Quick: Has America become a more or less open place for people to speak freely about their thoughts?

In terms of law and court precedents, speech has arguably never been freer. When it comes to voicing a contrary opinion on the most sensitive political and cultural topics, however, many of our tongues are tied and our fingers shy away from the keyboard. Better not to say anything, we reason, than to deal with the blowback.

The answer to this speech-chilling political correctness is not a new law but personal courage, free speech attorney-turned-writer David French of the National Review Institute argued this past week in a speech in Atlanta.

“We’ve reached a position that is different from the classic defense of free speech in this country,” French said. Rather than admitting none of us knows everything, and thus some humility is in order, too many Americans won’t accept they may need to change their minds from time to time. Or that they would benefit from explaining their own opinion, and not shouting down their opponents.

Much of the problem stems from what’s been called “the big sort” – the physical movement of people toward places where their neighbors will be more like-minded. “Americans are less likely to live near and work with people who disagree with them than at any time since we’ve been measuring that,” French said.

But because people tend to become more extreme in their views when they only talk with those who agree with them, we’ve lost not only our willingness to engage with others but the belief we even need to do so.

How bad has it gotten? “People are more likely to prefer their son or daughter marry a person of a different faith than a different political party,” French said, quipping that for many on the right, “eternal damnation is preferable to a Democrat.”

Although these attitudes concern politics, count French as someone who does not believe there’s a political solution. Rather, a cultural solution is needed. And that’s where the personal courage comes in.

“We cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated into silence,” he said, because that silence becomes self-reinforcing and makes it harder to speak up the next time.

But the answer is not to fight fire with fire.

“The opposite of political correctness is not acting like a jerk,” French said. “It’s speaking the truth with grace and humility and fearlessness. There is such a thing as being fearlessly reasonable.”

Along with that is a legal corollary to the Golden Rule: “Defend the rights of others that you would like to exercise yourself.”

And an answer to the “snowflake” mentality on many college campuses: “Do your best to be un-offendable. Be a walking safe space for speech.”

French takes as much abuse on social media (specifically Twitter) as anyone I observe. But while he acknowledges those platforms “put human nature on blast,” and not in a good way, he said they’re not the root cause of these problems.

“It’s as old as the high school cafeteria,” he said. “It’s peer pressure.”

As in that context, the answer to political correctness is to stand up to the peer pressure rather than conform to it to stay with the “in” crowd.

Contrary to some pleas, however, he isn’t for treating big tech companies like Facebook and Google as public utilities, or using antitrust power to break them up. “If you have one ‘woke’ Google and you break into nine pieces, what are you going to have?” he posited. “Nine ‘woke’ Googles.”

The answer here is a mix of persuading the leaders of these behemoths not to stifle speech they don’t like, while encouraging entrepreneurs who want to compete with them. The worst approach would be to weaken that strong legal environment for free speech, and let government regulators decide what’s OK to say.

“If there’s one thing we know about politics,” he warned those who have the upper hand today, “it’s that no party maintains control for long.”

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