The Eternally Radical Idea

The Eternally Radical Idea

Free speech fosters cultural diversity: Part 9 of answers to bad arguments against free speech from Nadine Strossen and Greg Lukianoff

January 19, 2022

In May 2021, I published a list of “Answers to 12 Bad Anti-Free Speech Arguments” with our friends over at Areo. The great Nadine Strossen — former president of the ACLU from 1991 to 2008, and one of the foremost experts on freedom of speech alive today — saw the series and offered to provide her own answers to some important misconceptions about freedom of speech. My answers, when applicable, appear below hers.

Earlier in the series:


Assertion: You need speech restrictions to preserve cultural diversity.

Nadine: To my mind, cultural diversity is so obviously fostered by free speech — far from being hindered by it — that I have a hard time understanding the basis for this assertion. Strong free speech protections for all people and all perspectives should facilitate the flourishing of expression that is diverse in every sense, including cultural. In our democratic republic, in which officials are accountable to their constituents, any speech restrictions will naturally tend to be enforced to reinforce the values of powerful community groups; therefore, the expression of minority or marginalized groups or cultures is most vulnerable.

Speech restrictions will tend to be enforced to reinforce the values of powerful groups.

We have seen this pattern, for example, in the enforcement of laws regulating certain sexually themed expression. Major obscenity prosecutions have singled out homoerotic art and rap lyrics. Even a Canadian anti-pornography law that some feminists had advocated was disproportionately enforced to suppress LGBTQ+ expression. 

Given the reasons for concluding that speech restrictions would undermine cultural diversity, rather than preserve it, we have to ask this question: What kinds of speech restrictions do this assertion assume would be helpful — or indeed even “needed” — in order “to preserve cultural diversity”? One such restriction, which has received recent support, would curtail “cultural appropriation,” so that only people who have strong individual ties to particular cultures are encouraged to explore them through artistic or other expression. For example, publishers have been pressured not to publish fiction depicting characters whose cultural backgrounds are different from the author’s, and bookstores have been pressured not to sell such works. A similar restriction, which has been widely implemented recently, is that books — in particular, YA (young adult) books — should not be published unless they have been vetted by “sensitivity readers” to ensure that they contain no insensitive, inaccurate, or misleading depictions of any cultural groups, including racial, ethnic, or religious minorities.

Although no laws have imposed either type of limit, strong societal pressures have in fact led to both kinds of limits being enforced as a practical matter. Even published books that had received positive reviews have been withdrawn from the market in response to protests and boycotts, because the author had “misappropriated” a certain culture, or depicted it without sufficient “sensitivity.” I hasten to stress that these protests and boycotts are themselves exercises of free speech, and should not be subject to any government restriction. However, the question is whether these particular exercises of free speech have a net positive, or a net negative, impact on either cultural diversity or free speech itself. 

In terms of free speech, it seems clear that the campaigns against allegedly misappropriating/insensitive works have had a net negative impact. Not only have many works that earned significant critical praise been withdrawn from the market, but countless other works have been nipped in the bud, as authors, publishers, bookstores, and others are deterred from producing or distributing works that might be targets of similar campaigns. This has thwarted not only the free speech rights of the authors in question, but also those of their potential audience members. Freedom of speech entails not only the right to convey information and ideas, but also the right to receive them.

Few ideas vary more across cultures than what constitutes correct or acceptable speech.

In terms of cultural diversity, the campaigns against misappropriation and insensitivity have likewise had an adverse impact. By definition, doesn’t the greatest cultural diversity result from the most culturally diverse exploration of art and ideas, by the most culturally diverse participants? Cultures are constantly evolving and changing — indeed, diversifying — through cross-fertilization with other cultures. Restrictions that seek to constrain cultural exploration therefore necessarily stifle the flourishing and further growth of cultural diversity.

Greg: Few ideas are interpreted in ways that vary more across cultures than those around what counts as propriety, or what constitutes correct or acceptable speech. These ideas differ from country to country, from year to year, for men and women, and — especially — across class lines. Indeed, preserving diversity in an environment with many cultures requires, rather than forbids, a high tolerance for speech that adheres to different norms of propriety.