Efforts to Restrict Free Expression are Not New


In 1980, film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel publicly characterized slasher films (e.g., Friday the 13th) as misogynistic. They argued that those responsible for making such films hated women, and they went so far as to insist that those who went to see such films felt similarly. Their rationale, such as it was, would sound eerily familiar to anyone today who has complained about identity politics, fourth wave feminism, political correctness, or social justice warriorism. And yet, this happened in 1980 well before the publication of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind in 1987 and long before most university campuses had gender studies departments.

If I remember correctly, Siskel and Ebert stopped just short of calling for a ban on slasher films. Unfortunately, others would soon do so. Between fundamentalist Christians and feminists, sufficient pressure was soon applied to some studios to result in in the cancellation of some advertising campaigns, pulling a few films out of theaters, and stopping production on a few others. The censors had tasted victory. It really was possible to deprive others of content they had deemed unacceptable.

Later in the 1980s, outraged feminists and fundamentalist Christians turned their attention to comic books and heavy metal music. While they were not as successful here, they made what they considered progress and were inspired to continue their efforts in preventing the rest of us from accessing content we enjoyed. They would surge back in the 1990s, taking aim at rap. This time, their efforts did manage to get some albums banned and some acts arrested for performing in jurisdictions with restrictive obscenity laws.

In recent years, we have seen a renewed focus on video games (i.e., GamerGate). What was different here was that the voices of outrage that used to be widely dismissed were embraced by much of the mainstream news media. What was once extreme had become mainstream. The platform given to feminist critics of video games around GamerGate was massive in comparison to anything we had seen since Tipper Gore's antics led musicians to appear before Congress to defend their artistic expression. It was simultaneously embarrassing and terrifying to see just how normal calls for restricting speech had become.

Something big may be brewing once again. The first I heard of it started with Reddit. A new CEO decided that free speech needed to take a back seat to social justice. People who wouldn't play by the new rules needed to go. If the growing accusations are to be believed, it has now apparently spread to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Until recently, the accusations focused on banning people from using some of these services (e.g., kicking someone off a platform for "harassment") and/or removing certain content. This sort of thing has led to the development of alternative platforms that emphasize free speech (e.g., Voat, Minds, Gab). The most recent development involves YouTube, and the accusations are a bit different this time. I'm not a big YouTube user, but if I understand the claims correctly, they center around YouTube demonetizing content of which they disapprove. That is, they are preventing some content creators from making money from their content. I'm in no position to know whether this is actually happening. All I can say is that I have noticed a dramatic increase in the number of people making such claims in the last month.

What's the point of all this? Many of the people complaining the loudest about YouTube, Facebook, Twitter are young. At least, most of them seem to be much younger than I am. They also seem to think that they are living through historic times in the sense that this is the first time anything remotely like this has happened. But it isn't the first time. We've seen this before.

My hope is that we might be able to learn something from some of the previous run-ins we've had with fundamentalist Christians, outraged feminists, and others who are eager to restrict our freedom to preserve their feelings. The challenge before us is figuring out just what those lessons are and how best to fight back. I hope it is a challenge we will accept.