As I have written before, in our developed Western liberal democracies it’s not the government and its instrumentalities that account for the bulk of efforts to restrict free speech and punish the transgressors. Instead, censorship has been outsources, privatised and democratised. It’s the educational institutions and workplaces with their speech codes, social media platforms which exclude, censor and demonetise views contrary to their ethos, but above all else, it is the great, though usually not so great, masses of average people recruited and marshalled through social media by activists who channel the collective outrage to power boycotts and campaigns to silence and chastise. You aren’t jailed or fined under the democratic censorship, you are merely condemned, hounded and often end up losing your livelihood to boot.
None of it is illegal. Quite the contrary; employers have the right to set the tone of the workplace, private businesses like social media have the power to decide who their users are (unless you’re a baker, in which case you have no choice but to make that gay wedding cake), and people organising boycotts are themselves merely exercising their right to free speech.
At least so far as it goes. I have never been a fan of campaigns that seek to see someone fired from their job or their business damaged or destroyed through customer boycotts. Yes, it’s your free speech right to do so, but you are exercising that right in order to punish someone else’s exercise of their right, to deny them the opportunity to exercise that right, or to make the social and economic cost of exercising that right in the future so prohibitive so as to in effect force them to keep quiet.
On Friday, Bill Maher, a liberal who occasionally makes sense, particularly on free speech issues, has called boycotts “bullying”. He was referring to the recent controversy where the conservative TV host Laura Ingraham made fun of the Parkland anti-gun celebrity David Hogg’s well publicised (by himself) rejection from several colleges. Hogg responded by calling on his many followers to pressure Ingraham’s sponsors to withdraw their support from her show, which many of them did, putting its survival on the air into doubt. His defence of the right to express an opinion without being punished for it was met with at best an ambivalent reaction from his audience. It seems to be an increasingly well accepted principle of public life that people are free to say what they want as long as it’s something we approve of, and those who don’t should expect to face our wrath.
As Maher says, people have every legal right to engage in a boycott. But that does not necessarily mean it is the right thing to do. This is not a right or the left thing, as both sides of politics engage in that sort of behaviour, though it’s fair to say that the left are much better at it. In any case, whatever your politics are, try to resist the temptation.