speech in a free society

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.


A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

17.3 (Summer 2017)


The Campus in Crisis

Why Speech in a Free Society Must Never Be Silenced: A Position Paper

Speech in a free society must be allowed to run in all directions in the confidence that men and women of good will can identify foolish or wicked ideas simply by hearing them expressed. The only other option is the dictatorship of the Wise Overseer who treats us like permanent children.

Recently an editorial pronouncement published in the Wellesley College student newspaper tried to enunciate an official policy of suppressing free speech. The document came out incoherent at several points, not surprisingly (though the reasons for its incoherence were sometimes surprising: the editors literally wrote the opposite of what they had intended in a couple of crucial places). The case, as presented by these Keystone Cops of monitored speech and others of their brigade, amounts to the following.

Some expressions move people to anger, hatred, and hence—potentially—to violence. Violence hurts people. Therefore, any speech that stirs the audience up is subject to instant suppression (depending on whether the arbiters deem that the audience is right or wrong to get stirred up about a given issue).

This argument is self-annihilating. Any adolescent of average intelligence (i.e., who would never be accepted into Wellesley) would quickly ask, “So who judges the judges? How can we know that their right and wrong isn’t just the way they happen to feel that day?”

Beyond that, consider what the argument implies with regard to people generally. They can’t think for themselves. They have no natural power of reason—no inborn ability to join claims logically nor any common humanity that alerts them to unfairness or outrage. All such faculties are myths, according to today’s academy. Logic is simply programming pounded into the masses by a patriarchal establishment. “Decency” is the same thing. Both are given highfalutin names to cloak them in respectability, but they are mere brainwash. If a firebrand orator sets to work and the audience has not been properly screened and programmed by a state university, the poor idiot masses (and “idiot” literally means “commoner” will fall prey to his manipulation. They can’t do otherwise: they’re defenseless.

It must be added that state universities and elite private institutions are in fact those venues where such an orator is least likely to reach a podium. Several recent occurrences demonstrate that part of the higher-educational screening and programming consists simply of keeping the “wrong” speakers off campus. The gullible throng, then, is not defenseless at all. Its defense is that the establishment’s forward-thinking arbiters will shut down the firebrand before he assembles a crowd (which manifestation of power, of course, is practical proof that these censors are the de facto establishment, however they may style themselves before their gullible throng).

And since reason of both the logical sort (inner consistency) and the intuitive sort (moral imperatives) is all illusion, those who stage the protective intervention and bundle the would-be speaker off to Siberia don’t have to justify themselves in any sane manner. All they have to say, by their account, is that they’re shielding impressionable ears from hateful speech and naive eyes from hateful publications. This overweening nannyism-gone-berserk could cover up tracks of the most horrendous kind, naturally. The self-proclaimed components of “society’s conscience” could be euthanizing their critics left and right, and the masses could be persuaded to go back to their video games and smartphones. Whistle-blowers would be charged with stirring up “hatred” and would disappear into the night. No whistle, no foul.

Advocates of selective suppression are advocates of arbitrary suppression, and hence of suppression without practical limit—categorical suppression. You either have the freedom to speak your mind… or you do not. If a redneck anti-intellectual Hotspur were to exhort his hearers to round up all academics in Humanities programs and put them in a concentration camp, we should want him to be able to speak his fill. Then we, in our turn, would point out to him that he is committing the very act for which he so detests academics in Humanities programs. If our hearers are too obtuse to appreciate the point, then our society will already have passed through the grim gate of an Orwellian dystopia, anyway, and our efforts will have been wasted in a futile but meritorious gambit.

Yet we must not accept fatalistically that that gate has closed behind us. We must cling to the conviction that if an audience of free human beings they hears the libertarian’s side and the thought-controlist’s, its members will prefer to picture themselves and whatever children they hope to rear in a world that allows discussion of ideas, compromise, recognition of errors, insight, and—in a word—growth. The permanent infantilism of living under Him Who Would Be God is not what any “decent” person hopes for his or her babies.

What degree of inanity must we endure to create this world of open exchange? The seven-times-seventieth degree.

Say that you write the very worst kind of blog post. Say that you ask your readers, “Where are the twenty-first century Harmodius and Aristogeiton who will assassinate Obama… or Trump… or Senator Smith… or Governor Jones?” You are now encouraging the assassination of a U.S. president or major elected official! You must be apprehended immediately and locked away until your teeth fall out!

Why? Is the assumption that someone will undertake an assassination through reading your words who would otherwise never have thought of it? What kind of condescending, intrusive, prurient, censorious, holier-than-thou Gestapo tyro believes that the average citizen functions that way? If the only thing standing between any public figure and a bullet is the censor’s power to excise the word “bullet” from public discourse, then the public figure had better never remove his bullet-proof vest—because the word isn’t really needed to stir the thought.

What makes people go violent isn’t the suggestion that they do so. In fact, suggesting an extreme act to people who are already riled up may very well be a good way of cooling them down. If a man who wants to “kill the umpire” at a baseball game is quietly informed that the umpire’s wife currently lies in the hospital after a brutal robbery-assault, ninety-nine times out of one hundred. The reverse is also true. Forcing speakers and writers to stay mum about certain ideas, as through heavy fines and prison, can confer martyr status upon them and mystique upon their preposterous notions. It also makes whatever extremist view they enunciate seem like a distinct possibility. If you say before an audience, “Aliens landed in my back yard last night and told me that Senator Brown is in their pay to betray the human race,” everyone around you would start laughing… until, that is, Senator Brown jumped up and roared, “Shut up! How dare you! You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Once Brown takes the insane notion seriously, it no longer seems so insane to others.

Law enforcement officials indeed typically want the crackpot proponent of a lunatic ideology to keep haranguing and writing so that they may observe what bottom-feeders rise to the surface to make comments on his posts or show up at his rallies. Sometimes agents are even employed undercover to pose as anarchist crusaders. Once people start volunteering themselves to be assassins, the job of surveillance and apprehension becomes much easier, and the world turns into a rather less dangerous place.

Far more worrisome are the people in power who believe that we consume and act upon suggestions the way a primitive computer consumes instructions and slavishly executes them, without any built-in correction protocol. They have a profound contempt for us as electors, as fellow citizens, and as human beings, those speech-police. What would they not do to us in order to “protect” us?

The Center has no stable, paid staff, yet it has always (even in the final days of its operation as a Texas non-profit) possessed a faithful nucleus of freedom-loving contributors.  Several of these have either read over or volunteered passages for this paper.