The Battle of Ideas Turns Coercive

Too many people (and governments) want to shut down and punish speech they disagree with.


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A couple of months ago, Marriott fired Roy Jones, a 49-year-old social-media manager. His offense? He liked a tweet praising Marriott for listing Tibet as a country, rather than as a part of China. The Chinese government objected, and soon Jones was gone. (Marriott said its own listing of Tibet as a country was a mistake, but its mistake was not enough to save Jones' job. Neither was the fact that Twitter is banned in China, so most citizens can't access it.)

China's government is notoriously touchy; it doesn't like Winnie the Pooh, whom it thinks looks too much like Chinese President Xi Jinping. It also is hyper-vigilant about those things it finds offensive. In a column for The Washington Post, Josh Rogin quotes Katrina Lantos Swett, head of a human-rights group, who says "China is not content with censoring and controlling its own citizens. It is using the immense power of its financial resources in every country in the world."

That includes the U.S., where major corporations such as Apple are cooperating with Chinese censors to control what Chinese citizens can see.

This is totalitarianism: not merely an effort to maintain authority over a populace, but to wield total control over everything even remotely related to China, and to stamp out anything that presents even a minor threat to official doctrine.

There's a lot of that going around these days. Witness, for instance, the pressure campaign against companies that advertise during Laura Ingraham's show.

Ingraham wrote a tweet mocking Parkland shooting survivor and gun-control activist David Hogg for being rejected by several colleges. This was a stupid and mean thing to do, but hardly a crime against humanity. Ingraham apologized. Nevertheless, an assortment of activists began pressuring companies that advertise on Ingraham's show to drop her. Many did; her show now carries about half the advertising it did previously.

Stipulated: Freedom of speech emphatically does not grant people freedom from consequences. Fox has stuck by Ingraham, but it would have just as much right to fire her as Marriott had to fire Jones. Moreover, advertisers have no duty to support any particular show or personality. And activists have every right in the world to share their views with advertisers.

Nevertheless, the effort to pressure Ingraham's advertisers does carry a whiff of the Chinese approach. Instead of simply denouncing Ingraham—answering speech with more speech—her critics have been trying to silence her.

The same phenomenon has been taking place on college campuses—and off them—as members of Antifa and their fellow travelers try to "no-platform" (that is, deny an opportunity to speak) anyone who commits what they consider a thoughtcrime. This effort reached an ironic nadir earlier last fall at The College of William & Mary, where a Black Lives Matter group shouted down Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, the head of the Virginia ACLU, who had shown up to talk about…free speech.

An even more worrisome example of censorship by proxy has occurred in New York, as Reason's J.D. Tuccille reported a few days ago. Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed bank regulators to scrutinize whether any business relationship the financial institutions might have with the NRA "sends the wrong message." The state's Department of Financial Services promptly warned banks and insurance companies that how they do business, and with whom, could affect their "reputational risks"—an area subject to state regulation.

In short, the governor was warning financial institutions that they could face government penalties for doing business with an organization that advocates for a civil right. This is not a happy precedent. Imagine how the Trump administration might wield it against banks that do business with, say, immigrant-rights groups.

The government can't go after the NRA or immigrant-rights groups directly. But it can try to silence them indirectly, by making it impossible for them to conduct their affairs.

At bottom, there are only a few ways to change other people's behavior: persuasion, coercion, and force. The freest societies rely chiefly on persuasion; the most tyrannical rely strictly on force. Coercion lies in the nebulous middle. Increasingly, it seems that those who find a given idea objectionable are no longer willing to fight it with persuasion alone. Which raises the question: How far down the scale toward force are they willing to go?