A “speech wars” section of The Atlantic

I’d like to call your attention to a fairly new feature of The Atlantic that began last fall: a series of columns and short pieces gathered under the rubric (and webpage) called “The Speech Wars”. Click on the screenshot to go there:

The topics and viewpoints are diverse, but all have something to do with the rights of people to say what they want, and the counterspeech against it.  There are pro- and con-columns about Ilhan Omar’s statements, columns about hate speech, about the demonization of Harvard’s Ronald Sullivan, a house master and lawyer who is defending Harvey Weinstein as a client, and so on. Here’s a small screenshot:

You won’t agree with everything—how could you when the pieces sometimes take diametrically opposed stands?—but you’ll probably benefit most by reading things you don’t agree with. After all, isn’t that one of the great boons of free speech?


  1. Posted May 6, 2019 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I thought the boon of free speech was that I got to say what I want, not that I have to listen to what other people say. Having to listen to other people is the burden, not the boon.😀

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 6, 2019 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      The First Amendment Speech Clause guarantees not just the right to speak one’s mind, but also the right to listen to speakers of one’s choosing. So, although one is never burdened with having to listen to a speaker not of one’s choice (that’s what the First Amendment’s “captive audience” doctrine prohibits), there’s a boon sometimes to listening, too.

      • Posted May 6, 2019 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

        One man’s boon is another man’s burden.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 6, 2019 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

        So freedom OF speech also includes freedom FROM unwanted speech (in circumstances where it can’t be avoided by the listener). I think it has to.


    • Posted May 7, 2019 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      Actually, if you think about it, the right of free speech is more about the right of people to be able to hear your speech. If you were saying things the government didn’t like so they make it illegal for other people to listen to your speech e.g. you are free to say what you like but you have to be standing in this sound proof box when you say it, I think we would agree that the government has broken the First Amendment.

      • Posted May 7, 2019 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        Agree with that. When I worked downtown I would often spend a few minutes in a park getting some sun. Several times a week someone would be there speaking on some subject, politics or preaching. It would be tough to listen to and made it hard to have a private discussion with a couple worker. For everybody. But they were treated with respect even by the people who disagreed with what they were saying.
        I always objected to people being restricted to certain places to speak or protest. When the Olympics came here in 1996 they built a platform for protest a few blocks from the center of the action. I said that back in the sixties the first thing we would have done would have been to burn or tear down the platform.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted May 7, 2019 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

          As you likely know, OG, in Hyde Park in London, they have a “Speaker’s Corner” where any fool can climb on soapbox and declaim to his heart’s content. Best English idea since Bombay Gin. Damn near makes up for the crappy food and crappier weather. (I kid, my English friends, I kid!)

          • Posted May 7, 2019 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

            That was about like we had in Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. I enjoyed working there and getting a little exercise and sun on a nice day. We had to dodge the pigeons. They were all over the place scooping up crumbs from lunch bags. But it was good notwithstanding. I worked for a title company and all the major real estate law firms were within two or three blocks. Enjoyed the days.

            Ernest Harben

          • Posted May 9, 2019 at 11:42 am | Permalink

            Fortunately – at least until Brexit kicks in – reverse colonialism and in-Europe flows of people have fixed the food thing, at least in reasonably large places.

            • merilee
              Posted May 9, 2019 at 11:49 am | Permalink

              Especially the influx of Indians 😋

  2. merilee
    Posted May 6, 2019 at 2:35 pm | Permalink


  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 6, 2019 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I took a look at the first article on Trump because that one just happened and I think it is important to separate this from free speech as it is in the bill of rights.

    Trump is all twisted out of shape because Facebook has been removing several extremist from their platform. This has nothing to do with free speech although Trump, in his ignorance does not seem to know this. He has an opinion on everything and wants everyone to hear his, whether it is on the horse race or removing his friends from internet platforms. Frankly I am waiting for them to remove him.

    Have said before and will say again – the first amendment is a restriction on government, not incitement to the people.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 6, 2019 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Left you a note in the comments to the preceding post about this statement by high-ranking former US Department of Justice prosecutors.

      To quote Joe Biden’s words to Barack Obama in a different context, this is a big fuckin’ deal.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted May 6, 2019 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

        I just saw that news piece a few hours ago and it does restore ones faith in attorneys a little. It also confirms what a slime ball that attorney general is. All the more reason why they must get Mueller into Congress and many others to get this thing rolling. Trump is scared shitless as he now says Mueller should not be heard so it should be real interesting.

      • rustybrown
        Posted May 6, 2019 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

        Oooh, an angry letter. Trump’s goose is surely cooked now.

    • Posted May 6, 2019 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      It would also be good not to confuse the first amendment (US specific and only concerned with government) with the larger concept of free speech. Plenty of things that are not the government are capable of bringing harm to free speech and this has been recognised from the beginning.

      “Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.”
      John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 6, 2019 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        They ain’t writin’ sentences with clauses like that anymore, are they? 🙂

        • merilee
          Posted May 6, 2019 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

          No more, no way, no how.

        • Posted May 6, 2019 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

          If today’s writers could write sentences like that, there are relatively few people who would be able to read them. In the 70s or so,
          college textbooks were having to be written for a high school level of comprehension and no more than 17 words per sentence. I wonder what that has changed to by now.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted May 8, 2019 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

            no more than 17 words per sentence. I wonder what that has changed to by now.

            No more than 5 minutes per Utube.

    • rustybrown
      Posted May 6, 2019 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      Yes, our corporate overlords should definitely be deciding what content they want us to look at. No harm could ever come from that.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted May 8, 2019 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

        So, your corporate overlords should be forced to provide a platform, microphone, amplifer and loudspeaker for anyone’s speech at their cost?

  4. tr jackson
    Posted May 6, 2019 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Apparently, “Sub” has some special meaning to the many commentators who make it the sole content of their submissions here.

    Could someone enlighten me as to what information is supposedly transferred by this linguistic device, which appears MT on its face?

    I appreciate that I am hopelessly out of date, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t learn.

    • merilee
      Posted May 6, 2019 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      “Sub” merely means that one is subscribing to the current thread and has nothing earth-shattering to say (yet). This will allow one to hear what others have to say.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 6, 2019 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

        Glad you didn’t let out the secret that that’s how we order lunch around here — regulars get their choice of hoagies or subs or torpedoes or grinders. 🙂

        • merilee
          Posted May 6, 2019 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

          😂 When ordering lunch it’s SUB!

    • merilee
      Posted May 6, 2019 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      What does MT mean?

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted May 6, 2019 at 5:06 pm | Permalink


        • merilee
          Posted May 6, 2019 at 5:07 pm | Permalink


  5. Posted May 6, 2019 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    This seems to be a trend among online publications. They throw a bunch of loosely related articles into a category with a name that they think will attract readers. It gives the illusion of being curated and/or expressing a coherent point of view but, instead, it is just one more cheap mechanism to make their website more “sticky”. On the other hand, one can read the articles’ titles and sometimes find something worth reading.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted May 6, 2019 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      Sticky. That is a useful word for what goes on. All the highly sophisticated AI used by the internet platforms and the political campaigns and their russian friends. It is one big sticky mess.

    • Posted May 6, 2019 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      I think it is refreshing to see a magazine presenting articles that don’t articulate a single coherent worldview. I’m getting tired of the obvious political slants in nearly all news and opinion outlets

      • Peter W Barber
        Posted May 7, 2019 at 5:17 am | Permalink

        Yes, tnx.

  6. merilee
    Posted May 6, 2019 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    +1. The Atlantic’s pretty good that way.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted May 7, 2019 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      Some of the articles were interesting. One of them was about the ‘right way to deal with racism’, and was an essay/interview with an anti-racist documentarian who argued that the best way to deal with white supremacists is to go along and listen to what they have to say, and film the resulting discussion. It’s the ‘daylight is the best disinfectant’ argument. She pointed out that one of the white supremacists she’d interviewed had changed his ways, in several steps, until eventually he’d ‘broken bread’ with a Jew. She considered him a friend.

      I think I would have agreed with her argument a couple of years ago. I’d have thought it chimed with my belief in open mindedness and tolerance and free-thought, and it would’ve given me a little jolt of satisfaction to tell myself that I was going against the tide of easy condemnation, and that I had _thought about things more deeply_ than the average person who just thinks of Nazis as scum, full stop.

      I’m not sure I do any more. I think stigma against nazism is an incredibly useful thing. I’ve also read a fair few books on behavioural psychology that demonstrate how incredibly simple it is to legitimise nauseating people just by the act of associating with them. People have more implicit respect for someone with views they dislike if they’ve been interviewed in a magazine or on tv, even if the interview absolutely decimated their views and made them look like idiots.
      The simple act of giving someone a platform, even if they make an idiot of themselves and are taken apart in debate, bestows a patina of seriousness and weight upon them.

      There really is an enormous amount of experimental evidence that supports our instinctive reluctance to give platforms for noxious people to talk about their beliefs. The idea that sunlight is the best disinfectant is deeply dubious I think.

      Which is not to support the idea of forcing the cancelation of debates, and it’s not to dispute the enormous, primary importance of free-speech. But private institutions should think very carefully about how they approach racist figureheads, and whether their ‘exposes’ and otherwise critical interviews nevertheless help the racists more than they hinder them.

      • Posted May 7, 2019 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        Yes, it is sort of a corollary to the “all exposure is good exposure” approach to marketing. I agree, giving someone a platform does raise the invitee’s status, especially if the inviter has high status.

        As with many things, it is complex decision as to whether to provide a platform for someone with noxious ideas. It depends on whether the speaker is likely to properly engage in a debate. Some are just flame-throwers and they would take unfair advantage of the platform if offered. There is also the question as to whether the person has followers that can be convinced by solid opposing argument. There is also the importance in a larger context of the ideas in question. What’s the point in exposing flat-earthers to daylight? They have no influence in the world and don’t harm anyone, AFAIK.

        • Saul Sorrell-Till
          Posted May 7, 2019 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

          Yes, the higher the status the more _something_ positive is rubbed off on the invited speaker. I’m not sure what that positive something is; it’s not necessarily that you like them more or that you even agree with their points more than you did…but they gain something in the imagination, they become more tangible, more credible. They get a sheen of something like celebrity. Or legitimacy.

          Even that doesn’t really get it right – I can’t pin down exactly what it is political extremists gain from association with mainstream media, it’s not tangible enough to define, but it’s something positive that bypasses the reasoning part of the brain.

          One big magazine did an interview with Richard Spencer. They shot him all moody and in black and white. The interview from that point onwards is barely relevant in my opinion, because that single photo, and the decision to feature him in the first place, has helped him more than even the worst, most excoriating hit-piece interview could harm him. People will now associate him with a serious interview in legacy media, with a glamorous photo shoot and and interviewer who took his fatuous views seriously, even if they argued strongly against them. It’s a mark of legitimacy.

          My thoughts on this aren’t really fully formed though. As you say, it’s complex. But I’m less and less inclined to believe that talking to neo-Nazis and producing award-winning documentaries about them actually helps fight their views.

          • Posted May 7, 2019 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

            There are so many possibilities it all has to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. For example, if an inviter prefaces the event with a statement that the invitee’s ideas are terrible but we want to hear them first-hand, then perhaps it minimizes any boost to legitimacy.

            I agree about the neo-Nazis. It doesn’t seem likely that they have anything interesting to say. On the other hand, it has been noted that many in the younger generations have no idea what Nazism is really all about. Calling someone a Nazi is pretty much just saying “bad person I don’t agree with.” Of course, one can inform them on Nazism without actually hearing from Nazis. Besides, why should we allow any particular set of Nazis to define Nazism?

            • Saul Sorrell-Till
              Posted May 7, 2019 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

              I like Ben Goldacre’s answer for pretty much every claim made by everyone, ever: ‘I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that’. So yes, case-by-case is best. But I think the blanket stigma we attach to the name Nazi is worth hanging onto – just…’fuck them’, full stop. Nuance isn’t always helpful.

              • merilee
                Posted May 7, 2019 at 2:17 pm | Permalink


              • Posted May 7, 2019 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I agree. But we’re going to occasionally have to say, “No. I mean real Nazis.”

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted May 7, 2019 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

            I think Richard Dawkins summed it up quite well when refusing to debate William Lane Craig – “Would look great on his CV, not so good on mine”.


%d bloggers like this: