective of those whose ideology led them to applaud Mayhew’s contrition.

Many future authors will choose to remain silent because of their fear that they will hurt someone’s feelings. Or, more likely, they will choose to remain silent out of fear of the backlash they will create because they supposedly did violence to someone with their words. In a contest between violence and nearly anything else, violence will always lose. If free speech becomes an act of violence, it will necessarily disappear. It’s one thing to insist on the silence of the truly violent speech of neo-Nazis and other groups on the alt-Right. There’s room for disagreement on this question within liberal politics. But a defense of the benefits of college football as an act of violence?!? Not clear where that standard stops. It’s likely that anything with which you disagree will be portrayed as an act of violence. In such a situation, speech will be controlled entirely by those who have the power to win this contest. Rather than the freedom to speak truth to power, those with the power to punish those who speak “wrongly” will determine who is allowed to speak. The power to punish “wrongness” is that much stronger because it can pose as an act of kindness to those who have supposedly been hurt.

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