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Who gets to speak?
If we want a free society – we must affirm freedom of speech for everyone, including Joe Rogan and the truckers
Danish lawyer Jacob Mchangama is set to publish his brilliant debut next week, Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media. In it, the human-rights advocate chronicles “elite panics” of the past, which, he points out on Twitter, hold relevance for the current moment.
Elite panics involve an outbreak of angst among the wealthy and powerful — and they’ve been happening for millennia. And, while such outbursts can reflect real concerns, Mchangama writes in his book, “it is notable that they tend to erupt whenever the public sphere is expanded.” He goes on to explain: “Upon the introduction of new technology that gives access to those previously unheard, the traditional gatekeepers of public opinion fear that the newcomers will manipulate the masses through dangerous ideas, and propaganda, threatening the established social and political order.”
These conflicts, Mchangama notes, represent a clash between egalitarian and elitist conceptions of free speech. One sees free speech as a right for all; the other would have it be a privilege for those enlightened enough to use it properly.
Such tensions have been on full display this week, as two stories dominate the news cycle — Joe Rogan and the truckers — sparking establishment alarm.
These stories are presented as being about misinformation, and about anti-vaccine sentiment. But they are not, not really. These stories are about elite anxieties, and about class.
Now, of course, Joe Rogan is rich and famous. Significantly, though, he does not represent the establishment, in large part because he has actively rejected it.
Rogan’s podcast is everything that legacy media is not; it is a long-form, low-production affair in which its host shoots from the hip and explores his niche interests, interviewing a range of guests, some of whom are profoundly controversial (but most of whom are not).
Rogan does not subscribe to the orthodoxies of the day, and he does not cater his content to Twitter. He does not pursue prestige, and he does not appear to care about the approval of his peers. He does not back down from mob pile-ons.
What he does do, week after week, is ask questions, in plain language, and often the very ones that listeners themselves are asking. He speaks his mind bluntly, but eschews all authority. He admits when he’s wrong. He is intensely curious, has an open mind, and stubbornly insists on questioning the status quo. And, I’m not the first to point out: Though Rogan is himself a multimillionaire, he did not grow up that way — and his sensibility remains solidly blue collar. Indeed, he reminds me of many of the men I know without college degrees, who are smart, well-informed, and deeply engaged with the world. (And, no surprise, listen to the podcast.)
Rogan speaks to a portion of the population that has no natural political home in North America. This group is often either invisible to the media or actively derided by it, and is increasingly fed up with mainstream coverage, which does not represent working-class interests, reflect its experiences, or cover the issues it cares about.
It’s no coincidence that Rogan has become wildly popular through a newish technology, podcasting, that renders gatekeepers irrelevant. In an era of diminishing trust in media, Rogan has built an estimated audience of 9 to 11 million per episode, while, as the Atlantic points out, the combined prime-time audiences of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News clock in at about five million average viewers per month.
The Twitterati is not mad about misinformation or anti-vaccine sentiment. The chattering classes are furious about losing the influence they feel entitled to. Which is why their solution is not to debate Rogan, but to censor him.
Let’s move on to the truckers. Though rattled commentators warned that the convoy to Ottawa could culminate in a Canadian version of January 6, the fact is that as of this writing, there have been no incidents of public violence, no injuries, and no moves to overthrow the government.
The presence of what appears to be a small group of racist extremists is horrifying and reprehensible, and should be denounced loudly, unequivocally, and repeatedly.
We should also notice that the truckers’ movement, in fact, includes people of colour. And acknowledge that this is a wide-scale protest led by Canadian workers, backed by millions of dollars in public donations, and cheered on with roadside demonstrations across the country. This is not a movement we can afford to simply write off.
While the chaos in the capital has certainly upset and angered many Ottawa residents, and caused distress and even fear for some, so far it has not posed any concrete danger to public safety (despite headlines urging us to contemplate “non-violent dangers”).
As we head into the weekend, and Toronto anticipates a similar protest, here’s something to think about: The wealthy and powerful decision-makers and opinion-shapers in this country have consolidated wealth and power during the pandemic, but have lost trust.
One reason why is that the policies they’ve imposed, and championed, are glaringly class-based.
While us knowledge workers have worked comfortably from home, ordering takeout and amassing savings, growing ever-more afraid to re-enter society, working-class Canadians — including many people of colour — have experienced the pandemic very differently. They have lost money and jobs and businesses and stability in the upwards transfer of wealth; they have struggled to find childcare when schools have closed; they have gotten sick with the virus and taken time off work and lost more pay.
These workers have already conquered their fears of COVID-19; they have been out working every day while we hibernate.
The policies that have shielded us have exposed them, time and time again. They have every right to object. And vocally.
We should take a deep breath, and ask ourselves a few questions: Does it make sense to heap scorn on the truckers? Is it wise to stoke divisions, to go so far as to paint them all as hateful racists? To look down on them and mock them, as so many have done on Twitter this week?
Should we perhaps think twice, too, about alienating the people who have delivered our basic goods, at great risk to their own personal health, for the past two years — and on whom we are still utterly reliant?
We might also consider this: As Robyn Urback has pointed out in The Globe and Mail, this movie has already played out and none of us like the ending. Deciding that some of our citizenry are irredeemable deplorables only enrages that portion of the electorate and leads to political polarization that makes everyone’s lives worse — not to mention energizes the far-right.
The way to address panics such as this, I believe, is to reaffirm our core values as a society. In other words: to reject the elitist conception of free expression and embrace the egalitarian one.
If we want a free society, we must affirm free speech, as profoundly messy and unsettling as it can sometimes be, for every single member of society — including truck drivers and Joe Rogan.
Stay tuned for more on free speech: Jacob Mchangama is our guest next week on the Lean Out podcast.