In May 2020, protests erupted all over the U.S. after a video emerged of a white police officer killing a black man named George Floyd. Millions took to the streets in support of racial justice under the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter.” Most protests were peaceful, but several cities experienced large-scale violence. Free speech was also affected in the process. A disturbing number of incidents of police brutality and excessive force against peaceful protesters and journalists were documented. President Trump accused a Black Lives Matter leader of “treason, sedition, insurrection” and labelled protestors as “terrorists.”
But demands for structural change also led to calls for de-platforming people whose views were deemed hostile to or even insufficiently supportive of racial justice. A Democratic data analyst named David Shor was fired after tweeting a study that showed that nonviolent black-led protests were more effective than violent ones in terms of securing voter support. In another instance, New York Times staffers protested that the newspaper put “Black @NYTimes staff in danger” by running a provocative op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, which argued for deploying the military to quell riots. The newsroom revolt led to opinion editor James Bennet resigning.
Academia was affected too. A letter signed by hundreds of Princeton faculty members, employees and students demanded a faculty committee be established to “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication” and write “Guidelines on what counts as racist.”
Social media companies came under intense pressure to take a more robust stand on “hate speech.”
The entrenchment of so-called “cancel culture” caused around 150, mostly liberal, writers and intellectuals to sign an open “Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The letter argued against what the signers saw as “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” The letter drew sharp criticism from many journalists, writers and intellectuals for being “tone-deaf,” “privileged,” “elitist” and detracting from or even hurting the struggle for racial justice.
The wider debate often turned nasty — especially on social media — with loud voices on each side engaging in alarmist, bad faith arguments ascribing the worst intentions to their opponents. Many of those concerned about free speech warned of creeping totalitarianism imposed by “social justice warriors” run amok, intent on imposing a stifling orthodoxy of “wokeism.” Some confused vehement criticism of a person’s ideas with attempts to stifle that person’s speech. On the other hand, some racial justice activists outright denied the existence of “cancel culture” and failed to distinguish between vehement criticism of a person’s ideas and calling for that person to be sanctioned by an employer, publisher or university. Some even accused free speech defenders of being complicit in or actual defenders of white supremacy and compared words deemed racially insensitive with violence.
Underlying these debates is a more fundamental question. Is a robust and principled approach to free speech a foundation for — or a threat to — racial justice?
To help shed light on this question, this episode will focus on what role the dynamic between censorship and free speech has played in maintaining and challenging racist and oppressive societies. The episode will use American slavery and segregation, British colonialism, and South African apartheid as case studies.
In this episode we will explore:
Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.
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