Yascha Mounk and Osita Nwanevu Debate the State of Free Speech, and That Letter

A spirited discussion between two writers from opposing camps.

From left to right: Yascha Mounk, Mike Pesca, and Osita Nwanevu, their heads photoshopped onto muscular people who appear ready to fight, and for Pesca, on a referee.
From left to right: Yascha Mounk, Mike Pesca, and Osita Nwanevu. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus, CBS, Slate.

A week ago, 153 public intellectuals signed an open letter to Harper’s magazine that decried illiberalism—or a censorship of free speech, dissenting opinions, and open debate—within traditionally liberal discourse. A lot of people disagreed with this letter, and disagreed strongly. Sometimes disagreeing so strongly that a few of the letter’s signatories said, “well, that makes my point.” “No, that misses the point,” argued the objectors, some of whom signed their own letter.

We have seen so much back and forth about this, but one thing that I haven’t seen or heard is back and forth in the same place between different sides of the debate. Luckily I have a podcast. With that in mind, I wanted to host for a debate—or a structured disagreement—two intelligent and important people representing each side.

On my show the Gist, I invited Yascha Mounk, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins, a contributor to the Atlantic, the founder of Persuasion, a publication and community for—let’s say, people who felt the Harper’s letter spoke to their concerns. He signed the letter. Also joining me was Osita Nwanevu, who’s a staff writer at the New Republic, and whose recent article, “The Willful Blindness of Reactionary Liberalism,” is the most frequently cited critique of the Harper’s letter. (Mounk and Nwanevu both previously wrote regularly for Slate.)

A portion of the discussion is transcribed below. It has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Mike Pesca: Yascha, do you think the problem is the size or the symbolism of this phenomenon? Or is it the slope, where it could be going?

Yascha Mounk: I think there’s actually a lot of cases. You can go on Twitter and find dozens and dozens of these cases. I don’t think it’s at all a negligible number of cases. And I always get a little bit nervous when we say, “well this is just a few cases, let’s tolerate those because of the sort of cause behind it.” I think we can build a just society without giving up and sacrificing innocent individuals along the way.

But I think most importantly, it is absolutely about the chilling effect. I have an email in my inbox every day from somebody who says, I want to make this very reasonable point, and I’m afraid of doing that. Or, I’m being punished in various ways for doing that. If you talk to writers at every major newspaper and magazine in this country, they say, if I talk about topic X, I get to write whatever I want. As soon as I want to talk about topic Y, suddenly everybody is so scared that the article never sees the light of day, or it’s so mutilated that I don’t recognize it a being in my own voice at all.

I’ve talked to people at all of these institutions and they are telling me, I cannot say honestly, publicly what I believe. And that’s something that should make readers incensed.

Osita Nwanevu: I think the actual number, measured in a rigorous way, is important. Because there’s a way you can have this discourse where you’re saying, let’s take this or that case seriously and adjudicate, or try to figure out whether this was justified. And then there’s a way you can frame this discourse—and I think the way that it has been predominantly framed—where you say, there is something sweeping American society that we need to all sit up and pay attention to. I think that second claim requires a burden of proof that hasn’t really been met.

You can say that there have been dozens of cases where people have been fired for not having the right opinions. Dozens of cases within the scope of American society is nothing. One-tenth of 1 percent of the number of people who are fired in a given year—I think 20 million people lost their jobs in 2016—is 20,000 people. If you can find 20,000 cases, one-tenth of 1 percent of people who are being fired in this country because their opinions were not sufficiently progressive, I think that then we could have a real conversation. I think that seems like a good starting point. But if you’re relying on viral anecdotes that come to you via Twitter, I think that people have to be a little bit skeptical about the scope and reach of the analysis.


I think we could talk about the merits and demerits of particular cases and their substance, but I think it’s an active misdirection to say, as many people have, that what we’re fundamentally talking about is free expression or free speech.

Mounk: The question is, what do we actually want discourse to look like in the United States? And [Osita], you said, oh well, you know some of these people, they just made the mistake of going into spheres of life where they’re now subject to those progressive pressures. So you know, just let them go over to the right. I mean, first of all, I think we shouldn’t wish for people who are part of our coalition to go over to the right, because the most important thing in this year of 2020 is that we win an election against Donald Trump and make sure that people with views that we both find abhorrent don’t continue to hold actual political power in this country. But it’s also a very strange view of what the purpose of a university is. And sure, you know, somebody getting fired from a position at a university is not an infringement of the United States Constitution. But it is a very serious abridgment of some norms and some freedoms that we want to defend for good reason.

Nwanevu: It’s all well and good to talk broadly about free speech, but I think that people understand that there is something more complicated happening here. And I think there’s a very good example of this outside of universities that we can talk about, that emerged last week.

If you were to ask anybody who engages in cancel culture discourse, “do you think it is OK for somebody to make controversial remarks in a private forum, to have those remarks discovered by an anonymous tipster who goes to a major news outlet, to have those remarks published by that outlet, and to see that person lose their job for making statements [in the private forum] that most people would disagree with and find objectionable but that millions of people in this country don’t actually have a problem with?”—I think most people would say, yeah, that’s a pretty good example of cancel culture. That’s what happened to Blake Neff at Fox News, right? He made remarks in his private life that were racist and objectionable, and he lost his job for it.

Now, the response to people who bring this up has generally been, well look you shouldn’t lump this in with other cases, because Blake Neff is a racist. And this is where it gets sticky. Once you say it’s OK for somebody to lose their job because they’re a racist, the question then becomes, OK what is racism? What is sexism; what is transphobia? It becomes not a question of speech and liberalism in the abstract, with one side supporting liberalism and free discourse and the other side not supporting liberalism and free discourse. It’s a question of where the lines are. And people are functionally going to disagree about that.

I think that people in liberal society have the freedom to disagree about those decisions, and define their values and affiliations as narrowly and as openly and they’d like.

To Yascha’s point about, wouldn’t this lead to a society where everybody is on the left or on the right and there’s no in between—I’m not prescribing that, and I’m not saying that that is an ideal outcome. And I don’t really think that’s particularly likely. Yascha has just started up a project [Persuasion] where he is going to bring people on who are aligned with his values, and there are people who are not going to be aligned with those values who are not going to be brought on. And that’s kind of the nature of discourse. There are these different discursive spheres in American society, in all societies, where people have loose or tight affiliations, and things are messy. But ultimately, I don’t know that it makes sense to say that people utilizing freedom in a way that we find unproductive—or in a way that we think is worthy of criticism—are then illiberal because we disagree with the way that they have chosen to define their organization. I think that’s something that is aimed at shutting down discourse rather than allowing discourse to flourish. I think that’s something, again, that is often hypocritically done against specific people with specific ideological priors.

Mounk: Obviously every newspaper has an editorial policy and has a set of ideas about what’s within the realm of what can be debated, and a set of ideas of things that they won’t allow to be debated. There’s nothing wrong with that. There can nevertheless be two concerns about the way in which that tends to play out at the moment, which I think are worth taking seriously.

The first is that when a writer or a journalist agrees with left-of-center opinion on 19 out of 20 issues, or agrees with progressive opinion on 19 out of 20 issues, but on one out of those 20 issues they have a principled disagreement that falls very far away from being a form of bigotry. They simply want to challenge some assumption within the discourse. If that means that those views are hidden from the audience, then I think that’ll make for worse newspapers. That’s a small objection, but an important one if you’re thinking about how places like the New York Times or Slate should be run.

The second, bigger problem is that people aren’t only criticized for that particular point of view. That particular point of view is not only debated, but then there’s pressure to say, “if they think that, then they should not have employment within these institutions. If they don’t recant this view, then they are a bad human being and we should punish them.” And that goes quite a lot further in creating an atmosphere of fear in which the people who create the public discourse can never quite say what they believe, because they’re always afraid of falling on the wrong side of a line of which we don’t exactly know where it falls.

And you can see, as you’ve seen a few times in last months and years, a public discourse in progressive spaces jumping from one received wisdom to another within a couple of days. And everybody moves with it, because the first [position] wasn’t really able to be challenged at one point, and then something changed in the conflagration and suddenly everybody believes the other thing. I don’t think that is healthy for us, ourselves, in these spaces. We should be very concerned about that.

Nwanevu: Well, so I think it’s worth asking Yascha directly. You know, when it comes to people holding controversial opinions, and the extent to which progressives or maybe journalists, people in the media, are deluding themselves if they think it’s helpful to get rid of people who represent the views that exist out in the country: I just ask if you think that Blake Neff’s firing, or I guess resignation, is an example of cancel culture?

I don’t see how, in the abstract, what happened departs that much from the other cases people have brought up, except for the fact that the content of his views mark him out as different in some kind of subjective way.

Mounk: Look, I never said that there aren’t certain limits that we should draw. My point is that when the limits are drawn so narrowly, and when you have to agree on such a large number of propositions in order to be in good standing, then we’re stifling debate on our own side in a way that will make us deluded about the truth and incapable of convincing anybody to actually vote for progressive and important causes.

So I’m not saying that there aren’t certain people [with] certain kinds of positions—it depends of what kind of position—who express deeply bigoted views, who therefore should not be, you know, the chief writer for a huge television show. What I’m seeing in our spaces, though, is that people who agree with their friends and their peers and their colleagues on 19 out of 20 issues, and have reasonable disagreements on the 20th issue—where I might fall on the other side of them, I might disagree with them, but it’s not in any way a bigoted point of view—are then unpersonned and punished, and yes canceled, for the expression of those views. That has a chilling effect on our ability to talk honestly and energetically and truthfully about the world that I think we should all be worried about.

And by the way, if you really care about our ability to have those open debates, if you really care about freedom of speech, if you really care about a robust public discourse, then why are you so concerned about some people being overly worried about that? If I really care about sexism, and I think some people are overascribing how much sexism there is in society, I don’t think you’re a terrible person for exaggerating how much sexism there is. I think, hey you know what, I disagree with you on this. Good news, perhaps there’s a little bit less sexism than you think. But I agree with you that there is a lot of sexism, and we should fight against it.

Nwanevu: All right, so I think that is functionally not what actually happens in this discourse. What we have in this discourse is people who say, you are overly concerned about sexism, or you’re overly concerned about racism, or you’re overly concerned about transphobia. And therefore, your criticism of me is equivalent to the Cultural Revolution that happened under Mao. That is the discourse that we have, right? So I think it’s important to actually recognize that, and not sort of create in this discussion an alternative universe that does not actually exist. So—

Mounk: But I don’t know, Osita, why is this an alternative universe? I’m one of the most visible people in this discourse. We’ve been talking for 40 minutes. Why are you ascribing views to me that are not mine?

Nwanevu: I’m not ascribing—In fact, I’m saying that because there are people who are not you, Yascha, who are defining this discourse also, we should recognize that and use that to actively, accurately develop a sense of where this discourse actually is.

I do think, and I’ve written about this and I’ve given chapter and verse of examples of this, of people who criticize progressive identity politics and then say, not just that I disagree with this person, or I don’t like that view, but, “this person’s adoption of this view is going to lead to the gulags. It is equivalent to Stalinism.” It is incompatible, as Jonathan Chait said, with liberal democratic society. I think that is wild.

We have, in the Harper’s letter, the claim that liberal expression is becoming daily more constrained. I think that is an ahistorical claim that has absolutely nothing to do with the progression of speech in American society. But we have all these kinds of wild generalizations happening. On top of issues that I think are deeply complicated.

You say that there are people whose views are aligned 19 out of 20 with people at major institutions, but they have this one little view that shouldn’t be a big deal and shouldn’t be considered bigoted, that prevents them from speaking freely or whatever it is. But that’s a matter of perspective, right? People are going to disagree, again, about what bigotry is, and what the implications of a particular opinion are going to be. I don’t think it makes sense for people to say, well if you disagree with me on that 20th issue, that means that you’re an illiberal who opposes open discourse. I think that’s silly. I don’t think that’s a productive way to have a conversation.

Mounk: No, I’m not saying that if you disagree with me on that 20th issue you’re against liberal discourse. I’m saying that if you think that for disagreeing on that 20th issue, you should be fired, or you’re making my workspace unsafe—

Nwanevu: It depends on what the 20th issue is, right?

Pesca: What Osita just said is what I was going to say. With so much of this, it depends. When Osita laid out the broad contours of the Blake Neff firing, my thought was, “well, it depends what those things said in private channels were.” I kept thinking about J.K. Rowling, who certainly agrees with most of liberalism on things, and then has this one carve-out for her opinions on trans rights.

Is the pushback on her canceling her? Or is it spirited, vocal, extremely impassioned pushback that she should be able to take?

Mounk: Well, so first of all, when we’re talking about Neff, it’s not the 20th out of 20 issues. I mean, he seems to have—

No, no. Neff was an example of how it all depends on what the specifics are. When Osita laid out a scenario where a person said certain things in private channels, I was just thinking, it depends what those certain things are. Neff is not [an example of only disagreeing on] the 20th out of 20 views.

Nwanevu: But it illustrates how difficult it is. That’s my point. It’s very easy to say, “well a racist person shouldn’t get to keep their job.” People disagree about what racism is. And so you can have this broad, abstract conversation about speech. But functionally, what is actually in question is not speech or liberalism. I think the people who are derided as illiberal, or people who are derided as people who don’t care about free speech, do. They just disagree and draw their lines on these particular questions, in these particular cases, in different places than Yascha might, or Jesse Singal might, or any of the other people in this discourse might. And when drawing that line in a different place, the charge against them is not just, “well I disagree with you about where that line should be,” but that the act of drawing the line signals that you are opposed to the fundamental principles undergirding our society, which I think is ridiculous.

Mounk: But there are—

Nwanevu: One other thing I should say, just before you start—because you made a point about narrowness that I think is critical. This idea that we should be as open as possible to as many perspectives as possible within a particular boundary. One of the guidelines that you seem to imply should govern this boundary is, well if there are people out in the country who we need to understand and reach out to, you can’t exclude them from the discourse. You can’t ignore those opinions and brush them away.

Forty percent of this country is doggedly supportive of the president of the United States. I’m not aware of very many people who either signed that Harper’s letter or are involved in Persuasion who would declare themselves outright supporters of Donald Trump. I don’t really see this as a discourse that is aimed at elevating those people and saying that those people deserve 40 percent of the op-ed space at the New York Times or a much more substantial percent of the op-ed space at the New York Times.

There’s a range of views in this country today about basic political questions, that is absolutely blacklisted from major institutions. And that absolutely no one is interested in having more adequately represented. And I think that the proof in the pudding is the fact that these free discourse efforts don’t seem very interested in including those people or those perspectives at all.

Mounk: So, we’re now getting into caricature. I mean, the idea that I in any way argued for, you know, if 48, or rather according to my latest information, about 40 percent of the U.S. population support Donald Trump—thankfully it’s less than 48 at this point—then we should have 40 percent of column inches in the New York Times be given to Trump supporters or something like that, is a mechanistic view of what opinion should look like, when I don’t believe it.

And by the way, one of the problems that we get if we hermetically seal our own progressive spaces off to a lot of the other opinions is where we insufficiently understand that 40, or what used to be 48 percent of a population, to actually know how to manage to persuade many of them to join us in the endeavor of building a more just society. Which is incredibly important if we actually want to remedy some of those injustices.

But I think the fundamental distinction, Osita, between you and me, is whether we are thinking about discourse and critiques of various members of a discourse—you used this term, discourse, I think about 10 times in this conversation—or whether we’re talking about the kind of institutions and rules that we need in order to make a very diverse society work better.

The question, to me, is what would a healthy, robust, left-of-center set of publishing spaces, political spaces, look like where they’re able to debate the world truthfully, understand how we actually remedy injustices in this country, and set us up to persuade many of our fellow citizens to join us in the endeavor of actually doing that? And no matter how much you sort of cite different examples, there’s ultimately, I think, a pretty stark difference between a world in which people—as very many people now feel—have a sense that they have to very closely adhere to orthodoxy on 20 different issues, that when they fail to affirm the orthodoxy, that not only earns them a lot of criticism of that particular point of view, which is perfectly fine, but gets them expelled from those spaces altogether and makes other people tell them that they are bad human beings that shouldn’t really be part of the discourse. And I think when that chilling effect takes over, we wind up in a society in which we can’t actually talk honestly to each other, and for those of us who have platforms, to our readers and listeners, that is a very big problem.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I think people who express extreme bigoted or racist views should be hired by the New York Times. It doesn’t mean that within civil society there aren’t limits to whom I would have over for dinner or to whom I would publish in Persuasion, my new venture. All of those things are taken for granted. But I think anybody who looks at these publications at the moment, and who listens to how many writers and journalists who are most ensconced in those milieus express their fear about deviating from orthodoxy, should grow a little bit concerned about whether we’re having the most honest, the healthiest debates. And about whether they’re being told the truth in the publications they read and listen to. And you know, no point about Fox News or Neff is going to dispel that concern for me, and I don’t think it’s going to dispel that concern for many other listeners of this podcast.

Nwanevu: I think that what all of that functionally amounts to is that—when Yascha or people who are engaged with this project, this idea that progressive identity politics is undermining liberal institutions— when [those people] make decisions about who should or shouldn’t be allowed in the discourse or published by a newspaper, or given a spot at a university, that you can rely on them to be judicious and keepers of the liberal faith.

[But] when progressives say that the person who disagrees with me on the 20th position is wrong in some morally important way, [it’s said] those people are being unreasonable. There’s a narcissism of small differences there. And any reasonable person can say that on the basis on that 20th view, progressives should be more than welcome to have that person participate in the discourse on the basis of the other views that they hold, right? There’s people who are allowed and should be trusted to make difficult decisions about what is or isn’t right, and what is or isn’t worth discussing. And [yet] that class of people does not include people who think, well that 20th issue is actually very, very important, and we should take it seriously. We haven’t been taking it seriously before.

Again, this isn’t about a bad-faith particular set of actors. I think that the ideas themselves are suspect here. Because there’s a difference in your willingness to apply them universally. I think it’s tremendously important for people who say to themselves, “well we need to have an open discourse and to have all kinds of views represented so we can understand what’s happening in the rest of the country. And then we can learn to rebut those arguments, instead of shunting them aside.” I think it’s important for those people to take seriously that a large share of the country supports the president of the United States and to include them in their editorial projects and their projects on discourse. And if they don’t, you should be suspicious about what their actual priorities are. Because they’re not walking the walk.

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