Two Ways to Go Wrong About Free Speech

When it comes to free speech, we’re losing our minds in multiple directions at once. On the one hand, some, mostly on the left, are crusading against unwelcome or unpleasant speech with tactics ranging from mob criticism to thuggish violence to actual state censorship. Others, mostly on the right, have reacted by dismissing civility and mutual respect as mere political correctness. It’s past time to regain the self-restraint–in our own speech and in our reactions to others–that makes free speech livable.

The urge to censor is natural. People (other people, of course) say awful, hurtful things. It is easy to see how the world would be better if that guy over there could just be shut up, and the excitement of joining together in righteous indignation to make him shut up is only an added inducement. So lives are ruined over ill-considered social media posts, controversial campus speakers are threatened and shouted down, and violent mobs assault their neighbors for the crime of attending a Donald Trump rally.

While the state itself rarely gets in the censorship game in the US, the European Union recently compelled tech companies including Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft to accept censorship by “civil society organizations” and “trusted reporters” with the power to flag anything violating a vague code of conduct which, if past events are any guide, will end up stifling debate on controversial issues like immigration and Islam and perhaps even the EU itself.

Censorship, whether by mob or state, grows out of a dilemma which modern society seems uniquely unable to handle rationally: the choice between two unpleasant options. We have been so conditioned to believe that Nothing Bad Should Ever Happen that the mere sight of anything unpleasant sends us hurtling in the opposite direction like a startled deer, heedless whether something worse might lie ahead. A couple hundred children a year are kidnapped by strangers, so let’s criminalize independent play. Some people struggle to pay for medical care, so let’s remake the entire American healthcare system. Someone is saying something bad, so let’s shut them up.

Put aside the question of whether the “bad” speech is actually genuinely bad, whatever that might mean in a particular context. Let’s assume that the offending speech really would be better left unsaid. The problem lies in ignoring what censorship actually means. The choice is not between saying something undesirable vs. leaving it unsaid. The real choice is between allowing someone to say something undesirable vs. giving someone else the power to decide someone said something undesirable and must be silenced. If you don’t trust your neighbor to use the right of free speech wisely, why do you trust a different neighbor to use the power to police speech wisely? Not just today, but in the future? Can we be so sure that the other guy’s ideas are not merely wrong, but so wrong that they must be silenced rather than heard and rebutted?

The argument against censorship is an argument from intellectual and moral humility. If we could be sure that we knew the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, with no new discoveries of knowledge, good, or beauty to be made, and if we could be sure that those with authority to judge would incorruptibly understand and adhere to the truth that we knew, then censorship might be defensible, even desirable. But that is not our world. In our world of imperfect knowledge and imperfect people, we have neither the wisdom nor the virtue to safely tell our neighbor what he may not say.

But that does not mean we should say everything we can say. And this is where parts of the American right seem to be developing a boorishness to match the censoriousness of the modern left. The most obvious recent example is the willingness of many of Donald Trump’s supporters to excuse and emulate his frequent rudeness and coarseness as merely “un-PC.” Writers across the political spectrum have commented on the truly unusual vulgarity and abuse–noteworthy even by internet standards–that rains down upon them when they offer even the slightest criticism of the prospective Republican nominee. But Trump’s candidacy is far from the only example. It seems that for many on the right, fighting political correctness is becoming an excuse for genuine crudeness, sexism, or racism. Perhaps not coincidentally, this attitude is particularly noticeable online and on college campuses, both areas where mob censorship is also common. (Action, equal and opposite reaction, etc.)

When young people have been given no criteria for self-restraint other than political correctness, if they cast that standard aside there is nothing left to guide them. Out the baby goes along with the bathwater, and self-censorship for any reason becomes a sign of weakness. Catcalling a woman or cursing in public are just “being real” and resisting political correctness.

This struggle between political correctness and unrestrained boorishness creates a real opportunity for Christian testimony. Biblical Christian faith is anything but politically correct, but it demands a purity of speech that will be more noticeable and refreshing the more vulgar the surrounding culture becomes. Of course, that assumes that we take our words as seriously as the Bible does (e.g. James 3:1-12). But if so, the care with which we exercise our right of free speech can be one more way to be salt and light in a lost world.

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