I have this terrible habit of complaining about something and then immediately catching myself to say, “But I’m not complaining!” Of course I know I’m complaining. I just don’t want to be seen as a complainer. I find the act of complaining too passive and unproductive; I much prefer the exhilaration of problem solving.
That idea was on my mind when I read about an open revolt at Penguin Random House. Hundreds of staffers had signed an open letter calling to ax Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s $2 million book deal because she voted to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The dissenters surely enjoyed their own freedom to attack someone else’s book and call for its cancellation. But because they abhor Barrett’s views on a crucial issue, that freedom was not granted to Barrett. Free speech for them, in other words, but not for her.
But here’s where it gets interesting. In an outburst of sheer chutzpah, the signatories claim to “care deeply about freedom of speech.” Evidently, just as I want to complain without looking like a complainer, they want to kill speech without looking like speech killers.
“This is not just a book that we disagree with, and we are not calling for censorship,” the dissenters claim. “Many of us work daily with books we find disagreeable to our personal politics. Rather, this is a case where a corporation has privately funded the destruction of human rights with obscene profits.”
Notice the clever diversion: They’re not fighting free speech, they’re really fighting out-of-control capitalism and the destruction of human rights!
It’s as if they realize that free speech is so ingrained in American culture that they need something even more epic to kill it—like the protection of an “inalienable human right.” Even for a free speech junkie like myself, that makes me do a double take. How can I not want to protect an “inalienable human right”?
Indeed, describing abortion as an “inalienable right” frames the issue as black and white, unworthy of any argument, on the same level as something unequivocal like freedom from slavery.
The issue of abortion, of course, is one of the most delicate and explosive in our society, but one thing it is not is unanimous. According to a recent Associated Press/NORC poll, 61% of Americans believe abortion should be legal during the first trimester, but only 34% in the second trimester and 19% in the third.
More than half of the country, then, doesn’t see abortion after the first trimester as an “inalienable” right. That’s far from unreasonable. The decision to overturn Roe v. Wade may be utterly repulsive to many, but it was based on an interpretation of the Constitution that believes the issue of abortion belongs in state legislatures.
Even the late liberal icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had misgivings about Roe v. Wade. “My criticism of Roe is that it seemed to have stopped the momentum on the side of change,” Ginsburg said in 2013 at a conference in Chicago. She would have preferred that “abortion rights be secured more gradually, in a process that included state legislatures and the courts.”
But even if we grant that Justice Barrett’s view of Roe is wrong and deeply offensive, the real issue is whether a publisher should censor itself out of fear of offending people.
They’re more likely to do so if they face extremist accusations, such as undermining “inalienable rights” or instilling danger. When The New York Times fired an editor after he approved a column by Sen. Tom Cotton on the potential use of the National Guard to put down violent rioting, they caved to employees who claimed the editorial made them feel “unsafe.”
It’s hard to argue against things like safety or inalienable rights. But the minute we allow the use of speech to kill speech, we go down a very slippery slope. One person’s “unsafe” is another’s “provocative.” One person’s “inalienable” is another’s “controversial.”
The Times ended up shamefully apologizing for simply exercising its right to free speech, one of the low points of American journalism.
Will Random House similarly cave? I wouldn’t be shocked if they do, but I really hope they don’t. If there is one industry in America that must champion open debate and free speech in all of its messiness and glory, it must be the publishing industry.
What kind of a world will we live in when publishers are afraid to publish something that may offend some fragile partisans, employees or otherwise? It won’t be an open and enlightened one, that’s for sure.
And yes, I’m complaining.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Jewish News Syndicate