One of the most welcome political developments of my lifetime is the growing suspicion with which attempts to cloak even the most detestable utterances under the mantle of "free speech" is regarded.
From the misogynistic obscurantism of #GamerGate (years later I still can't find anyone who can tell me what the "-gate" was) and the painfully unfunny parody of stand-up comedy performed on college campuses by the expatriate employer of ghostwriters known as Milo Yiannopoulos to the latter-day phrenology of the so-called alt-right and the unabashed Holocaust denial of Stormfront, there are expressions that most of us consider on their face unacceptable and undeserving of a platform. The difference is that now increasingly it looks as if people have concluded that it is our duty to make sure they are denied one. Thank God for SJWs!
This was not always the case. There is a long history in this country of making grandiose blanket defenses of freedom of speech that extend to bigots, frauds, pornographers, genocidal enthusiasts, propagators of terrorism and sedition, and kooks emotionally invested in nonsense and villainy of every conceivable variety. People who make arguments defending, say, the rights of pseudo-historians to argue that the Nazis did not murder millions of European Jews or the ancient liberty of perverts to create simulations of child pornography call themselves "free speech absolutists." Their position has never been tenable, but it has long enjoyed a mainstream currency in the United States, in classrooms, and in the pages of newspapers and magazines — and even on the bench of the Supreme Court.
This is because freedom of speech in the way that is usually discussed in this country is a cartoonish fantasy. There has never been a community in which certain ideas have not been considered open for discussion or debate. As Stanley Fish argued in his famous essay "There is no such thing as free speech, and it's a good thing, too," the liberal concept of freedom of speech is not some kind of immutable principle woven into the fabric of reality; it is an idea and a very new, albeit frequently misunderstood one.
As Fish points out, the ur-text for what we think of as freedom of expression, quoted on a monument familiar to those who visited the Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library, is John Milton's 1642 treatise Aeropagitica. There the Puritan poet and pamphleteer makes many arguments that will sound familiar to Americans in the 21st century: Allowing the largest possible number of viewpoints to be expressed publicly means that we have access to more good ideas; the task of sifting through a wide range of opinions sharpens our intellects and forces us to refine our own arguments; moreover, actively proscribing certain expressions may lend them a certain kind of romantic credibility, whereas simply ignoring them will result in their being mostly ignored.
What almost no one acknowledges, except in the act of attempting to explain it away, is the following qualification, which was absolutely crucial for Milton:
I mean not tolerated Popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpats all religions and civill supremacies, so it self should be extirpat, provided first that all charitable and compassionat means be us'd to win and regain the weak and the misled: that also which is impious or evil absolutely either against faith or maners no law can possibly permit, that intends not to unlaw it self. [Aeropagitica]
In other words, Milton argues, all free speech is acceptable except any speech that promotes the teachings of the Catholic Church or paganism or atheism. Brushing this off as mere prejudice or oversight would be a gross anachronism. Milton makes this qualification precisely because Catholicism and atheism are incompatible with the kind of society for which he is arguing. Giving Catholics or atheists a hearing would be an act of violence tearing away at the foundations of the Christian commonwealth he hoped to establish.
Very few Americans today are interested in setting up a community based on 17th-century Protestant notions of biblical morality. But Milton's pamphlet remains relevant. All societies have certain organizing principles. Freedom of speech is not a first-order good; it exists only to facilitate the flourishing of the society along the lines established by those principles. In America today one of those principles is that discrimination based on race is immoral; people who disagree with this have only one goal — creating a society in which it is not one of those principles. If we do not want to allow this to happen, we should not permit anyone to argue in favor of it.
To pretend otherwise and posture on behalf of the abstract rights of racist crank is not, as "absolutists" pretend, to defend speech but to demean it, to diminish it to the level of undifferentiated random noise. This is because every act of expression takes place against the invisible backdrop of all the expressions not taking place; an argument in the pages of The Washington Post about a murder assumes that murder is a crime, and it would not occur to the reporter that, when seeking comment from the police department and the suspect's attorney, he should also solicit the opinions of a hypothetical man in Arkansas who thinks that murder should not be a crime. To fail to see how any given act of speech only makes sense in the absence of other possible but absolutely inadmissible expressions is childish. Assuming that a new scholarly biography of Hitler and Holocaust-denying memes traded by basement dwellers on the internet are both "speech," expressions of potentially equal value whose worth is ultimate determined by what readers decide to make of them, is not an exercise in tolerance; it is nihilism.
Which brings us to the recent decisions by Go Daddy and Google to deny the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi publication, a home on their web hosting platforms. I have yet to see anyone find fault with this decision even though realistically speaking it amounts to censorship. This is in itself a good thing, though few people have acknowledged it as such. At present it is easy to ignore the elephant in the room by saying that these are private companies free to make their own decisions about what viewpoints can be expressed on web servers that they own and control. But there are only so many web hosting services. Suppose no one was willing to offer these Hitler fanboys room to air their grievances with African-Americans and Jews on the internet — suppose that they could find no publisher willing to reproduce their pamphlets and no one willing to sell them a Xerox machine and paper to distribute them on their own?
Would it still be okay? Why is it reasonable to pretend that an action that is licit and even commendable when taken by a corporation that will soon be worth $1 trillion would be unjust if an ill-defined entity called "the state" undertook it? The world in which the government enjoys a monopoly on coercion and corporations are not state entities whose actions would not be possible without a vast infrastructure and legal apparatus in which they operate is a fantasy. The procedural question of who is responsible for the censorship is beside the point. The only relevant one is whether it is laudable.
I for one am happy that the Daily Stormer is gone. People who agree with me need to ask themselves why they would have found it upsetting if the Department of Justice had shut it down.