Why My NYT Article Inspired So Much Fury
We have lost a cultural appreciation for free speech and free expression.
By Emma Camp
On the day I became the main character of the internet, the Wi-Fi was mercifully shoddy.
I was on a short spring break trip with a large group of friends. We were in a cabin in the mountains of western Virginia, with one feeble Wi-Fi router to share between the sixteen of us. I knew my article on campus self-censorship was going to be published to the New York Times website on a Monday, and that morning I awoke to the sound of my phone pinging over and over.
I tried not to pay attention to it. That day, I ate pancakes and played cards, glancing at my phone only when giving into occasional temptation. When Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted a thread about me, a friend forced me to learn to throw a frisbee—a task that, with my lack of coordination, consumed over an hour.
However, the vacation quickly ended, and so did its myriad distractions. Two days later, as I sat alone in my drafty dorm room, the weight of what was happening finally began to fall on me. I was briefly overwhelmed. Mostly, I just wanted it all to be over.
I knew, logically, that this online trashing didn’t really matter, that I was lucky enough the ragings and deliberate misunderstandings of internet strangers wouldn’t threaten my job or cost me friendships. I would be chewed up by the online mob, until they found someone else to devour, and I would survive. But still, it weighed in the back of my mind for days. I could laugh off the crass and meaningless insults, but the scale of bad faith with which my piece was read made me bristle.
Being deliberately misunderstood—having your words read in the least charitable possible way by an audience completely unwilling to consider your argument before attacking your character—is maddening. Resistance is, of course, futile. Attempting to defend yourself on the internet is, as the aphorism goes, like wrestling with a pig. You both get dirty. And the pig likes it.
So I didn’t defend myself. I gritted my teeth and did nothing. I watched as the internet crafted its fantasy of me—scheming yet weak, friendless yet socially powerful, rendered completely inept by Asperger’s yet an expert manipulator. I was incredibly hateable—the cloying white girl only able to publish in the Times because of an imaginary family connection. I was somehow both the mean-girl bully and the awkward freak who deserves what’s coming to her.
The vicious rage in reaction to the article is telling. It shows, with biting efficacy, what happens when you don’t self-censor. If there was no real problem of illiberalism on college campuses, or our broader culture for that matter, then thousands of people wouldn’t have clamored to decry a college student as everything from a whiny child to a white nationalist. If there was no real problem, then my article wouldn’t have registered as that much of a threat.
This environment, as further highlighted by a recent newsletter article by David French and last month’s editorial in the New York Times, is what happens when we lose a cultural appreciation for free speech and free expression. As French writes: “the priority of fending off legal threats to free speech does not mean that we should neglect the culture. Over time, the law tends to flow from the culture, and so a culture that despises free inquiry won’t long protect the First Amendment.” If we want to protect our legal right to free speech, it is important to stay vigilant to cultural changes. When our culture seems to view the First Amendment as a frustrating obstacle, rather than a gift, we ought to be concerned.
Of course, we all have the right to criticize—and in fact to do so in profoundly unproductive, unreasonable, and yes, cruel ways. I do not have the right, in a legal sense, to not be called terrible names by a stranger on the internet, and no one is required to offer constructive and thoughtful criticism of my work. Part of making a principled support of the legal right to free speech of course requires acknowledging the “right” for individuals to use their speech in objectionable ways.
That said, it is completely possible to uphold the value of a legal right while also noting how the abuse of those rights can sometimes lead to undesirable results. We ought to have the right to say basically whatever we choose. But if we want a culture that values free expression and open inquiry, we ought to refrain from our most vindictive impulses—to read in deliberate bad faith, to be cruel, to seek the online approval of an in-group by publicly shaming an approved target. These impulses make our ability to have thoughtful and productive discourse, both on- and off-line, much harder.
Unfortunately, that appeal rests on a pretty big “if.” Those with the loudest voices—from politicians, to academics, to the blue-checks of Twitter—do not really seem to care about preserving a cultural appreciation for free thought. From the “anti-CRT” bills of red state legislatures, to Whoopi Goldberg’s push to enlist the DOJ to investigate the speech of former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, few seem willing to let ideological opponents speak without calling for the intervention of coercive authorities.
The prominence of this cultural norm against free expression, from college classrooms to the halls of Congress, has real consequences. Last month, Lauren Hough lost her nomination for the Lambda Literary Prize after defending a fellow author from allegations of transphobia, writing in a Substack article that she told critics of The Men to “read the book before condemning it.” In Mississippi, an assistant principal was fired for reading a book called I Need a New Butt to a first-grade class. At the highest echelons of our government, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing devolved into a farcical display of culture-war fearmongering so extreme it bordered on surreal.
When we lose a basic respect for the ideological “other,” we all suffer for it. In our world, disagreement is not about a difference of perspective, but a conflict between fundamental goodness and badness. With little room for forgiveness, it is easy to become narcissists of opinion. Our entire moral self-image becomes wrapped up in correctness, and anyone who disagrees with us must not only be wrong, but morally deficient. We so fiercely want to be “good” that even considering the perspective of another is itself a morally polluting act.
The social scorn once saved for the most reprehensible views—open virulent racism, or sexism, for example—is now placed on even minor breaks from the norm. Take affirmative action in college admissions, for example. 2019 polling shows that 73% of Americans do not believe race should be a factor in college admissions—a number which includes 62% percent of Black Americans and 65% percent of Hispanics. Like it or not, a large portion of Americans do not agree with this policy. Yet, in the knowledge-making centers of academia, media, and non-profit bureaucracy, even mild disagreement with this policy feels like taking a risk with one’s reputation or professional opportunities.
When critics talk about this new normal, a word that recurs constantly is “fear.” According to a 2020 study, nearly one-third of employed Americans fear losing their jobs if their opinions become known—a proportion which remains roughly the same across the political spectrum. We are afraid of having the wrong belief, of being caught supporting the wrong person or the wrong cause. Even worse, we seem afraid of even considering other viewpoints at all, perhaps for fear that we might just be convinced by them.
We must keep advocating for a culture which values free expression—even if this is a phenomenon for which it is particularly difficult to be persuasive. Like all problems of cultural values, it is nearly impossible to convince people to believe something they don’t want to believe. The idea that ideological diversity and free thought should be held as important values is increasingly hard to come by. However, my hope is that passionate defenses of it can still sway minds. Americans seem increasingly tired of our current norms of political discourse. Hopefully, more and more will realize there is another way.
Emma Camp is a senior at the University of Virginia. After graduation, she will join Reason Magazine as an assistant editor.
Early in her essay, Emma Camp makes an offhand comment that I think is most important to diagnosing our current cultural disease. She confesses she is maddened by having her "words read in the least charitable possible way." Maybe it's charity that gets lost in our new social media; the charity, or manners or simple decency we tend to call on when we talk to people in private, real, face to face life.
The best lawyers learn this. Lawyers can and must argue zealously on behalf of their client. They are advocates. But in the fairly small world of legal practice, courtesy and respect are also important, because in small communities a person's reputation matters, and while there is no small percentage of lawyers who have and cultivate reputations for being hard-hitting and ruthless, there is an important distinction between what you argue in your briefs and what you say in front of a judge or jury.
We've become something of a nation of advocates. Maybe that's a natural development in a world where everything is not just political but partisan. We are engulfed by legislation, conflicting rights, lawsuits over controversial issues, public interest groups, and advocates of all kinds on all sides.
Amid that, it’s easy to forget that someone, somewhere has to decide among all of the advocates who is right, or who is more right than someone else, or if, maybe, no one is right at all. How many times do we read things about issues we're pre-decided? How often do we read with an open mind, a fair mind, a mind charitable to the writer?
That is an alternate model for our thinking, reading and listening not as advocates but as jurors who have to sift through the evidence, sometimes mountains of it, and -- maybe -- come to what might be a conclusion surprising to ourselves? Or maybe read and decide there's more here to think through?
Rather than reading and listening like an advocate for the mistakes, for the quote out of context, for the faux pas, for the fib, we can read and listen more charitably than we do. If an issue is really important, can we avoid reading into others what we would not want others to read into our own words? That seems to be a more humane way to approach the never-ending stream of public issues that are manufactured daily, weekly, monthly for our overconsumption.
Camp is smart to see that she's just today's piñata, and more are out there. But she's on to something when she calls out the lack of charity in the way too many people approach their reading in our distanced, filtered, oblique, indirect interactions through social media.
You're a very brave and admirable young woman. Learning is the process of taking in information and thinking and deciding for one's self. Indoctrination is being told what to think. Today's universities are indoctrination centers, not centers for learning.