The last few decades have seen a rise in polarization and politicization throughout the country. Facilitated my traditional and social media, everything from sports to comic books have become touchstones in various culture wars. In this context, censorship and control of speech have become powerful political tools, at the cost of the pre-political right of free speech. The new book, Speechless, is a welcome corrective to the hyper-politicization and thought-policing in contemporary society.
Written by the conservative commentator and podcaster, Michael Knowles, Speechless is an overtly political book. Knowles makes no bones about the fact that he is writing from a right of center perspective. But by analyzing the issues of free speech and political correctness primarily through a historical lens, the book avoids a lot of the usual pitfalls of political writing. He strikes a more philosophical, academic tone that allows him to avoid the mudslinging and whataboutism that is so common in current discourse.
This is important, as the book is really a history of modern political discourse, primarily of the concept of “political correctness.” Knowles identifies the roots of this idea in early 20th century Progressive and Marxist thinkers such as the philosopher Antonio Gramsci. From there, he traces the development of PC down through the last hundred years, through the campus curriculum debates of the 80s and 90s, the rise of the concept of political correctness itself, up to the present day. “Cancel culture,” or “accountability culture” depending on your perspective, is just the latest manifestation of this long history.
One thing that is great about the book is that Knowles is clear from the outset that he is not arguing for the abolition of standards. While critiquing the political correctness of progressives, Knowles also criticizes a shallow understanding of free speech that he associates with many conservatives. Specifically, free speech is not meant to be a license to say whatever you want without consequence. Taboos and standards of acceptable speech exist in every society and they exist for a reason.
Instead, Speechless takes aim at a small number of intellectuals and activists who manufacture and manipulate these taboos at will in order to affect political and cultural change from the top down. It is not that we shouldn’t have standards, but that we should not allow those standards to be imposed from on high by a coterie of technocrats.
Agree or disagree with his conclusions, Knowles’ history of PC is fascinating and well-researched. He goes back to the primary sources whenever possible, making it a worthwhile read for readers across the political spectrum.
Ultimately, free speech is so important because it is truly fundamental. Community in the truest sense of the word cannot exist without the freedom to speak, think, and converse with one another. It is really an apolitical issue. Politics, left, right, and center, is impossible without it.
Speechless by Michael Knowles is available for purchase here.