You may not like what someone has to say, but it is in YOUR best interest to make sure they can say it.
The First Amendment may technically apply only to Americans, but its underlying principle is the foundation for individual liberty everywhere. When each human being can speak his or her mind without fear of repression, we all win; when even one person is pressured into silence, culturally or politically, everyone loses.
This brings me to Sargon of Akkad, a popular YouTube pundit who identifies as a classical liberal. Over the years he has become a source of controversy for his brazenly un-PC style and championing of causes held in low regard by the mainstream media (e.g., Gamergate, anti-feminism). After being recommended to me by a libertarian friend, I began following his videos and found them to be something of a mental whetstone – I disagree with him far more than not (particularly when it comes to the issues of racial and gender inequality), and many of his insults and jokes cross lines of good taste that I personally prefer not to breach, but he’s smart and offers arguments that compel me to critically analyze my own opinions. It is precisely because I usually disagree with him that I’ve found it intellectually healthy to listen to his perspective.
That said, even if Sargon was a gibbering idiot, it would still behoove me to defend him when his ability to freely express his ideas comes under attack. This brings me to the war against his Patreon account being waged by progressive activist Franchesca Ramsey, whose YouTube videos have recently gained prominence thanks to her weekly MTV series “Decoded.” When it came to her attention that some of her work had been critiqued by Sargon, she wrote an email about him to Patreon challenging his account there. Because she openly acknowledged on Twitter that Sargon’s videos are his main source of income, it is safe to assume that her goal was to deprive him of the financial resources to continue producing his distinct brand of political content… which would, in effect, silence him.
Words cannot express how tired I am of seeing my fellow leftists act in this way. In the past I’ve criticized everyone from campus protesters to the State of Texas for attempting to stifle opinions that fall afoul of progressive beliefs. More recently, while being interviewed on KPFA in San Francisco about my experiences being targeted by Donald Trump’s neo-Nazi supporters, I was taken aback when the host reacted to the anti-Semitic vitriol directed against me by white supremacist Andrew Anglin with the declaration that “this is a First Amendment radio station, ‘Free Speech ‘r Us,’ but this is not okay!” After observing that society is better off when bigots are blatant (since it exposes that these problems still exist), I pointed out that “I would rather live in a society where this kind of invective is possible – even if it’s directed against me – than one in which it’s censored.” On each of these occasions, my point has been a simple one, perhaps best summed up by George Orwell: “Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”
Because I can understand why Ramsey would find Sargon’s videos so objectionable, I would fully support her right to create videos accusing him of bigotry, just as I would fully support Sargon’s right to offer a rebuttal to those accusations. Similarly, if Ramsey chose to ignore Sargon and dismiss his rhetoric as beneath her, that too would fall squarely within her rights. By instead attempting to silence him, however, Ramsey has subordinated the integrity of an unfettered ideological marketplace to her desire not to be offended. Coming from someone who personally profits from a culture that encourages the free expression of ideas, this approach is entirely unacceptable.
At some point, those of us on the left will need to make a choice. If we fail to recognize that a culture of free expression is the foundation not only for our own ideology, but for the framework of any truly liberal society, we will not only betray our ostensible values but weaken those very structures that have protected us in the past. On the other hand, if we have the wisdom to accept that ideas which offend or enrage us deserve the same safeguards as the ones with which we agree, we will not only best serve our own interests, but elevate the tone of public discourse in the process.
Frankly, I’m surprised that more of my fellow progressives don’t seize this chance to rise to the occasion.