The High Cost Of Free Speech In A Postmodern Age


I’ve never been a fan of Francois Lyotard. Next to heavyweights like Adorno, Derrida, or Foucault he comes off like a competent but uninspired doctoral fellow, his betters calling him Lyo the Lightweight behind his back. I wouldn’t be surprised if Baudrillard scammed on his girlfriends. Sure, Marcuse was a lightweight, too, but at least he had flair and a sharp wit. And he sometimes made fun of the people who really took him seriously.

However, Ulrich Baer takes Lyotard very seriously, particularly on the subject of free speech on college campuses:

“Instead of defining freedom of expression as guaranteeing the robust debate from which the truth emerges, Lyotard focused on the asymmetry of different positions when personal experience is challenged by abstract arguments. His extreme example was Holocaust denial, where invidious but often well-publicized cranks confronted survivors with the absurd challenge to produce incontrovertible eyewitness evidence of their experience of the killing machines set up by the Nazis to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Not only was such evidence unavailable, but it also challenged the Jewish survivors to produce evidence of their own legitimacy in a discourse that had systematically denied their humanity.

Lyotard shifted attention away from the content of free speech to the way certain topics restrict speech as a public good. Some things are unmentionable and undebatable, but not because they offend the sensibilities of the sheltered young. Some topics, such as claims that some human beings are by definition inferior to others, or illegal or unworthy of legal standing, are not open to debate because such people cannot debate them on the same terms.

What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech” | The New York Times | Ulrich Baer | 04/24/2017

From Lyotard’s perspective, Baer argues that freedom of expression in a liberal democracy should be regulated as a public rather than a private good.

(The terms “public” and “private” goods are used here in an admittedly looser sense than the strict economic sense. “Public” here means “communal” or “group”, whereas “private” means “individual.”)

As a private good, freedom of expression is understood as an individual’s right to say whatever he feels or thinks, the constraints on which are codified in law. However, as a public good extending beyond an individual to a community, one person’s free speech rights should not be used to undermine another’s rights by calling into question her experiences and value because of those experiences. Thus the “private good” sense of free speech can obscure very real cases in which not everyone has the same power of free speech or can reasonably expect the same outcomes from expressing it.

Going deeper into his argument for free speech as a public good, Baer writes:

The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.”

Baer shifts the focus of free speech rights from who’s talking to who’s listening. The “asymmetry of different positions” and “the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community” bring who’s listening into sharper focus as actors in a particular kind of market. We casually think of it as a marketplace of ideas. But we don’t think too deeply about how such a market substitutes ideas, discourses, and cultural values for money, prices and financial valuations while functioning in the same ways that equity and commodity markets do.

This is the heart of my critique of the postmodern position on free speech.


In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard defines postmodernism as an “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Metanarratives set parameters for the narratives by which we live our lives. For a investigative reporter writing about political corruption, the metanarrative is the rules of proper journalism and evidence. For a scientist doing research, the metanarrative is the scientific method. For both journalism and scientific research there’s a grand metanarrative about what truth is and how we can apprehend it. Lyotard argues that metanarratives have been weakened by the West’s rapid transition from an industrial to a postindustrial society.

David Harvey succinctly defines neoliberalism as “the doctrine that market exchange is an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action.” While neoliberalism is a set of ideas about how markets should work, more deeply, it’s about humans as market actors per se. All aspects of human interaction are to adhere to this logic in order to maximize value. At our particular point in the history of capitalism, this, the neoliberal position, is as pervasive as air but just as invisible. Not simply because of how neoliberal doctrine works, but because we’re conditioned to believe it’s “how the world works.” Indeed, historically, after the collapse of the Soviet Union we in The West came to believe this is the only way that the world can work. Everything from Facebook likes, to Instagram vacation photos, to a mayor who thinks herself the CEO of her city, to technocrats for whom “government should be run like a business” is an expression of neoliberal values.


In a liberal democracy speech is not a public good as Lyotard and Baer argue. Neither is it a private good subject to market forces.

Free speech is a right.

Goods and rights are regulated in completely different ways. Regulating rights as if they were goods—subjecting them to what looks like the market forces of supply and demand—can lead to suppressing or marginalizing them if enough people or interests (the market) are against them. In this way the postmodern position can transform into the neoliberal position with little slack. Free speech isn’t a right at all, but a commodity, its value rising and failing as the marketplace of ideas dictates. Our “incredulity towards metanarratives” is assuaged by how natural and right neoliberal frameworks seem.

Regulating rights as goods can produce perverse outcomes. For some, free speech as a public good will become privileges; for others, burdens. That’s the point at which “free speech” isn’t free at all because it can’t be free in the same way for all. Social media is a sinister example of how the amplified become more so and the rest of us can get lost in the noise. Influencers, from the the President to the Kardashians, enjoy as much reach and leverage as they can manage. They’re buffered against severe backlash by their own power, followers, and their ability to fight back by weaponizing the parts of the market that are totally loyal to them.

But for the rest of us with little power or voice at all the marketplace of ideas really doesn’t care about our voices, or our silence. Our silence short-circuits our incredulity towards metanarratives that do not serve our interests, while the marketplace of ideas only cares that we keep clicking and swiping and consuming.

This is the point where the line between the postmodernist position and the neoliberal position blurs until they become two sides of one coin.

We have yet to have a conversation about whether this is the sort of society we want.


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IMAGE SOURCE: megaphone-1480342_1920 (CC0 Creative Commons)

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