Ever since a New York Times newsroom revolt over a controversial op-ed, American media—if not American society at large—has been engaged in another round of debate about the limits of free expression. The Times has long maintained a firewall between its news operation and its editorial page, as well as a strict social-media policy barring reporters from expressing partisan opinions or taking positions on issues the Times is covering. But after the paper published Republican senator Tom Cotton’s call for the military to descend on protesters in American cities in an “overwhelming show of force,” dozens of Times staffers took to Twitter to condemn it. The column was pulled from the print edition, and editorial-page editor James Bennet was ultimately forced to resign. Some saw in all this a rare moment of accountability for the purveyors of dangerous and dehumanizing ideas; others worried that the paper of record was becoming a place of ideological conformity.
In the past, the mainstream response to charges of creeping illiberalism on the left was to deny that the problem existed beyond a few cherry-picked cases, mostly from college campuses. This denial has become untenable. That the boundaries of acceptable discourse have narrowed, that more and more people make it their job to patrol those boundaries, and that the consequences for transgressing them have increased—these facts can no longer be plausibly refuted. So the response has shifted to acknowledging and even lamenting the change while insisting that it pales in seriousness beside such problems as racial injustice or right-wing authoritarianism. Those who obsess over free speech, the thinking goes, are missing the point.
There is some truth to that. The United States is facing a once-in-a-century pandemic while being governed by perhaps the least competent and least trustworthy presidential administration in our history. At the same time, we are experiencing a moment of racial awakening that is a source of both great pain and great promise. Amid all of this, it might seem obtuse to worry about the silencing of a few voices or the loss of a few media jobs. Certainly those who view ideological intolerance as a greater threat to the liberal order than a president who writes fan letters to dictators and denounces the press as the “enemy of the people” have lost perspective. And there do seem to be a surprising number of commentators whose urgent concern over First Amendment rights extends to members of the press who have been fired for bad editorial decisions but not to those who have been arrested for covering protests. (Or, for that matter, to the protesters themselves.) Some of these commentators are simply professional contrarians, people who are not just willing to offend when intellectual honesty requires it, but eager to offend for the thrill of riling up those who disagree. They know there is profit in provocation. In the end, they just wind up signing on to a different brand of orthodoxy.
And now that Donald Trump has signaled his intention to campaign not on his record or against his opponent but as a bulwark against statue-toppling radicals, it is more tempting than ever to dismiss the trend as a right-wing talking point. But we are not faced with a choice between Trump and left-wing censoriousness, and we should not let Trump make this our choice. It is possible—indeed it is necessary—to attend to more than one problem at a time. That is not moral equivalence; it is multitasking. And our decreasing tolerance for dissenting views is a real problem.
One of my aims as editor of Harper’s Magazine is to give readers a diverse range of viewpoints on a variety of topics. Our commitment to challenging readers is not a cynical reaction to the rise of “cancel culture”; it is written into the magazine’s design. Features such as the Forum and Readings are explicitly aimed at bringing together a multiplicity of views, many of which our editors don’t share. In the past, this has meant setting Susan Faludi and Norma McCorvey (aka Jane Roe) beside William F. Buckley Jr. and Peggy Noonan for a Forum about abortion rights. It also meant publishing Emma Goldman at a time when most mainstream American publications anathematized her as a terrorist. A magazine given to ideological purity tests could not have done any of this. And it would be a lesser magazine for it.
Several years ago, I helped organize a Harper’s Forum that brought together Israelis and Palestinians from across the political spectrum to talk about the future of the region. Some participants enthusiastically embraced a two-state solution; others insisted that abandoning the project of Zionism and welcoming Palestinians into full citizenship in a secular state was the only way forward; and one—Dani Dayan, a leader of the Israeli settlement movement—advocated for a distinctly Jewish nation that stretched from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, which would require Israel’s Arab neighbors to take responsibility for the Palestinians living in the area.
Many of the arguments commonly made by those who favor excluding offensive views—that people are being asked to debate their very right to exist, that a straight line can be drawn between certain ideas and concrete acts of violence—unquestionably applied in this case, but the participants spoke eloquently of the need for dialogue. Indeed, some of them had risked quite a bit to be there.
Days before the conversation was set to take place, in June 2014, three Israeli teenagers disappeared in the West Bank. They were believed to have been abducted by Hamas. In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instituted a security crackdown in the area. At our event in Jerusalem, a liberal member of the Knesset took a seat facing the window, his back against the wall. He explained that his willingness to sit down with Palestinians had made him subject to death threats, which no Israeli politician could take lightly after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. At first, I took this for hyperbole, but everyone else at the table seemed to accept it on its face, and they acknowledged similar pressures from within their own communities.
Here it’s worth stating clearly that we in the United States do not need to worry about getting shot in the back for holding unpopular opinions, while many Americans do worry about getting shot in the back by agents of the state for the color of their skin. But the people in that room in Jerusalem were not there to celebrate an abstract Enlightenment principle about the free exchange of ideas at the cost of addressing more pressing political problems. They were there precisely because their problems were so pressing, and because they believed that the free exchange of ideas was their best hope of solving them.
What exactly did they think this conversation could achieve? At a dinner after the event, I posed that question. One participant, a Palestinian Christian businessman named Bassim Khoury, noted that shifting American opinion could be decisive for the region’s fate. More than anything, he wanted Americans to know that people like him existed. His family had been removed from land that they had occupied, he said, since the time of Christ. But he did not hate Israelis, and he did not want them gone from the area. He didn’t even hope to return to his family home. He wanted economic development for his people; he wanted an end to the squalid conditions in which so many of them were living. In the American media, he said, all Palestinians were portrayed as religious fanatics who dreamed of wiping Israel off the map. He appreciated the fact that Harper’s might show otherwise. He didn’t much like sitting across a table from Dani Dayan, I could tell, but he knew that if any voice was going to be silenced, it would be his own, not Dayan’s.
I am not suggesting that our Forum made a difference in the conflict. Shortly after we left, the three teenagers were found dead, a Palestinian teenager in East Jerusalem was murdered in revenge, and another round of asymmetrical warfare began. Hamas lobbed its $800 sugar-and-fertilizer-powered rockets at Israel, which responded with a campaign of state-of-the-art bombs that killed more than two thousand people in Gaza. Given all this, perhaps the risk of sitting across the table from a man who denied his humanity had not been worth it for Khoury. But he knew far better than most Americans that the alternative to such conversations is a fight of a different kind, one that he would be far less likely to win.