Conservatives make a common error when fighting today’s Left: We point out that they are violating time-honored norms of America, the West, and the free society, such as religious toleration, freedom of speech, or media impartiality — as if they cared about those norms.
You can no more refute an argument from a radical through appeals to classical liberalism than you can critique a modern artist through appeals to classical rules of composition.
Yes, exactly, they will say if they’re being honest. We’re not playing by your rules.
“Social democracy is not classical liberalism,” as one leftist put it a few years back. "It does not place the individual above all. It does not value process over outcome. It does not imagine a politics w/out … raw power. It doesn't assume rules are handed on from high.”
The “process” rejected by today's Left are the traditional rules of fair play in our culture: freedom of speech, majority rule paired with minority rights, free exercise of religion, due process of law, checks and balances.
Specifically, “open debate” is not valued by the ascendant social democrats who set the rules in our media and at our Big Tech platforms. And in the halls of government, dissent is increasingly seen as dangerous.
“Disinformation,” they cry. “You are endangering people of color,” they chant in unison. These terms and phrases are efforts to declare: This speech should not be refuted but silenced.
We appeal to our colleagues in the media, our friends in Big Tech, and our lawmakers in Congress to learn from recent experience about the perils of shutting down what you deem “disinformation” or “harmful” speech. Even if you don’t share our principles of open debate, at least take a lesson from recent events to gain some humility and see how easy it is to become thoroughly convinced that an argument is demonstrably false — and yet be wrong.
For over a year, the scientific, media, and Democratic Party establishment refused to even consider the possibility that the coronavirus escaped from a lab. It wasn’t simply that scientists, journalists, and Joe Biden rejected that theory as unlikely: They branded it as obviously false and declared that it was the sort of dangerous “disinformation” that should be censored and condemned.
Twitter last fall suspended one Chinese virologist last year for pushing the idea the virus came out of the lab. Facebook, at the request of the World Health Organization, implemented a “misinformation” policy that included removing all posts that argued “COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured.”
Major news outlets that used to claim impartiality simply ruled the lab-leak hypothesis false. Politifact gave the idea a “pants on fire” rating; the Washington Post and the New York Times both (about one year apart) declared it “debunked.” Vox called it “a dangerous conspiracy theory.”
Now, multiple scientists (and even most of the media) have come around to saying the lab-leak hypothesis is perfectly plausible.
The problem isn’t that the World Health Organization, Facebook, Twitter, the Washington Post, and the New York Times were wrong about the lab leak being possible. It’s that they acted with such illiberal certainty. The Washington Post and the New York Times could have dedicated op-eds and editorials to arguing why the lab leak didn’t happen. But that’s not the way things are done these days. Opinions declared sufficiently bad don’t get refuted — they get “fact-checked” at best and silenced at worst.
This was how the media, the Democrats, and Big Tech treated the information about Hunter Biden’s international influence peddling found on his laptop: They didn’t simply argue that the Biden family’s profit model was fine or less shady than the Trump family’s; they tried to claim that the whole story was Russian disinformation. And again, the biggest media outlets blacked out the story while Big Tech cut off access to the original New York Post story.
The attempts in the media to pass their opinion as the incontrovertible truth is illiberal, as is Big Tech’s censorship, but they aren’t as disturbing as the censorious talk from politicians.
Republican lawmaker Adam Kinzinger, who now sets his watch by opposing Donald Trump and what he sees as Trumpism, declared that the fiery pro-Second Amendment speech of his fellow Republican congressman, Matt Gaetz, was “not speech protected by the first amendment.” It is speech protected by the First Amendment, of course, but perhaps Kinzinger wishes it weren’t.
Kinzinger’s kindred spirit, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has suggested earlier this year that “we're going to have to figure out how we rein in our media environment so that you can't just spew disinformation and misinformation."
But we know that what they call “disinformation and misinformation” today often becomes accepted fact or a plausible theory tomorrow.
So, even if we can’t convince the social democrats at the New York Times, within Facebook, or in the House of Representatives to accept the liberal Western tradition of free and open debate, we can at least implore them to show some more humility — and more tolerance toward ideas they don’t like. If for no other reason that, sometimes, even the righteous are wrong.