Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
You Can’t Say Anything Anymore
Featuring Suzanne Nossel
Does it feel impossible trying to maneuver through the minefield of free speech, inclusivity, and “wokeness”? Or are we experiencing a much-needed disruption to the status quo? Today we’re joined by Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America, the leading human rights and free expression organization, to talk about navigating and defending free speech and free expression while also cultivating a more inclusive public culture.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? A series of conversations that we are having under the auspices of The Progress Network. I’m Zachary Karabell. I founded The Progress Network. I’m with Emma Varvaloucas who’s the executive director of The Progress Network. And we’re doing a series of conversations with largely members of yes, The Progress Network about various and sundry views, ideas, issues. And there’s probably no issue more top-of-mind these days. And whenever you’re listening to this, these days will still be those days, I’m relatively sure. No issue is grappling American society more acutely than free speech and “wokeness” and cancel culture and race theory, and how do we navigate our differences verbally? How do we figure out what to do with our passionate, intense disagreements, which is hardly a new thing either in American society or human society, but as we know, human societies have been rent violently from the reformation to the Civil War by issues that we disagree with passionately.
So words are just words until they’re not. And how we manage to deal with these differences in the United States is crucial. How every society manages to deal with these passionate differences is vital to our stability, combined with the issue of how absolute is the right of free speech, irrespective of consequences? How much should government ever interfere with free speech? How much should this simply be left to civil society to work out? And there’s a huge contrast obviously between the United States and the world. So it’s with that in mind that we’re speaking today with Suzanne Nossel.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Yeah. So Suzanne Nossel has done a whole lot of cool things. Right now, she’s the CEO of PEN America, which is a leading human rights and free expression organization, if you’re not aware of them already. She was also the chief operating officer of Human Rights Watch and the executive director of Amnesty International USA. She was also the deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations during the first term of the Obama administration, aka, we’re going to be talking to her about the US, but also what’s going on abroad as well. She’s also the author of “Dare to Speak,” which is now out in paperback, and “Dare to Speak” is a playbook for navigating and defending free speech and free expression while also cultivating a more inclusive public culture.
ZK: And just for full disclosure, in a free speech world, I am on the board of PEN America with Suzanne, who’s the head of PEN America. So we have a long friendship and professional relationship which in no way colors the conversation, given that whatever will come up now has come up multiple times in the past, and I’m sure will come up multiple times in the future. So we’re looking forward to this conversation, and I hope you are, too.
Suzanne Nossel. It’s great to talk to you today. I think the day we are recording this is the paperback publication of your book.So there’s that congratulations, which will be an evergreen congratulations.
Suzanne Nossel (SN): Thank you.
ZK: So I wanted to ask, apropos of that, you wrote that and published it kind of in the midst of Trumplandia, although of course you’ve been thinking about these issues about how do we balance sort of free speech and a society that is not completely unraveling at the seams. But I guess the question is, a year later, in a somewhat different climate, you know, a pseudo post-pandemic, post-Trump—or at least post-Trump for now—world, has everything been solved. Is it all great? Are all the issues… Are we fine now?
SN: You know, hardly. I mean, I actually, it’s funny because I would say at PEN, because the Trump administration became such a major focus for us in terms of combating the threats to press freedom, the effort to denigrate the truth, the rise of fake news and disinformation, you know, it seemed like we had our agenda set for us, and we didn’t have to make the argument about why the issues we worked on were central to the fate of our democracy. And there was a great sense of urgency to everything. We sued Trump under the First Amendment for his threats and acts of retaliation against journalists and the media. And so he was a kind of major locus for us the entire time that he was in office and even going back to his campaign in 2016, where he was insulting and demeaning journalists on the stump and, you know, beginning to wage his campaign to discredit the mainstream media.
And so when we contemplated the prospect of the Trump administration coming to an end, we sort of thought, “gosh, are our issues going to really retreat in prominence?” You know, “are we going to have to work a lot harder to explain to people why the work we do is relevant” and, you know, actually, you know, those concerns to the degree that we had them were really misplaced and have not come to fruition. We’ve found both here in the US and around the globe, it seems like our issues only become more salient, you know. An issue that we sort of put on the map the crisis in local news, has now become a part of the infrastructure stimulus package. Our campus and free speech and education program is working day in and day out on these efforts to ban critical race theory in state houses across the country, applying to both secondary and higher ed.
We’re working to combat a whole spate of anti-protest legislation that we documented for the first time more than a year ago, but that has just escalated over the last six or eight months. And so, you know, I’d say in terms of the crisis in free speech, you know, and that’s not to mention what’s been happening around the globe and we can get to that. The crisis is unabated. And I’d say the advice and focus of my book, which is really about the challenge of how to reconcile the drive toward a more equitable, inclusive, diverse society with robust protections for free speech—that battle is just being waged day in and day out with incidents, you know, an incident we wrote about last week of a person who put out a statement on antisemitism from a children’s book collective organization being fired from her position, or essentially pushed out after doing so, because the organization came under fire for not referencing other kinds of bigotry alongside antisemitism.
Another incident where a book event in Texas was canceled at the very last minute, by… Seemingly on orders of the governor or the lieutenant governor because of the content of the book. And so it definitely feels as though these tensions are unresolved, is sort of the advice that I’m trying to offer in the book. And yes, the paperback is now out. It’s “Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All,” and it goes into a detailed blueprint of how I believe we can begin to calm these tensions and sort of live together in our diverse, digitized, and divided society without compromising free speech. And I certainly feel like it’s a message that’s needed right now.
EV: So the crisis continues. I’m curious to hear, you were saying that you were wondering whether you were going to really have to make a strong argument about the work that PEN America is doing. It sounds like the conditions of crisis are here with us. What about on the side of public sentiment? Like, do you see a lot of urgency in public sentiment around this? I ask because, you know, just in my own cohort I see a lot of discourse around free speech, sort of out on Twitter, out in, you know, mainstream media and others, but just in my own sort of small circle of friends, I feel like the topic doesn’t come up, and I wonder how much it is of concern to people these days. What do you think?
SN: I think there are a couple of phenomena at work. One of the impetuses behind my book was concern that for a rising generation of young people in this country, and I would include students up through people probably in their thirties, the idea of free speech, I think, has been somewhat clouded over. And that is partially because of the strong emphasis that those generations place on eradicating the stubborn legacy of racism and other forms of bigotry in our society, in the sense that there can be a trade-off between trying to foster an inclusive culture, respecting people, protecting the vulnerable, rooting out bigotry, being intolerant of hatefulness, stereotyping, and discrimination, that those ideals and goals can be in tension with the principle of free speech. And for many younger people that I’ve encountered, the sense is, look, they do believe in free speech, but if it comes down to a choice between safeguarding an individual, particularly maybe somebody from a group that’s been historically disadvantaged you know, if in order to make that person a full part of society, prevent that person from experiencing feelings of denigration, if that requires some curtailment of free speech rights, that that’s a trade-off worth making.
And that’s the kind of rebalancing that we need to do in order to correct this kind of unfinished business of our legacy of racism in this country. And so I think that’s why you don’t see a lot of young people kind of waving a banner for free speech, and to the extent that they do, they tend to be sort of center-right. And people who are pushing back against what they see as a culture of political correctness or “wokeness” and kind of waving free speech as a banner, in an effort, in a sense, to safeguard their ability to say whatever they want, to offend other people, to break taboos. And, you know, to me that was very concerning, because I’ve always seen free speech as a cause that really is above politics, that transcends the left and the right. I’m very cognizant of just how important free speech protections have historically been to social justice causes and movements throughout the years, and that ultimately it’s the vulnerable and the powerless who need the protection even more, and rely on those safeguards the most, and depend on constraining the ability of those who are in positions of power and authority to curtail their sentiment, to quash dissent.
And so a big motivation for me in writing my book was to explain how those who are committed to driving forward a social justice agenda have a stake in free speech, and why they ought to see free speech rights as part and parcel of what they’re fighting for. Whether they call it free speech or not is sort of less important to me than whether they understand what the risks are of empowering, whether it’s a government or a university administration or a corporation with additional authority and discretion, to police speech. And so I agree with you. I think it’s not always framed in terms of free speech, but, you know, certainly the debates over whether it’s online harassment, how much power and leeway the likes of Facebook and Twitter ought to have in our society, you know, what should be the role of critical race theory in our educational system, you know, these issues are raging and I think free speech really is at the heart of them.
ZK: But you’ve done a lot of work both personally and through PEN on balancing what can feel like antithetical positions, right? That, on the one hand, you have an aggressive defense of free speech, which is obviously, in the United States, embedded to some degree in the Constitution and has been an endless source of debate about what its parameters are, and then the flip side being a culture may be more prevalent today, but it’s had moments in the past where the reaction to certain types of speech is extreme and strong. And there is a desire often to silence speech that causes harm or engenders pain. So how do you derive that balance? I mean, I guess the easy one is like today’s critical race theory on the one hand and woke versus the other, one side trying to silence the other side and, you know, deciding which of those is potentially more problematic than the other, and different people obviously come down in different ways about which silencing is more tolerable than other silencing. But I mean, are you absolutist about this, that basically speech needs to be preserved irrespective of effect—effect not a fire-in-a-crowded-theater effect, right; actual harmful action I think most of us agree is probably speech that doesn’t serve the common good and isn’t amenable to the same protections—but separate from that?
SN: Yeah, I mean, I’d say I’m something close to an absolutist when it comes to government curbs, bans, prohibitions, punishments for speech. I think our First Amendment here in this country, which is the world’s most protective standard, and it goes beyond the level of safeguard, you know, for example, in other democracies like Canada and the UK or Germany. I support that system. And I have come in my work to see that any time there is a proposal for, you know, why it might be wise to extend the power of government to allow kind of deeper reaching into dictating the parameters around discourse or declaring certain speech out of bounds or regulating how private platforms moderate speech, I tend to think the disadvantages and the risks outweigh the benefits. And particularly so because, you know, just the vicissitudes of who is in power, and the Trump administration for me was a very potent illustration of the risks of extending government power.
I mean, we saw with President Trump, I think he was willing to go to the limits of the law and beyond in order to squelch his critics. And if the First Amendment hadn’t constrained him, I think he would have gone a lot farther. I think he would have put people in jail or tried to prosecute them for libel or defamation. And, you know, it was the constitutional protections in the law and the people around him who stopped him short of doing that in most instances. But you know, certainly the will was there and, you know, he’s not alone. We think about officials at the state level and just how ready they seem to be, to curtail, for example, protest rights, or to dictate what should be on curricula. So I’m fairly absolutist when it comes to that.
In terms, though, of what norms should govern in our society, or what the rules should be for a platform like Twitter or Facebook, or how a publishing house should make decisions about what books to put out or how to respond to an uprising among their staff, there I think there are fewer hard and fast rules, and the determinations become more complex, because the risks of extending authority are sort of less tangible and palpable than they are when the power in question has the ability to throw people in jail you know, prosecute people and use the force of the state to suppress speech. That’s not at play when you’re talking about how to regulate speech, for example, on a college campus. And it really is a spectrum, because of course there are certain types of speech that we all, you know, implicitly or explicitly recognize are out of bounds. We’ve always had taboos. I think taboos are important to a functioning society. You know, none of us says everything that comes to mind. Self-Censorship is sort of a daily corrective and a set of controls that we all operate by.
And we need to in order to live together with one another, whether that’s our families, our coworkers, or people out on the street. And so the question then becomes, “well, where do you draw the line? How much self-censorship is too much?” And, you know, I think we’ve definitely seen instances over the last couple of years, you know, and a feeling among a lot of people that, you know the kind of retributive consequences of certain types of speech are such that there are whole categories of discussion, opinions, topics, controversies that are effectively off limits because to wade into them risks unleashing vitriol that can be, you know, emotionally harmful, career ending you know, the basis for lasting stigma. And, you know, I think that goes too far, but where exactly to draw the line between you know, a kind of healthy level of self-censorship and social taboos and, you know, a kind of extreme sense of suppression of ideas is a difficult one.
And that’s why in my book, I outline sort of this interlocking set of principles that I think together are necessary to govern how this works. And it includes, you know, elements on different sides. I call for standing up for speech that you disagree withfor finding ways to express difficult ideas, but also for conscientiousness with language, and a kind of duty of care when, you know, particularly for those who have powerful platforms. And I really sort of believe ultimately it’s that whole set of values that is necessary to underpin a robust discourse, but one that, you know, does not devolve into, you know, a kind of hateful, denigrating environment in which bigotry flows freely.
EV: I like this balance that you’re pointing out between self-censorship, which you said always exists—I think that’s a healthy point to make, because I think sometimes we forget that, right, some self-censorship is just fine—versus the duty of care you have to choose your speech wisely. And I also… I want to come back to the retribution bit, but before that, we’ve let this topic pass us by I think a couple of times now—such a hot-button issue, the critical race theory stuff. I feel like it’s on everyone’s minds right now. Where do you stand on that with the laws being passed banning critical race theory in classrooms.
ZK: And one thing on that. I mean, given that we’re in this world now, and this leads into the critical race theory question of language and reconsidering its effects, and America’s done this probably more than any other culture, right? When there is a juncture of conflictfind a different nomenclature, use a different word, or invent a different word. But the interesting thing about self-censorship, it has a kind of a negative connotation and it assumes that you’re not saying something that you would say if you could say it rather than what you’re really talking about, which is the mindfulness of the effect of words on those who are receiving them, right, as opposed to shouting, I guess, alone in your room or singing in your shower where you probably don’t have to be so mindful of your words, unless you’ve got really thin walls. But it’s not really self-censorship, right? It’s not like, “If I could say all of this exactly as I want to, I would.” It’s more the recognition that words have an effect, that words have power and to kind of choose the mindfully, right? The duty of care part. So anyway, I’m just, I’m reacting to the self-censorship part, because it makes it seem…
SN: No, you’re right. Self-Censorship has a very negative connotation. And yet I think it’s really hard to draw a line between, you know, what is what I call conscientiousness with language, which is exactly as you say. It’s being aware of your audience, and particularly in such a diverse society, the cognizance that that audience may include people very different from you, people from different races, agesyou know, who have different disabilitieslinguistic backgrounds, and the ways in which words can affect them very differently, which I think is kind of part and parcel of citizenship in our society. And yet, you know, it does mean there are certain things you’d like to say—I mean, I’m sure, you know, I have this experience often where I kind of contemplate something you know, it could be about geopolitics. It could be about gender relations. It could be, you know, about a political incident, where, you know, there’s something I’d like to say that I sort of think is an interesting point, but I feel like the risk of it being misconstrued is so great.
And obviously it depends a lot on who that audience is. If I’m sitting among, you know, four people and it’s you know, my husband and a couple of close friends, I may feel like I have a lot more leeway than in front of an audience of several hundred people. And I think that’s, I think that’s right. And I don’t think it should be viewed so negatively. Maybe we need a new term that, you know, somehow kind of brings these two things together. I don’t know if there’s a crisp definition of the line between sort of responsible conscientiousness and censorious kind of self-restraint.
EV: I like the term “wise speech,” although I’m totally cribbing that from Buddhism.
ZK: So on the critical race theory stuff, as Emma said, where do we go with all this? A year and a half ago, pre- sort of the summer of 2020, critical race theory, critical legal theory was known, it’s been around, it’s not like this is a sudden thing. But its eruption into contemporary discourse and consciousness is pretty sudden. I mean, it’s basically gone from, you know, one of many, I guess we’ll use the word modalities within academia, particularly, and some small areas of intellectual discourse, to this lightning rod of public discussion, acrimony, debate.
SN: Yeah. I mean, look, it’s a concerted campaign to label speech and teaching about race under this critical race theory rubric as a way to discredit it. And so that’s why we suddenly see this term that was, you know, I learned about law school and, you know, it was sort of one of many different sort of sets of theories that you encountered in the course of a legal education. You know, now it’s become this kind of shibboleth. And, you know, I understand at some level the feeling that people have that, you know, we’re in this moment of difficult racial reckoning and looking at historical events through a new light and seeing parts of stories that were long shrouded in secrecy or deliberately suppressed and we’re bringing that to light, and that it’s important, but that it also, you know, can kind of cross over into casting our whole national history in very negative terms.
And, you know, if people are schooled this way, you know, do they lose sight of, you know, what is strong and brilliant and distinctive about, for example, the US Constitution or the Bill of Rights or how the country was founded. So does the pendulum, in other words, swing so far in the other direction that any hope of kind of patriotism or national unity or pride is lost, and that, you know, that that would be a real loss. And that part of our cohesion as a country, you know, may depend uponyou know, having a certain amount of faith in our system. And so if the fundamentals of that system are kind of shot through with criticism, you know, how do we hold together? So I, you know, I understand that line of questioning, but I really believe that this effort to legislate curriculum and try to dictate what can be taught in schools and universities is dangerous and totalitarian. It sort of smacks of these memory control efforts that have been adopted in Russia and Eastern Europe and China where counter-narratives are suppressed and punished. I mean, I’ve met with many writers from around the world who have suffered the consequences of trying to tell history as they saw it and, you know, wound up in jail or in obscurity as a result. And so I find it extremely troubling to see in our own country going down this path.
ZK: But for us, it’s partly going down a path we’ve been down, right? I mean, the whole point of the Scopes Trial a hundred years ago was, you were not allowed to teach scientific evolution in certain school districts. And that ended up in legal action and firing, and, you know, it was a bit of a turning point in that. So in some sense, we are revisiting earlier elementsyou know, it’s not like everything has been hunky-dory and everybody could teach whatever they could teach and say whatever they could say.
SN: Yeah, these tensions have been [inaudible]. One of the most striking aspects, of course, is that it’s the Republican Party that, you know, as we were saying a few minutes agosort of claims to be the standard-bearer for free speech. They claimed at the Republican National Convention last summer, you know, “we are the party of free speech,” and then, you know, here they go from state house to state house introducing these bills that would dictate and gag curriculum. And, you know, it’s not a matter of… I think what’s really important is, you don’t have to subscribe to critical race theory to believe that having legislators you know, hand down what ideas are banned in the classroom is a dangerous thing. I mean, I don’t consider myself a particular proponent of critical race theory, but I’m a great proponent of having teachers and educators be the ones to decide what ideas to introduce in the classroom and the notion that nothing should be off limits, that there ought to be scope for exploring the full breadth of ideas.
And that, you know, if we kind of try to redline certain ideas, you know, it actually elevates them, reifies them, makes people more curious about them, and also sows an enormous amount of division. And I think there are ways of reconciling this. I was at Monticello just over the weekend, not having been there in more than 20 years, and, you know, they’ve done an enormous amount to incorporate the history and legacy of slavery into the way that everything is presented at Monticello. And it’s a radically different story that is being told from the one that, you know, I absorbed a couple of decades ago upon first visiting Jefferson’s homestead, and yet they’ve done so in a way that doesn’t completely cast out the sides of his legacy that you know, some people are very proud of. You know, his role writing the Declaration of Independence, you know, that’s not lost, but the stories of the slaves are brought forward as well. And so, you know, my hope is we can get nationally to a point where we can kind of talk about all of this in its nuance and have scope for people with very different sets of beliefs to have some mutual respect for one another. But I think for the moment, the kind of pendulum has really swung in a dangerous direction.
EV: I’ve been thinking, going over your work, like what a rare, balanced voice. And it doesn’t seem that difficult to be, to look at something like critical race theory and see the distinctions and see the nuance and like come to a rational opinion about it. But for some reason it seems like completely impossible as far as you know, our collective voice. I mean, how do you keep yourself, you know, balanced and resist the lure of knee-jerk, partisan politics. Is that something that comes to mind for you individually?
SN: I mean, I think part of it really comes from, actually, conversations with people. And it’s so easy to caricature a position when you’re just encountering it by Twitter or pieces on Medium. And, you know, I’d say one of the most important things for me, foundationally, when there first began to be these college campus speech dust-ups, you know, at Middlebury or Berkeley or Yale some years ago, I’d say the impulse of free speech defenders and sort of people, you know, in roughly my age cohort was incredibly dismissive toward the students. It’s like, “oh, these coddled, you know, snowflakes, they can’t take it, they’re so fragile, they’re lashing out, you know, they’re giving into totalitarian impulses.” And what we did at PEN was actually go around and start interviewing students and meeting with students. And when you did that, you saw, you know, gosh, these young people are incredibly thoughtful. They have a set of values. They’re trying to confront some of the detritus of what has been handed down to them by previous generations, in terms of racial divisions gender-based divisions, inequities you know, kind of lack of opportunity for certain segments of society. And, you know, they’re really sort of trying to come to grips with that and think about what it means for the functioning of a university or a classroom. And it’s really hard to argue with that project and that endeavor.
Now, what I always thought was that, in so far as their efforts crossed over into banning or punishing speech, that they were sort of misguided, that that was the wrong approach. I found, actually, if you entered into conversations or talked it through, you know, their purpose was not to curtail speech. That was not you know, what they were after. It was sort of a byproduct of this groping toward, you know, how do we make the campus environment where non-traditional students who don’t come from the background for which the institution was founded, you know, decades or centuries ago, so they can feel, you know, truly and fully included and you know, enabled in every way to partake of what’s happening here. That’s what they were after. And so the encroachments on free speech were sort of a byproduct of that. And so, once I understood that, it kind of gave me a lens through which to look at all these conflicts. And you know, I look at it the same way on the other side. I mean, even in the critical race theory debate, you know, there’s a lot of uproar and outrage on the left about these repressive efforts. And I agree with that. I think they’re extremely wrongheaded and hypocritical and kind of taking us down a dangerous path. And yet, you know, I always understood critical race theory as sort of an effort at a corrective, you know, a challenging set of precepts that was intended to make us rethink and question you know, much of how our society is set up, but not as a kind of religion or dogma. And, you know, so I think to the extent that people are worried that it sort of goes too far and, you know, erases everything that’s positive about American history, you know, if I believed that was happening, I’d be worried about that too. I don’t think that’s what people are after. I don’t think that’s what the effect is here. I think trying to see, well, what is the kernel of a general, a genuine concern on either side of any of these debates is sort of what helps unlock, you know, a sense of nuance and how we can find the common ground.
EV: There is also the timeless irony that trying to ban something just gives it a lot more power, in terms of all the attention being paid. But yeah.
ZK: On that, like the banning part, you know, we talk very emotionally and take very seriously these divisions within the United States. You’ve done a lot of work both in the State Department and obviously at PEN on the global context. And sometimes when you look at these debates in the United States in light of speech that meets not just outrage or counterpoint, you know, agitation, but actual life and limb consequences, if you… You know, Emma’s in Greece now; in that neighborhood, if you write a column criticizing Erdogan in Turkey—I mean, not in Greece; anyone can write a column in Greece…
EV: Next door.
ZK: … You lose your license to publish, you could be thrown in jail, you go north into Belarus, where, obviously, recently, one of the main critics of the government was plucked off of an intercepted airplane. And these are just two of the most recent failings, where speech in much of the rest of the world—obviously PEN’s done this over and over and over again, in Myanmar and in parts of China and Egypt—is met with not just the loss of the freedom to speak but the loss of fundamental freedoms being thrown into jail and the loss of life. Doesn’t that make some of these debates in the United States seem awfullyif not twee, then, you know, “aw, poor Americans, you’re, you know, you’re debating about what framework you want to articulate American history in, and everybody’s debating it, and at least for now, you know, the consequence might be social canceling at worst, but even that’s rare and extreme.” Whereas in these other parts of the world, you know, speech is literally a matter of life and death. So shouldn’t we be focusing more on that and a little bit less on her own navel-gazing.
SN: I’d say sort of yes and no. I mean, I do think… In the book “Dare to Speak,” I talk about that context and, you know, it’s just such a… The rest of the world offers such a vivid illustration of the dangers of going down the path of extending the powers of government to police speech. You know, you just sort of take a moment to look at what the situation is in places where they don’t have safeguards, like a China or Iran or, you know, increasingly democracies like Turkey and India. And you can just see the folly of wanting to hand to government the authority and discretion to, you know, police something like hate speech, which is, you know, a notion that people have tendered here in this country, calling into question whether the First Amendment goes too far. And, you know, it’s just, you’ve got to remind them, you know, where this leads if you were to cut back that constitutional restraint on the power of government to police speech.
So I think that’s part of it. But, you know, I do think absolutely in terms of the most serious concerns for free speech, you know, they are around the world and a lot of it emanates from China and I’m really kind of gratified to see just in the last few months, I’d say the US government and other institutions beginning to wake up to this Chinese paradigm and the ways in which it’s making its influence felt not just within the mainland, not just in Hong Kong where we’ve seen this, you know, absolutely heartbreaking clamp-down on, you know, what used to be one of the freest places in Asia and just such a bright spot for democracy and the free flow of ideas, you know, has now just been completely enshrouded and is operating on the same terms as the mainland. And it’s terrifying.
We’ve seen you know, writers that we work with fleeing into exile under pretty desperate circumstances. And so that is, you know, all devastating and it’s a major focus for us. We’re seeing this phenomenon—and you touched on Roman Protasevich in Belarus—this, what I think of as the long arm of authoritarianism governments that now are not just muzzling speech within their borders but reaching across geographic bounds to go after their critics wherever they may be, so that even exile no longer offers the safety and security that it once did. So you know, all sorts of really alarming phenomenon and sort of the spreading of authoritarianism, you know, both to new countries, former democracies that are showing these authoritarian tendencies and intensification of repression, in places like Iran and China, new tools of repression through surveillance and facial recognition and monitoring of the online space.
So it’s a pretty kind of terrifying environment. That said, I do think what happens here in this country still matters. I think one of the reasons that the pace of oppression around the world has accelerated over the last few years is sort of the vacuum of leadership coming from the United States and the West and the loss of credibility of Washington as a force for press freedom and truth and free expression and in support of dissidence around the world during the Trump years; we really lost some ground. I think others sort of, you know, in other democracies, the sense of stigma associated with going after journalists or raiding the offices of a social media company really lessened. And there was a kind of unmooring of the set of norms that operated in countries that considered themselves, you know, proudly freedom respecting. And so, I think that’s very unfortunate, and it’s one of the reasons why I do believe a robust defense of free speech in this country remains extremely important. I think it reverberates globally.
EV: Yeah. Not to sound too rah-rah American, but it is true that when I moved here to Greece I was shocked at how much of the news cycle was devoted to American politics. Like I would say 50%. And it’s not like Greece, like, doesn’t have enough problems to pay attention to just on its own. And in the same way, you know, when there was the insurrection on January 6th at the Capitol, it was like, people were glued to their TVs here because it was the United States. They couldn’t believe it was happening in the United States. And I think having lived the rest of my life in the states before now, that was really surprising to me. And I think sometimes Americans do take that for granted, that what we do in the states does reverberate, like you said.
ZK: I wonder whether that’s going to change, though. I mean, some of this was structural, right? The United States had a certain amount of power throughout the 20th Century. It still has immense power. No doubt about it. It’s just the relative position/the world of self-development and multiple nodes. I mean, it’s a fine line between setting an example, which I think you were talking about Suzanne, meaning the more that we can practice whatever it is we preach, or just practice whatever it is we believe, the more the example of that is palliative and powerful. The problem was that mix, and you know this from being at the State Department in the government, is when that kind of crosses over to sort of coercive preaching, right? “Follow Our mores and examples because we’re telling you to not because we’re living it and it has a beneficial effect that others might want to emulate.” I mean, I’m wondering how one does that, right, or how one does that effectively, that line… This is like, I guess, a question about human rights policy in general. Is this something we’re trying to lead by example, or is it something that we’re trying to use our own… The coercive power of our state internationally, just try to force others to adopt a moral framework?
SN: Yeah, look, I think that the balance on that has really shifted, in that, you know, years ago, US foreign assistance was this powerful form of leverage over governments, and, you know, we felt relatively free to use it. And now, you know, a couple of things have changed. First of allyou know, the dominance of our foreign assistance and trade relationships relative to those of others has diminished. And so, you know, whereas the overwhelming number of countries around the world used to count the US as their number one trading relationship, now in a lot of places that has shifted over to China. And so the balance of power is different. I also think the view toward what are seen as more coercive efforts to shape behavior has changed. And there’s quite a biting backlash against that.
And so, you know, the power of example and you know, it’s not just example, it’s also convening, it’s kind of collaborative norm-setting and norm enforcement. There all kinds of ways that the US can lead sort of short of coercion through a sort of rallying and energizing and offering thought leadership, driving forward ideas, you know, providing inspiration. I’ve seen this happen and it does work. And I think for other democracies, you know, in the environment, say, during the Clinton and Obama administrations, there was a lot of appeal to that. You know, it was something that they could sell to their own populations that offered a kind of halo, a good governance effect if they were participating. And there was a sort of virtuous momentum that built up as a result that really kind of ground to a halt during the Trump administration, where Washington was not looked to for that… As that type of lodestar.
And I think it can be built up, but it’s also the case that a lot has shifted in the interim, including, you know, most particularly the position of China, and also the recognition that, you know, the kind of turnabout that the US underwent during the Trump years was so dramatic, I don’t think the world can unsee that, you know, can now not, you know, move forward with the recognition that everything we stand for, you know, might just turn on a dime, you know, if the right confluence of political political forces conspire. And so, yeah, that’s a big setback, I think, for US leadership. Not insuperable, but very significant. I think it puts also a particular premium on our own behavior, because, you know, acts of sort of misbehavior deviation from norms are no longer seen as, you know, at the margins, but rather as, you know, an impulse that can take over in dangerous ways,
ZK: Although perhaps it can actually be more of a positive, beneficial reminder to Americans going forward, that we are as susceptible as any other group of human beings to our worst impulses. And to be more humble about the ease… How easy it is to slip into those, you know. There was a degree to which American stance to itself and to the world had a holier-than-thou quality to it, right, that we figured out all these things, and we’re now going to export a model that has worked to perfection. And that had some, as you pointed out, hugely beneficial effects. But it also carried with it a degree of arrogance and its own blowback, right? You know, people kind of, don’t like to be lectured to, and they don’t like to be condescended to. So maybe it’s, maybe this will be a recipe for a little more humble preaching, you know, the awareness that we are not ourselves immune from the very things that we are urging others to be mindful of. I mean, do you think that’s a possible constructive formula, as we wrap up?
SN: think so. I think there’s probably, you know, now as officials from the Biden administration sort of move around the world and talk with foreign counterparts, there’s a kind of relatability that they have and a humility that they bring, you know, given what this country has gone through and the ways, you know, we were brought low, you know, not just by the Trump years, but also the pandemic and our inability, you know, for many months to get a grip on it. You know, I think these things have been sort of levelers in a way, and we’re not the dominant hyper-power in the way that we were in the 1990s. I think, you know, it’s more a sort of a set of countries grappling against an evolving set of challenges and threats. And so I think that has the potential to strengthen the bonds between the US and its allies around the world, in just bringing them closer together,and less of a sense of the US,you know, having this overweening power and self-confidence,
ZK: Well, thank you, Suzanne, for a conversation that could go on for days, and will go on for days and days and days, as the world continues to evolve and you continue to be a powerful and potent voice. There’s a lot we didn’t touch on, but which, you know, we could at another point. And thank you so much for your time today.
SN: Thanks for having me.
EV: Okay. So that hour went by really fast. It’s such a rich topic. There are so many things that we could have touched on but we didn’t get to. One of them being social media. We didn’t get to talk about sort of everyone’s favorite person to hate: Mark Zuckerberg, and Facebook and Twitter and how those platforms are affecting free speech. And there was something else in particular that I wanted to ask her about but didn’t get to, which is that retribution piece that she mentioned. It seems like one of the reasons why it’s so scary to say something, say, on Twitter is that it’s not like there’s going to be a crowd that arises that says, “you know what, let’s forgive this person,” or “let’s give them the benefit of the doubt,” or “let’s preach patience right now.” Like obviously that is not going to happen. And you know, it just occurs to me, in a society that’s trending that direction, is that naturally going to be a society who wants to have a more controlled freedom of expression, that wants to have harsher measures and harsher strictures.
ZK: One of the effects of this obviously is if you are legitimately concerned that a misstep today will be a life sentence on your speech record, you’re going to be that much more careful and maybe genuinely self-censoring about what it is you say when you say it. I guess the question is, one, back to this question of being really mindful of what you say, how bad is that, that we should all think twice thrice and then some about the potential long-term implications of what we say, that has a public record, that is recorded? And then there is this question of, what’s the statute of limitations, right? At least when you commit a crime and you serve time, in theory, you’re supposed to have paid your debt for whatever you did. Is there any debt paying when it comes to Twitter missteps and things one says in public that have been deemed egregious? Is it a five-year period, a seven-year. I think we’re going to have to work all this out, right? Because there’s some awareness that it shouldn’t be a life sentence, but there should be consequence, and trying to figure out how you establish those parameters. We’re in the really, really early stages of all this.
EV: And in the criminal jurisdiction, I mean, there’s certainly a difference between committing a crime at 16 and committing a crime at 45. And that is not a distinction that exists right now in the realm of public affairs, vis-a-vis saying something that is even definitely offensive.
ZK: I do think that what ends up being potent about these conversations is, at least from the US perspective, and we touched on this with Suzanne, most of this right now, in fact, almost all of it right now unfolds in a civil context. So whatever missteps, yes, they can have massive career consequences. They probably can have personal consequences. But not yet are you going to jail. You’re not losing life and limb. Your family is not being shunned. Your entire ecosystem of friends and community are not being investigated. And I think as long as this remains part of the really rough and tumble, and sometimes rough and tumble in, yes, a deeply harmful way, but not in the harmful way that we just referred to. You’re not being thrown into jail. Your friends are not being questioned and rounded up. Your Twitter followers are not all being flagged for future free speech abuses by some government agency. I think that still remains a positive sign of a robust society, even as it’s really difficult to live in the midst of the times.
EV: Yeah, I was going to say that, too, Zachary, that there’s something about that hyperactivity that’s comforting, right? The lack of that debate would be something to truly worry about. Not that these issues aren’t important, but just, I think it’s good to, you know, see the forest through the trees, even throughout all of this intense debate around free speech.
ZK: Absolutely. So I think on this note at least for this week, one thing that we can answer the hypothetical and rhetorical question of what could go right, one thing that I think is going right is the continuation of this incredibly noisy, messy culture, in the United States, at leastthat in engenders a lot of social discourse, a lot of social turmoil, but maybe in the greater arc of things, a lot of positive social change. We’ll have to see about that one, but that at least is a direction in which it can point.
So I want to thank everybody for listening this week. We will continue these conversations ad infinitum. And so for Emma Varvaloucas, and for me, Zachary Karabell, and for The Progress Network, thanks once again.
To find out more information about The Progress Network and What Could Go Right?, visit theprogressnetwork.org. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter to stay up to date with everything happening with The Progress Network. If you like the show, please tell a friend, share an episode, or leave a rating and review on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening to this podcast. What Could Go Right? Is hosted by Zachary Karabell, and me. Emma Varvaloucas. We are produced by Andrew Steven. Jordan Aaron is our production coordinator. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and the Podglomerate. Thanks so much for listening.
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