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Fighting Back, At Last
New activist groups are responding to the spread of illiberal tendencies on campus and beyond.
Stuart Taylor Jr. was never an activist. Never founded a group. Never ran a nonprofit. But recently, the journalist became so alarmed about attacks on open expression at his alma mater that he founded Princetonians for Free Speech. Joining him was another newcomer to free-speech activism, Edward Yingling, a heavy-hitting Washington lawyer and former president of the American Bankers Association. “Professors and students are getting isolated and picked off and harassed, and no one is supporting them,” Taylor said. “There’s nobody pushing back.”
The group is not much more than a website for now, but it plans to come to the public defense of Princeton students and faculty who say something unpopular and find themselves on the wrong end of a harassment campaign, a deplatforming or an intimidating investigation. It also plans to track free-speech trends and ensure that alumni are kept abreast of developments on campus. “We hope we’re starting something that would lend itself to replication on other campuses,” Taylor said.
Princetonians for Free Speech is not alone. The Academic Freedom Alliance launched in March to come to the moral and legal defense of professors whose free speech or scholarly independence is infringed. Also launched that month was the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, or FAIR, which promotes a liberal, pluralistic vision of antiracism while encouraging parents and other citizens to push back against the intolerant and divisive varieties.
Its co-founder, Bion Bartning, is an entrepreneur by profession; like Taylor and Yingling, he is new to activism, and the same is true of most people who are signing up—more than 16,000 when we talked in late March, according to Bartning. “There are just a lot of parents who are seeing this race-essentialist approach and have the same concerns that I have,” he said. “I don’t think these are people who are generally active in other organizations. They are becoming mobilized because they’re looking for a better way.”
Nor is that all. Counterweight launched in late January to help employees push back if they feel subjected to ideological coercion or intimidation in their organization, whether corporate, academic or nonprofit. The Free Speech Union, which launched in Britain last year, is in the process of opening a U.S. affiliate—and considering expansion into Australia, Canada and South Africa. Inasmuch as the new groups pledge to support each other and help organize yet other groups, it seems fair to predict that the activist surge is only beginning.
Today’s flowering of activism is sudden but was long in the making. The postmodern strands of illiberalism—like Monty Python’s Spanish inquisitors bursting into the parlors of unsuspecting residents—had the advantage of surprise. They flourished in academia, but most people assumed that they could not take root in the harder soil of the outside world.
For liberal pluralists, the past decade has been a shock. Activists, bureaucrats and theorists seemed to come out of nowhere to police speech on social media and in schools, corporate HR, foundations and nonprofits. Last July, a poll by the Cato Institute found that 62% of Americans agreed that the political climate prevented them from expressing beliefs because others might find them offensive; one-third worried about missing out on career opportunities or losing their jobs if their political opinions became known. Only those on the far-left felt safe expressing their opinions, and even among them, the share who did not feel safe rose from 30% in 2017 to 42% in 2020.
The initial response from pluralists was shock, disorientation and self-doubt. No reasonable liberal, after all, denied the reality of persistent social injustices, and no one wanted to imply otherwise. But gradually, and then not so gradually, it dawned on pluralists that these new activists were not friends of liberalism, and posed serious dangers.
One upshot was the founding last July of Persuasion. Not long after, another new journal, American Purpose, entered the same space, identifying its mission as “defense of classical liberalism. Responsibility. Push back against illiberal extremes. A broad, dynamic, pluralistic space.”
Helen Pluckrose, an independent British scholar and the co-author of Cynical Theories, a book about academic illiberalism, found herself receiving “hundreds of emails a day” from workers in need of help, such as a firefighter who was threatened with discipline for saying he would serve everyone regardless of race, creed or color. After eight months of offering advice informally—70% of it to Americans—she realized that an organization was needed, and launched Counterweight. “We’re there for individuals who may not have a lot of power,” she said. “We need to change the narrative; we need to support the individual to push back in the right way.”
In the same way, Bartning of FAIR realized that he was not alone in being dismayed by the politicized and divisive versions of antiracism that his kids were bringing home from school. “I started to fear for my children’s future,” he said. “I came to the realization that if we don’t do something about this collectively, then it’s not going to get better on its own.”
How much will all this activity matter? Possibly a lot. Networked activism can have game-changing political impact, sometimes in months, not decades. In 2009, a grassroots conservative movement calling itself the Tea Party sprang up in response to what it saw as unfair federal financial bailouts. Met with puzzlement or dismissiveness initially, it used social media to build a decentralized activist network that has proved astonishingly influential in conservative politics.
Today’s daisy-chain of free-speech startups is nothing like the Tea Party ideologically, but the two movements share their grassroots origins, their decentralized, networked structure, and their diversity of targets and strategies. FAIR plans to develop a pluralistic antiracist curriculum, and show parents how to advocate its adoption. The Academic Freedom Alliance will support campus faculty nationwide on the NATO-like principle that an attack on any is an attack on all. The Free Speech Union hopes to promulgate a code of conduct pledging employers to protect instead of punish mob-targeted workers. It also hopes to set up biweekly coordinating calls among the various groups (akin to Grover Norquist’s influential Wednesday-morning meetings of conservative activists).
Even without formal coordination, the groups share a common set of values. One is attending first to the culture. Where older groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have mainly focused on government censorship and constitutional violations, the new groups intend to be active across the whole range of cultural influencers—private universities, workplaces, social media, and more. The groups see the primary threat to free thought and liberal values not in old-fashioned government censorship, but in new forms of cultural coercion and institutional corruption. Those must be fought with public advocacy and pressure campaigns—and, above all, solidarity.
The newcomers understand that social coercion operates by making dissenters feel isolated, helpless and demoralized. Repressive activists or authorities can create what the political scholar Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann called spirals of silence, where no one speaks out because no one else speaks out. As one professor told me, explaining why he felt helpless to oppose measures that he believed politicized his department’s teaching requirements: “I feel there is absolutely nothing I can do as a single tenured professor to stop this. It’s like trying to hold back the ocean with a broom.”
All the new activists I spoke with recognized that the priority is to break spirals of silence by telling would-be dissenters: You are not alone. “People are very isolated,” said Keith Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton, who leads the Academic Freedom Alliance. His organization, he said, will “make sure people realize they’re not completely on their own.”
FAIR places what it calls “empowerment” at the top of its agenda. “Part of this is just that people need to speak up,” Bartning said. “We want to make it really easy for them to come together to be part of a larger organization, and give them support.”
Spirals of silence can persist for years, even decades. But they can collapse fast once dissenters begin to see and support each other.
Pluralistic liberals should warmly welcome the new free-speech activism while remaining cautiously aware that, as free-speech groups develop clout, they may be tempted to slip into the same kinds of harrying and bullying tactics that cancelers have perfected. Pressure groups are always at risk of capture by zealous factions and parochial agendas, whatever their founders’ good intentions. Those of us who are pluralists need to watch ourselves as vigilantly as we watch anti-pluralists.
Still, that caveat aside, today’s burst of counter-mobilization suggests that the Spanish Inquisition phase is ending and that pluralists are finding their collective voice. “Creating a groundswell is probably what’s going to work,” Pluckrose said. At least in principle, she is right.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.