The Rise of Artificial Freedom
In multiple settings, we are seeing a trend toward narrowing the scope of opinions allowed in the public arena. Heading into high school and college commencement season, a rising tide of ideological censorship is drowning out diversity of opinion. And academia leads the way in defining acceptable thought.
This means that as the number of “disinvitations” for conservative speakers piles up, the idea that speech equates to violence is gaining purchase. Silencing different viewpoints is not only growing on campuses, it’s also spreading to the tech world and the corporate arena.
This week Google censored the Claremont Institute, a highly regarded conservative think tank with a 40-year track record of defending American founding principles such as freedom of speech and religion. Claremont recently launched a campaign to raise awareness of illiberal speech codes and their threat to freedom; at the same time, the institute started online advertising for its upcoming anniversary dinner.
Apparently not recognizing the absurdity of censoring an organization for writing about censorship, Google shut down the ads and told Claremont there would be “no appeal.” Claremont’s offense? The discussion of multiculturalism and speech codes on its website.
Eventually, Google relented. But only after Claremont went public did Google back down and acknowledge a “mistake.”
But this “mistake” isn’t an isolated incident. This censorship episode comes right on the heels of a similar one aimed at the president of the Heritage Foundation, Kay Coles James. In April, Google formed – and then within a week disbanded -- an advisory committee related to its work on artificial intelligence. It said the panel was intended to bring “diverse perspectives” to bear on issues in this rapidly evolving area of innovation and invited James to serve on it.
Mrs. James is by any measure a proven leader, having served at the highest levels of government, academia and the nonprofit sector. She also established the Gloucester Institute to train and mentor young black leaders, and has a career marked by explicitly defending the human dignity of every individual.
But James is also conservative. And so a band of five Google employees began circulating a petition calling for her ouster.
Ironically, the petition cited the need for the AI panel to address “historical patterns of discrimination and exclusion.” If anyone knows discrimination and exclusion, it’s James, who suffered verbal and physical abuse as she helped desegregate a middle school in the South as a teen.
Doubling down on the irony, the petition lamented that AI “doesn’t ‘hear’ more feminine voices, and doesn’t ‘see’ women of color.” Still, because Mrs. James holds some policy views that differ from theirs, she was deemed not to have a “valid perspective worthy of inclusion.”
The Googlers refused to see her, or hear her, in her own voice. That’s discrimination and exclusion in action. The takeaway message is clear: Diversity means agreeing with us. Disagreeing with us is intolerance and even “violence.”
As a civil society, we are careening toward ideological balkanization. This trend of labeling opinions with which we disagree as dangerous and hateful threatens Americans’ foundational freedoms. Charges of dangerous speech are laid as an exercise in bullying and raw power.
This tide of bigotry and intimidation is not limited to America. The noted English philosopher and public intellectual Sir Roger Scruton was recently fired from a government housing commission after being accused of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments. The charges were leveled after a lengthy interview with The New Statesman.
For three weeks, while Scruton was being pilloried, the paper refused to release the tape of the interview. But Douglas Murray of National Review Institute obtained a copy of the tape and forced the paper to release a transcript. Not surprisingly, Scruton’s actual words did not match the reported description. But he has not been reinstated.
Make no mistake, once the totalitarian impulse is tolerated, and cloaked in sanctimony, its targets will be far-ranging. And, well, diverse.
For example, a group of students at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia launched a protest against the noted feminist scholar and tenured professor Camille Paglia. Like Google, they began a petition demanding that Paglia be fired and replaced by a “queer person of color.” Notably, Paglia is a lesbian who has described herself as transgender. Yet the protesters charged her with making “dangerous” comments about people who identify as transgendered.
The only actual comment cited in the petition—“I question whether the transgender choice is genuine in every single case”— is a heavily caveated statement, and yet the campus censors still labeled her views unacceptable.
With this cultural creep toward oppression, we are losing something that has been essential to the core of the American identity. To his credit, the president of the University of the Arts, David Yager, responded to the Paglia controversy by stating: “I firmly believe that limiting the range of voices in society erodes our democracy.”
This is a critical point: If valuing diversity and pluralism is to have any meaning, we cannot label opinions with which we disagree as “discrimination” as a way of silencing someone with a different viewpoint.
Affirming a robust interpretation of the First Amendment and freedom of speech will sometimes require uncomfortable conversations. But living with -- even valuing -- this kind of discomfort is part of the American DNA and is at the heart of respect and civility.
We can do better. We may be advancing rapidly in artificial intelligence, but we are regressing toward artificial freedoms.
Charmaine Yoest is vice president of the Institute of Family, Community and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).