A Conversation with Jonathan Zimmerman on His New Book “Free Speech”
Divided We Fall: Can you tell us what inspired you to write this book? And why you chose to collaborate with Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist Signe Wilkinson?
Jonathan Zimmerman: Well, Signe actually pitched the book to me. She had read things I had written on the subject and said, “Why don’t you write the book and I’ll illustrate it.” But I’d already imagined the book before that time. So it was a great coincidence in some ways.
Really, the reason that I wrote it, other than Signe pitching it to me, is that as a teacher and also as a parent, I sensed that there was a generational divide on these questions. And the people younger than me—which is almost everybody, by now—didn’t have the same appreciation for free speech that I had. They often considered it a conservative or a backward idea. And because I’m a historian, I thought the best way to counter that would be to write a short book that reminded people about the radical role that free speech has played, especially in movements for social justice.
Divided We Fall: Is there anything in your background that gave you that unique lens into free speech?
Zimmerman: Well, I think one of them is that I’ve spent my career studying the history of education. And I think one of the places where free speech has always been the most significant but also the most inhibited is actually in our classrooms. So, I wrote books about conflicts over teaching sex education, religion, and history. And in all these places, one of the things that inhibited good teaching was the fact that students and teachers weren’t really endowed with the right to say what they thought. So that was one thing that inspired it.
I think another factor is that I’ve spent a good part of my life in countries where they don’t have free speech protections. It isn’t just that I was in the Peace Corps but that my parents were in the Peace Corps as well. I grew up in Asia and Iran. In Iran, which was under the control of the Shah at that time, it was very clear that people weren’t free to criticize the regime. That’s still the case in most parts of the world and I think that Americans are often unaware of that, precisely because they haven’t been to these places. Nepal was not a democracy, either. It was illegal to criticize the king when I was there. I think that gave me both an interest and appreciation for free speech.
Divided We Fall: You are a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Have you seen that or felt a lack of free speech in your classroom?
Zimmerman: Well, look, anybody who has taught in an American classroom in the past decade has felt this. Many, many surveys have shown that people are self-censoring. People are afraid, especially of their peers—they do not want to be canceled by their peers—which I totally understand because when I was 18 I wouldn’t have wanted thousands of people to call me terrible names on the Internet either. And I think that’s been an enormous inhibitor of free speech.
I think there’s been a lot of misreporting of the free speech question on campuses. If you watch Fox News, you might imagine that they are like bad guys in sunglasses and baseball bats walking around muzzling people. That’s not the way this works. It’s more subtle and it’s more insidious than that. All these institutions have policies that uphold free speech. And, rhetorically, they’re committed to the concept, which is better than not being committed to it. But in practice, what the surveys show us, especially the survey by FIRE last year, is that the students do not feel free to say what they think both in class and outside of it. Nobody questions that. It’s just a question of what we do about it.
Divided We Fall: We are big fans of Heterodox Academy, of which you are a founding member. How have the group’s efforts gone thus far?
Zimmerman: I think Heterodox is a tremendous organization but it’s obviously a small first step. One of the problems with Heterodox, which is characteristic of our moment, is Heterodox is not heterodox enough. By that I mean, if you look at the membership you don’t find as many people that describe themselves as very liberal or as Liberal Democrats. I think the membership is more centrist. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not against centrists. But I think in a way it’s preaching to the converted because the real problem is that free speech itself has been typecast as a conservative value. And so that’s often who’s attracted to Heterodox.
I’m a Liberal Democrat. But because of my commitment to free speech, there are many people who think I’m a Conservative. And that’s the heart of the problem. I think if you look at the history and the membership of Heterodox, in some ways it confirms the problem, which is that the free speech concerns have been typecast as centrist or right-wing and that’s who’s attracted to the organization.
Divided We Fall: Many of the chapters in your book highlight the critical importance of free speech in the civil rights movement, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights movement. For our readers who haven’t read the book, are there any specific examples that you’d like to highlight?
Zimmerman: What you’re describing is the key claim in a book. When you look backward in time, every single great campaign for social justice in America has been powered by free speech and by people who are free speech absolutists. Frederick Douglas called it the “great moral renovator of society.” Why? The reason is that Douglas understood that without free speech, he and other African Americans would not be able to critique their circumstances and their oppression.
If you look at gay rights, which I know was a big concern for many young people today, I think that’s an important chapter of this story. Gay activity was illegal and many gay publications were censored. But in the 50s and 60s, the Courts started to protect them. The Courts started to say that the government couldn’t censor these gay magazines. These turn out to be hugely seminal in the creation of the gay rights movement. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how. If you have a behavior and identity that is so deeply stigmatized, you need publications and you need other venues in order to connect in every sense. And it was precisely these publications that allowed gay people to connect and to create a movement.
Divided We Fall: As we were reading your book, we kept thinking back to the ACLU, which generally defends left-leaning rights: abortion rights, immigration, prison reform, etc. But they have a very historic and successful free speech division. Perhaps the ACLU kind of embodies the bipartisanship and even the progressivism of free speech?
Zimmerman: Absolutely. And again, there’s new tension between these other movements for social justice and free speech. To the contrary, those movements were founded and powered by free speech. Without free speech, they literally could not have existed.
Divided We Fall: Perhaps there is not enough heterodox in this interview, because we radically agree with you. Trying to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who disagrees, what would they say?
Zimmerman: That’s easy. Because I hear it all the time. They would say something like, “Well, free speech is something that white dudes like Zimmerman like because it lets them say what they want.” And more the point, “It lets them demean minorities whose very existence is at stake and who need protection from free speech.” I think this is a dramatically condescending argument. It’s often brought to you by people who see themselves as advocates for minorities. But what could be more patronizing than to say that a group of people need a certain kind of protection from speech and they don’t have enough resilience to suffer it. That strikes me as a very painful irony.
And again, it’s ahistorical because once you take away free speech—and we’ve seen this over and over in history—it will be precisely the people without power—racial minorities, women, gays—that suffer. It’s happened before and it will happen again.
Behind these latter-day movements is censorship, there’s enormous hubris because people imagine that somehow when we start to censor this stuff, that it won’t come back to bite them in the rear end! I’m like, dude, why don’t you think this will be used as a weapon against you? It has been and it will be.
Divided We Fall: Our historical perspective is myopic most of the time. The “speech as violence” line of argument is very related to what you’re saying and used in a very patronizing way.
Zimmerman: We’re now phrasing political claims in psychological terms. If I say something that you disagree with, you won’t say, “I think you’re wrong for the following reasons.” Or, “I think the evidence is otherwise.” You’ll see you hurt me—psychologically, you hurt me. You might say you committed violence against me. There are many problems with this but I would say the first one is that it’s a cul-de-sac, it cuts off discussion and prevents us from learning from each other.
Besides the fact that free speech is a kind of a weapon of social progress, it’s also a venue for learning. If we can’t talk, we can’t learn from each other. And that’s what these violence metaphors do. If you say that you were micro-aggressed or triggered by something I’ve said on this call, basically all I could say in response is I’m sorry. I can’t say that you weren’t because I can’t look inside your psyche or your soul. I suppose I can ask you a little bit more about why you were hurt, but what I couldn’t do is deny it. I think discussing requires a certain kind of, if you will, denial. A certain sort of back and forth that is inhibited and cut off by these psychological metaphors.
When I say this to my students, they often say you’re denying or feelings. I try to argue that they’ve got it exactly wrong. It’s the exact opposite problem. It’s precisely the undeniability of their feelings that make this such a poor venue for discussion. It is precisely because I can’t deny their feelings that we have nothing left to say.
Divided We Fall: What are your thoughts about the intersection of free speech and bipartisanship?
Zimmerman: The worst myth and screed on the land right now—and it’s fully bipartisan—is that someone who disagrees with you is either morally or cognitively warped. Basically, they’re either stupid or an asshole. The only way that we can get beyond those caricatures is to talk. Those caricatures, just like all caricatures, are based on ignorance. Seventy-four million people voted for Donald Trump. I did not. But I’ve heard colleagues and professors say it anyone who voted for Trump is cognitively or morally warped—i.e. stupid or an asshole. I think that’s an incredibly cynical comment. But I think to the point of your question, we’ll never find out otherwise if we can’t speak to each other.
Here’s the thing. Seventy-four million subsumes a lot. And within that 74 million, there are, for example, Q-Anon supporters. I think it’s fair to call somebody that believes in PizzaGate morally or intellectually warped. The problem is when you use that blanket characterization of a gigantic group of human beings, it just doesn’t hold water. Were there Q-Anon supporters who voted for Trump? Yes. Does it, therefore, follow that everyone who voted for Trump believes in Q-Anon? No. There is a grain of truth in every generalization, but many grains of falsehood as well.
Divided We Fall: If there’s anything we haven’t asked that you’d like to cover?
Zimmerman: You haven’t asked me the hardest question which is what we do about it. The what is to be done question. I’m sort of glad you didn’t because I still don’t have a very good answer. I mean, obviously, you know, my book is one extremely modest answer. I think that those of us who care about this have to raise our own voices–speaking up on behalf of free speech is itself a form of free speech. We don’t exert it enough. And I think we have to put pressure on our leaders to do the same.
On a personal level, I would recommend people try to expose themselves to media that is not tailored to you. Even though my wife hates this, I watch Fox News every night. And the reason is that if I watch MSNBC or CNN, I know that my worldview is going to be confirmed. On Fox, it won’t be. In my opinion, some stuff on Fox fits the “morally and intellectually warped” characterization. Some of it is straight up falsehood and occasionally racist. But not all of it. And lo and behold, when I started watching Fox News, I found out that there are Democrats on Fox News. There are people of color on Fox News. Fox News turns out to be a somewhat diverse nation. But, of course, you don’t know that unless you start watching because you’ve been primed to generalize about it. I think especially right now in the digital era when so much media is curated for our phones in accord with our search histories and our own biases, the most important thing that any of us can do is to try to step out of that. We have to try to educate people to do this.
I think the larger theme is that unless we have free speech norms that allow people to criticize each other and be criticized without fear, it’s going be very hard to institute any of this. Why would you go to the trouble of trying to inform yourself about other points of view and things you disagree with if you feel inhibited about discussing them?
Divided We Fall: We will have to leave it there. Thank you for joining us, Professor Zimmerman.
Jonathan Zimmerman is one of the foremost education historians working today. His work examines how education practices and policies have developed over time, and the myths that often cloud our understanding of teaching and learning. He has a particular interest in how political and social movements come to shape education. A former Peace Corps volunteer and high school teacher, Zimmerman has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Review of Books, and The Atlantic. He currently works as a Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.