On June 3, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas which advocated using the United States military in order to quell the riots taking place on America’s streets. This opinion is one with which many disagree; I do, too. Senator Cotton also included several dubious claims, such as the assertion that antifa has been a significant factor in the riots. All in all, not the most impressive op-ed that the Times has published. The editors could have done a better job.
And that should have been the end of the story. But of course it wasn’t.
In a world in which the marketplace of ideas is increasingly being run out of business by the stockpile of acceptable opinions, Senator Cotton’s shortsighted and foolish article was not merely a bad product on the shelf, but a packet of pork chops in a kosher grocery: something to be eliminated, something which gets the manager fired.
Once the uproar began, the Times added an Editor’s Note explaining that in retrospect, Senator Cotton’s article “fell short of our standards and should not have been published.” Why? Because of its unsubstantiated allegations, and its “needlessly harsh tone.” Moreover, because of Senator Cotton’s influential position, the article should not have been published without an even greater degree of scrutiny than most other opinion pieces.
Of course, contrition alone was not enough; a sacrifice was necessary, as well. Editorial Page Editor James Bennet resigned, while the deputy editorial page editor, James Dao, was reassigned to a different department.
Did the New York Times Editorial Page screw up? Yes. Were there questionable assertions in Senator Cotton’s essay? Yes. Should there have been greater oversight? Yes. But that’s not what this is really about. This is yet another example of the social media mob’s demand that all published opinions be fully in compliance with conventional wisdom, that any idea which does not conform should not merely be ignored or fought, but actively eliminated, cancelled, airbrushed like a communist apparatchik who fell out of favor in Soviet Russia.
It is not unreasonable for a newspaper to refuse to publish op-eds which are offensive. It is certainly admirable for a newspaper to censor articles which can realistically lead to violence or other immoral outcomes. And it is imperative that a newspaper verify factual claims, even when they appear in the Opinion section. The question, as always, is who decides what’s offensive, who decides what can realistically lead to violence, and whether the verification process is applied equally to all writers, regardless of their political position. And this is where the New York Times, and much of modern media, has failed miserably.
When the right to free speech is increasingly being threatened by the arbiters of acceptable ideas, a newspaper should err on the side of publishing controversial opinions, thereby enlarging the public debate. And the finest response to an offensive opinion is not censorship, but a well written essay explaining where the writer went wrong. This is doubly true when the opinion comes from a source with the power to influence whether or not the opinion is put into practice. Senator Cotton’s influence should be grounds to publish, not a reason to suppress. As Kathleen Parker wrote in the Washington Post, “I for one am glad to know what’s inside Cotton’s cerebral cavity.”
It is becoming more and more difficult to express an honestly-held opinion that goes against the grain without the threat of being permanently “cancelled” – that is, removed from all future public discourse and forever regarded as a pariah. Free speech is nice, but the freedom to not hear voices that are disturbing, and to ensure that such voices are not heard by anyone else, regularly trumps the First Amendment in practice, if not yet in theory.
I am not a free speech absolutist; if I were the editorial page editor of the New York Times, I would refuse to publish certain essays, too. I do not believe that voices advocating Naziism, or the destruction of the State of Israel, or the subjugation of a given group, or any of a number of other horrible ideas should be given a hearing in the public square by those who hold the keys to what is published. The problem lies in the increasingly narrow range of what is considered acceptable. When printing a United States Senator’s words, ill-advised and offensive as they may be, is cause for losing your job and massive institutional self-flagellation, we can be sure that we’ve taken a wrong turn. Just pray that the next opinion that falls out of favor isn’t your own.