Our Culture's War on Free Speech
The canons from the war on free speech are rumbling louder these days, and if we’re not careful they will be blasting away intellectual exchange in our classrooms. Christian liberal arts universities tend to be better at allowing open intellectual debate, but as the barbarians on the Left get more and more aggressive, even as conservatives graciously give up more and more ground, soon they’ll be in the gates.
Recently, the University of Missouri took one more step into making Orwellian thoughtcrime a reality in what was formerly known as the Free World. The university sent out an email to students asking them to report “incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech” to campus police. What’s wrong with trying to stop hateful speech? Nothing, if that were what the email was really about. But first, there’s another principle at stake here.
Once upon a time, when somebody said something that offended you, you fought back — with words of course. Bad ideas — racism, intolerance, fanaticism, etc. — would ultimately defeat themselves. So we should allow people to say outrageous things in order for the market place of free ideas to triumph. Otherwise, we would have a tyrannical bureaucracy determining what we could and could not say based of the whims of the majority. Free speech was one of the best protections against tyranny. This meant some people might say mean or hurtful things. But it was the price that had to be paid so that everyone, including the least popular groups, could have the right to say what they believed. The only restrictions on this were for slander and, rightly so, blasphemy.
The decision taken by the U of Missouri marks another attack on those ideas. It is a reminder that the Left is winning the war on free speech. What it says is that if someone says something that somebody else regards as offensive, that person should be silenced for the crime of being offensive. Anyone who loves the truth should be terrified at this thought, for the truth is offensive.
Saying, “I’m offended” has become a trump card across the board in both public and private discourse. Our society has put feelings above rationality. It is now a sin to say something that causes another person distress, and Christians are buying into this.
Newsflash: the gospel is offensive! Warning lights should be flashing, sirens blaring, when we hear of attempts to silence people on the basis of offence because we should know that it could be us next — it will be us next — if the Left has its way. What the person who says, “I’m offended” really means is that it causes them emotional pain to hear those ideas. But rather than address them rationally and explain why they disagree, they demand your silence. In other words, people who have different ideas should not be allowed to say them. (Of course, if I got offended because of homosexuality, it wouldn’t count. But hypocrisy is the Left’s game.)
This is exactly what the email at U of Missouri was all about. How do I know? Because laws already exist against slander and harassment. Meanwhile, the email mentioned that “while cases of hateful and hurtful speech are not crimes, if the individuals identified are students,” the campus police can discipline them. If the forbidden speech is not against the law, what is U of Missouri trying to stop?
They are trying to stop what the Leftist intellectual Herbert Marcuse once labelled “repressive tolerance.” He said that most people think about tolerance in reference to people and groups but that we should think of tolerance in terms of non-tolerance to ideas deemed intolerant. In other words, ideas the Left finds disagreeable — the biblical family, “hetero-normativity”, biologically determined sex/gender — are by definition hateful ideas, therefore they must be repressed. Anyone who has been following developments in the world of political correctness has seen this at work. It’s newest form: micro-aggressions.
The 20th century conservative journalist William F. Buckley once said: “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.”
The example of U of Missouri is just a small manifestation of a growing cultural cancer. More and more people are afraid of intellectual disagreement, instead demanding their irrational, ephemeral feelings decide the limits of acceptable discourse. With this our culture is becoming more and more intolerant as Leftists forbid deviance from orthodoxy. The right not to be offended is trumping truth and sanity. Those of us who love liberty must be on our guard.
Now to put principles to practice, a quote from the ever-misbehaving Douglas Wilson should ruffle some feathers. “The political correctness police are out in force, calling everyone on every expression of what they consider to be [hateful]. Unfortunately they, wind up policing a good deal more… To go along with any level of this PC foolishness is like going on a bender in Bangkok, and getting a tattoo from a guy whose English is not that strong.” I hope you’re offended.