The New Free Speech Fault Line

There is a new fault line in town – the free speech fault line. Liberals and conservatives who are pro-free speech get along rather well; and both tussle with anti-free-speech advocates who think some opinions are badthink and must be silenced.

Bad color!

For a long time, the dominant distinction in American politics has been the “left/right” distinction. Politicians, voters, media conglomerates, pundits, and actors are plotted on a graph from conservative or to liberal.

There is good reason to be skeptical that this x-axis captures all the complexity of disagreement between various political traditions. It is easy to come up with an x/y axis graph that includes “Libertarian” as an alternative label for right-centric folks and “Progressive” as an alternative label for left-centric folks. Even millennials who identify as liberal identify as “libertarian” (67%) slightly more often than they do “progressive” (64%).


If this x/y graph captured all the popular political opinions, then it would make sense to have four parties. Although we have a two-party system of Republican or Democrat, each party is composed of (sizable) sub-parties who must hold their noses at the policy positions of their fellow party members.

For example, on the right, Nate Silver’s Five Rings divide up the Republican party into Establishment, Moderate, Christian Conservative, Libertarian, and Tea party. Tea Partiers fight with Establishment-types just about as often as they fight with moderate Democrats.

Five rings right

You can graph people’s views on individual issues There is no comparable graph of people on the Left, but this commenter created a good start.

Five rings left

The point is that the Bernie folks hold their nose at Clinton just as much as the Clinton folks held their nose at Bernie. We are in need of a new way of dividing up groups by label in such a way as to helpfully capture their allegiance to particular ideological and policy positions.

Enter Free Speech.

The ACLU is as liberal as it comes, but they stand with free speech. Their Q&A shows how much heat they take from their authoritarian members. But ACLU is right on this one. Free speech is not a given in any society; it is an achievement of some societies. Why protect even the speech of the vilest members of our society? Because a society in which such voices are silence is, in a way, just as vile or worse as a society where those voices have a platform.