America's free speech choice: Ideological straitjacket or free and open debate?

Originally Published in The Washington Examiner
14 September 2020

In the new “Philadelphia Statement” published last month, a group of diverse and thoughtful people came together to “recommit to principles of freedom that invite robust debate and dialogue, inspire peaceful coexistence rather than division, and lay the foundation for a shared future alongside those with whom we differ.”

I was more than happy to sign it. Here is why.

There is an ideological conflict raging in the United States. Two groups are diametrically opposed, and we are seeing the rift between them widen more and more each day. On one side are those who value protecting free speech and critical thinking. On the other are those who see everything through the prism of power. 

This contention burst to the forefront of American life following the heinous murder of George Floyd. While I found it heartening, not only as a black woman but also as a human being, to see the unanimous condemnation of the killing, it also highlighted the differences between the critical thinkers and those who insist on a series of unchallengeable dogmas about race in America.

Since George Floyd’s murder, I’ve taken part in many private conversations and attended a number of conferences in which the conversation has inevitably turned to how to stop police brutality and reform the criminal justice system. But we didn’t limit ourselves to just police and criminal justice reform. 

We also spoke of raising the quality of schools, creating jobs, promoting Black (capitalized to signify a descendant of slaves, not an African immigrant like me) entrepreneurship, the inclusion of Black people in well-paid career paths, seeing Black people reflected in leadership positions in the private and public sector, reforming the housing system that traps Black people in poor neighborhoods with poor schools, addressing and ending Black-on-Black violence, and the problem of single-parent households and how that perpetuates poverty. 

This approach requires critical thinking. It requires critical reflection on what has and has not been done in the past in order to try to understand what works. It means openly debating existing policies, such as affirmative action or charter schools. 

Approaching such controversial and difficult questions requires good faith on all sides. There must be mutual respect among all participants because our ability to question and debate relies on trusting each other. 

Unfortunately, there is another approach vying for attention regarding the national conversation on race. This approach goes by many names. It’s been called cancel culture, identity politics, intersectionality, wokeness, critical social justice, and critical race theory. For many reasons, it is a radically different process from the one described above. 

First, it weaponizes the word “racism” and uses it for extortion. One of the leading voices in the critical race theory movement is Ibram Kendi, whose definition of racism (“a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities”) is tautological, as Christopher Caldwell points out. Kendi and other critical race theorists use the word to demonize any system or idea they dislike. 

A second way the critical social justice approach differs from the critical thinking approach is its rejection of objectivity. Within woke culture, there is no claim to objective truth. Everything is subjective and based on feelings. If someone accuses someone else of being racist, it becomes automatically true based on the accuser’s feelings. This rejection of objectivity threatens our rule of law, due process, and common sense. 

Third, the critical race theory approach is anti-individualist. It focuses on dividing society into segments of collectives. Rather than allowing each person to be an autonomous person, it attempts to force them into groups based on their skin color, sexuality, or gender. 

Finally, this approach works to implement speech restrictions by appealing to authorities to combat “hate speech.” The whole notion of hate speech is subjective and based, again, on feelings. The First Amendment was designed to protect all forms of speech so that people would be able to express themselves freely, regardless of whether other people found their views hateful. 

Everyone now faces a choice. People must look at these two approaches and determine, for the sake of their children and grandchildren, which is better for our country. 

If we choose the ideological straitjacket of critical race theory, it will lead to more racial tensions, not less. 

I would therefore appeal to you to choose the problem-solving approach. We all want a better future for our country. Protecting our ability to debate one another freely is vital to who we are as a nation.

That is why I am a signatory of the new “Philadelphia Statement.” It is a pledge to end cancel culture and return to common decency, free speech, and frank debate. 

Let us all come together around this statement and stand up against this new closing of American minds.