Noam Chomsky thinks the current threat to free speech in the US comes from the Right and the Left 

Western society has long represented the symbol—and practice—of freedom to the rest of the world. 

Arguably nowhere else in the world is the idea—and the right—to freedom of speech more celebrated than in the United States of America. Freedom of speech is the very foundation of the United States’ First Amendment right. 

In March 2022, The New York Times published an opinion piece entitled, “America Has A Free Speech Problem.”

The story expressed how for all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, that it is actually Americans who are losing hold of the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions without fear of being shamed or shunned in our times. 

“This social silencing, this de-pluralizing of America, has been evident for years, but dealing with it stirs yet more fear. It feels like a third rail, dangerous. For a strong nation and open society, that is dangerous.”

If your politics leans to the left, you might say that Republicans are the ones who are banning books and censoring words like “gay.”

If you lean to the right, you might say that the left is obsessed with “cancel culture.”

In a recent interview with Piers Morgan, Noam Chomsky—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor emeritus often referred to as “the father of modern linguistics”—expressed his thoughts on the threats to free speech in America right now. 

1) He believes the attack on freedom of speech and freedom to read in the United States is a grave one

Chomsky referred to Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis—who recently announced that he would be running for President in the 2024 election. 

“[DeSantis] has made it illegal to teach authentic American history. You have to teach history that glorifies the United States,” he says. “This is happening in Republican legislators and it is happening around the country. Libraries are being forced to throw out books.”

The Florida Governor has been vocally against a proposed Advanced Placement African-American course that discusses queer theory, abolishing prisons, and social justice.

2) He says that Critical Race Theory has become a slogan invented by the radical right wing

Chomsky poses the question: What is critical race theory? Does anybody know?

“The person who [actually] invented the term—Christopher Rufo—has been very frank about it,” he begins. “Critical race theory is used as a way to refer to everything [a certain society] hates.”

Chomsky says that critical race theory is a small academic discipline that investigates systemic elements of racism in America. “It certainly exists. It’s never reached schools [before]. Schools don’t even know it exists. It’s used by the right wing—as Rufo says—to refer to everything we hate and that we want to destroy.”

This includes teaching American history and teaching about gender issues. “We hate that so we’ll call it critical race theory. So we’ll use this small academic discipline that nobody has heard of,” he says. “The idea was introduced by [New College trustee] Rufo and then picked up by the Republican Party as a political tool.”

In June 2021, The New Yorker published a piece called “How A Conservative Activist Invented The Conflict Over Critical Race Theory,” interviewing Christopher Rufo.

The story said that the way Rufo came to see it, “conservatives engaged in the culture war had been fighting against the same progressive racial ideology since the late Obama years, without it ever being described effectively.”

In Rufo’s own words (as told to The New Yorker):

We’ve needed new language for these issues. ‘Political correctness’ is a dated term and, more importantly, doesn’t apply anymore. It’s not that elites are enforcing a set of manners and cultural limits, they’re seeking to re-engineer the foundation of human psychology and social institutions through the new politics of race. 

Rufo goes on to say that critical race theory is much more invasive than “correctness,” which he feels is a mechanism of social control, but it doesn’t do justice to what is actually happening. He says the term “cancel culture” doesn’t translate well politically. Woke is better but it’s easily discarded and not taken seriously. “Critical race theory,” however, “is the perfect villain.”

Also as per The New Yorker, Rufo believes the phrase “critical race theory” to be a better description than political correctness that Republicans were against. It also seemed like a sound political weapon.

Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as ‘creative’ rather than ‘critical,’ ‘individual’ rather than ‘racial,’ ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical.’ Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American. 

The beauty about the phrase itself was that it wasn’t imposed by conservatives: rather, “it’s the label the critical race theorists chose themselves.”

3) He says that it isn’t just the radical right who are actively threatening free speech. The liberal practice of cancel culture has become what he calls an “endemic” part of American society

There is undoubtedly an alarming rise of far right politics, white supremacy and domestic terrorism in the United States. But there is also a rise in woke liberalism that Chomsky finds disturbing. 

Chomsky says that he has been very opposed to the actions of small sectors of young people “who are picking up the traditional cancellation which has been endemic in the academic world and in the political world for years. Cancellation from the left has been constant,” he says. 

“Small segments of young people are picking up the same improper policy and it should be opposed. We should oppose it just as we should oppose the massive cancellation that has been accepted for decades because it was directed against the left. So yes, [cancel culture and ultra-woke liberalism] is wrong.”

One of Chomsky’s most famous quotes on the subject of free speech:

“Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.”

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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