The “liberal paradox,” simply stated, is that liberals are so tolerant and principled with regard to the inherent virtue of freedom that they defend speech that would end their existence. Why tolerate those who would eliminate you? Because they trust that better ideas will prevail over worse ideas, freedom over fascism. It’s a bit idealistic and, perhaps, self-defeating, but that’s pretty much the point.
At the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg tries to usurp the paradox for her own purposes.
It’s something of a truism, particularly on the right, that conservatives have claimed the mantle of free speech from an intolerant left that is afraid to engage with uncomfortable ideas. Every embarrassing example of woke overreach — each ill-considered school board decision or high-profile campus meltdown — fuels this perception.
She’s not wrong to say that conservatives have “claimed the mantle of free speech from an intolerant left,” although the “particularly on the right” glosses over the omitted observation that liberals, not conservatives, and surely not progressives, similarly condemn the intolerance. It’s almost as if no one exists in Goldberg’s universe who isn’t woke or conservative, thus creating a convenient stalking horse against which to juxtapose her complaint about the right passing laws to prohibit her real grievance, critical race theory.
Republicans in West Virginia and Oklahoma have introduced bills banning schools and, in West Virginia’s case, state contractors from promoting “divisive concepts,” including claims that “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist.” A New Hampshire Republican also proposed a “divisive concepts” ban, saying in a hearing, “This bill addresses something called critical race theory.”
These are bad laws, unconstitutional laws. And this gives rise to a progressive paradox, as Goldberg’s complaint is that the right is suppressing free speech by refusing to allow the expression of critical race theory. a theory that would itself suppress the expression of any thought contrary to its tenets that everything is racial, that white people are by definition racists and that the only way to ameliorate racism is to be an active “anti-racist.” Any challenge to this notion would be racist, and thus prohibited.
Parts of the critical race theory tradition are in tension with liberalism, particularly when it comes to issues like free speech. Richard Delgado, a key figure in the movement, has argued that people should be able to sue those who utter racist slurs. Others have played a large role in crafting campus speech codes.
Of course, we’ve come a long way since then, now promoting the criminalization of speech that is deemed “hate speech,” which is both easily and meaninglessly defined to be whatever speech someone claims to be offensive. Wrong-headed as that may be to the liberal mind, Goldberg invokes its open-minded protections.
Disagreeing with certain ideas, however, is very different from anathematizing the collective work of a host of paradigm-shifting thinkers. Gates’s article was effective because he took the scholarly work he engaged with seriously. “The critical race theorists must be credited with helping to reinvigorate the debate about freedom of expression; even if not ultimately persuaded to join them, the civil libertarian will be much further along for having listened to their arguments and examples,” he wrote.
There’s a certain whiff of crediting mass murder with reinvigorating the debate about gun control about Goldberg’s argument.
But the right, for all its chest-beating about the value of entertaining dangerous notions, is rarely interested in debating the tenets of critical race theory. It wants to eradicate them from public institutions.
This is where the paradox turns disingenuous. It’s one thing for Goldberg to claim that our liberal spirit of free speech should defend CRT from prohibition by conservative lawmakers, and it should even if Goldberg would never be as kind to less progressive ideas, but alongside the liberal ideas of free speech for bad expression is the prohibition on compelled speech, on the government forcing people to be indoctrinated, on requiring people to confess the sin of their race and swear fealty to the government’s preferred ideology.
“Critical race theory is a grave threat to the American way of life,” Christopher Rufo, director of the Center on Wealth and Poverty at the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank once known for pushing an updated form of creationism in public schools, wrote in January.
Rufo insists there are no free speech implications to what he’s trying to do. “You have the freedom of speech as an individual, of course, but you don’t have the kind of entitlement to perpetuate that speech through public agencies,” he said.
Whether critical race theory is a grave threat, or the racial salvation of America, is certainly a fair subject for debate. But Rufo is wrong to argue that there are no free speech implications to laws prohibiting its teaching or expression by public agencies. Where he has a point is that public agencies captured by CRT adherents cannot force people, whether students, employees or people seeking engagement with the government, to be indoctrinated and embrace critical race theory.
For this, Goldberg blames the hypocrisy of conservatives, who claim free speech but deny it to her tribe in a battle of who gets to prohibit the other side’s speech first. Where are the principled liberals to defend her claim of right to segregate fourth graders into racial groups to confess their racism and swear to dedicate their lives to self-loathing and serving another race?
This sounds, ironically, a lot like the arguments people on the left make about de-platforming right-wingers. To [Kimberlé] Crenshaw, attempts to ban critical race theory vindicate some of the movement’s skepticism about free speech orthodoxy, showing that there were never transcendent principles at play.
The irony here is that one movement that rejects free speech is complaining of their arch enemy’s rejection of free speech, and seeks the aid of liberals who are dedicated to the “transcendent principles at play.”
When people defend offensive speech, she said, they’re often really defending “the substance of what the speech is — because if it was really about free speech, then this censorship, people would be howling to the high heavens.” If it was really about free speech, they should be.
We’re here, and we’re every bit against government prohibition of expression of critical race theory as you are. We’re also every bit against your effort to make your ideology official government orthodoxy and ram it down people’s throat upon pain of exclusion, if not prison. These conservative prohibition laws are awful. Your efforts at compelled speech are no better. And teachers, leave those kids alone.