Sunday, January 18, 2015

Our Sacred Freedom of Speech

I want to recommend an article by Peter Leithart, “Beyond Blasphemy,” and to thank my friend Miguel for linking to it. The article makes the following argument:
Secular liberalism aims and claims to be beyond the possibility of blasphemy. Blasphemy can only exist where there is a sacred to violate; we are supposed to be beyond blasphemy because we have given up on the sacred. 
But of course, we haven’t. We are awash in sacred entities and ideas—equality, freedom, rights. Modern nations are holy nations, demanding sacrifices to police the boundaries of the sacred. ... 
If liberalism has a concept of the sacred and hence a notion of blasphemy, then it must claim that its sacred is true, right, and good. Out of the other side of its mouth, though, liberalism says that it needs no settled conclusions about what is true, right, and good: It claims to leave private citizens free to make their private choices about their private truths.
The article concludes with a recommendation: “A liberalism that acknowledges its sacred commitments would be, if nothing else, a more honest liberalism.”

I agree vehemently with this final point, and want to apply it to a particular case: freedom of speech. The most basic point to make about it—an assumption that Leithart’s article relies on—is that freedom of speech, just like our other freedoms, was never inevitable. It is just as historical a phenomenon as the coercion that it opposes, and would not have come into being if eighteenth-century history had randomly zigged instead of zagging. It is not cosmically privileged, and there is no reason to think that humanity will not lose it at some point in the future.

But no matter how much we like free speech, pointing out that it’s accidental brings something sordid to our attention. Namely, if we see free speech as just another leaf in the wind of history, it becomes possible to think that it’s simply not the best way to run our society. Once we begin to doubt its natural supremacy, it’s up for any kind of criticism. This is already common on North American university campuses, where movements to repress speech deemed harmful set off Ragnarök approximately once a week. And the same thing happens on the state level: China and Egypt, to pick two examples from an ugly throng of repressive governments, have decided that the state’s authority is a more important ideal than the freedom of speech that would allow its criticism.

So in sum, free speech as a public policy can be and is challenged constantly. Now, one possible response to this challenge is to make a reasoned defense of it based on practical arguments—much as John Milton did in 1644, in his Areopagitica:
That Order which ye have ordain’d to regulate Printing ... will be primely to the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of Truth, not only by disexercising and blunting our abilities in what we know already, but by hindring and cropping the discovery that might bee yet further made both in religious and civill Wisdome.
This is the essay that set the ball rolling, and arguments in free speech’s favor are largely the same as they were in the seventeenth century: without giving the enemy a platform you won’t be able to rebut him; public policy is better when any proposal can be voiced; the government gets to know when it’s in trouble on the street; et cetera.

But there are two problems with this practical approach. First, all these arguments might be wrong. One might, in the first place, believe that the interests of civility or of respecting ethnicity or religion trump unbridled mockery or “hate speech.” That’s why you can’t put up a swastika in Germany, and why Christians can’t write the word Allah in Malaysia. Much less dramatically, if you spend more than two minutes on a page like Overheard at UChicago, you’ll come across someone arguing that yes, free speech is good in a vacuum, but not when it gets abused to further marginalize an ethnic, sexual or religious minority.

There’s also a strong case to make that governments actually benefit enormously from suppressing speech: in Russia, for instance, the carefully constrained media has successfully painted so flattering a portrait of Putin, and so demonizing a caricature of the West, that the average citizen is far more likely to support the regime than not. All the more so in North Korea. Even on this continent, Congress was once so persuaded by the arguments for curtailing speech for the sake of national security that it passed a Sedition Act in 1797, and then again, during the First World War, in 1918. I’m not arguing here that free speech is ruinous to governments, any more than I’m arguing that it’s not. I am saying, though, that as soon as you make free speech a practical question of policy, you expose yourself to a host of extremely persuasive arguments that would thwart it. You must be prepared to debate Xi Jinping on the subject, and to accept the consequences if you lose.

The second problem: in the classical American tradition, free speech is deemed a right, not just a wise policy. (At least, it has been since the Supreme Court began to hear free-expression cases around the turn of the century.) And now that the natural theology of the eighteenth century has worn off, it’s extremely hard to conceive of a practical argument for the existence of such a right. Can you prove that a man should have the power to speak his mind, for no other reason than that it’s his birthright as a human being? I think we cannot, no more than we can prove his God-given right to vote for his representative. Rights aren’t material facts, and you can’t demonstrate them.

We can, though, enforce them: and so we make our liberal freedoms sacred. This worship transcends the practical approach that’s so riddled with dangers. With some exceptions that I’ve mentioned above, Americans have done this in the case of free speech: Everything can be up for debate, but not the freedom to have a debate in the first place. (Of course, you can propose curtailing speech, say, for religious reasons: you just can’t do so with the expectation of any success, since the Constitution, both written and social, forbids it. So you might as well not propose it at all.) Thus, without any logical justification at all, our public institutions tend to insist on free inquiry as a bedrock of their structure. This is, I think a good thing. It allows us to uphold our first-amendment freedoms without subjecting them to the muddy humiliation of having to defend them. We can simply point to the faded parchment in the National Archives or the pocket Bill of Rights in our jeans, and give out the proper sentimental sigh.

Leithart thinks that our refusal to submit free speech to constant logical tests is a thing to be ashamed of. In his mind, the truth of our ideals goes unexamined in this process of making them holy. He writes:
But what happens to liberal order if it should openly acknowledge that it depends on truths that must be protected? What basis does it have to determine those truths and defend them? Where would it find a consensus? 
Here, I part with him. Not because I think liberal ideas like free speech aren’t true, but because the question of truth or untruth simply doesn’t apply here. There’s no need, then, for our society to nihilistically embrace free speech despite knowing that we rely on a falsification. We can simply worship the ideal—and declare it inviolate—without believing it to be based on a truth claim. This makes us defenders of free speech much better placed than apologists for religious ideals, who suffer under the iron yoke of empirical review. A right is a purely normative concept, and no factual discovery under heaven can possibly besot its rusted-copper robe.

Our national altar.
To go back to the general case, liberalism does indeed hold certain values sacred, and blasphemy against them to be a nasty thing. But this is not a bad thing. In the face of all practical concerns, despite everything that persuades me that coercion is better than freedom, I love my freedoms, I worship them, and I see no defect in them. The cult of liberalism is a historical and contingent phenomenon—that I grant. But it’s also a wonderful phenomenon, and I wouldn’t have my society any other way.

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