Hearing criticisms of your own convictions and learning the beliefs of others are training for life in a multifaith society. Preventing open debate means that all believers, including atheists, remain in the prison of unconsidered opinion. The right to be offended, which is the other side of free speech, is therefore a genuine right. True belief and honest doubt are both impossible without it.
That’s from a well-argued an essay in the Wall Street Journal by John O’Sullivan. The essayist is a conservative (associated with the National Review), but his reasoning calls to mind the more classically liberal John Stuart Mill.
Mill-ian Reasons for Free Speech
In Mill’s essay On Liberty, he argues passionately and persuasively for an absolute prohibition of restrictions upon freedom of speech and conscience. Mill gives four basic reasons for his position:
- The view that is being silenced might be true, so to silence it implies our own infallibility. But we must admit that we are not infallible, and so we ought not to silence the offending view. If we were to silence it, we might be unjust not only to the persons holding the offending view but even to ourselves and to posterity. We might, in silencing that view, be cheating ourselves and generations to come of the opportunity to exchange error for truth.
The offending view will likely contain at least a kernel of truth. As philosopher Ken Wilber put it, “No one is smart enough to be wrong all the time.” [^1] the prevailing view is unlikely to be the whole truth. By preventing a clash between the offending view and the prevailing view we are denying ourselves the opportunity to come to a more complete truth.
If we don’t allow the prevailing view to be regularly and vigorously contested by exposure to contradictory opinions, that prevailing view will come to be held in the manner of a prejudice. In fact, as Mill puts it, it will become just one more superstition.
Views held in this latter manner become weakened and their meaning gets lost. People no longer really hold the view based on conviction and experience, but as a mere empty formula. We end up not even knowing what we believe or why we believe it. These prejudices stifle our opportunity to come to genuine convictions. In short, our chances to become authentic, free persons are at risk.
For all these reasons, all views ought to be open to being contested. In fact, says Mill, if we were ever to get to a point of full unanimity on a particular view (never fear!), we should consider appointing something like a “Devil’ Advocate” to serve as an official opponent of the unanimously held view just so people would know not only what they believe but why.
Now, as Mill would be first to admit, this argument itself is arguable, and today it has an increasing number of opponents. O’Sullivan’s piece offers a list of efforts to curb freedom of speech from all sides of the political spectrum, including initiatives on the part of his own conservative camp. Nat Hentoff wrote a book entitled, Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee (1992). It’s subtitle is: “How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other,” and that could also serve as a summary of O’Sullivan’s essay.
Sticks and Stones and Words
My mom used to tell me that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” On the other hand, the opponents of free speech tell us that “words hurt” and argue that hurtful uses of words ought to be prohibited. Who’s right? I think in fact that words can hurt very much. For instances, the messages that kids receive from parents, teachers, and clergy can stick with them through life, and many of those messages can be quite damaging. Bullies can be mean not only with their fists but with their tongues. Racist views, ethnic prejudices, and gender stereotypes congeal into unjust practices.
If words are the cause of these evils, should they not be prohibited?
Perhaps we should listen to the sage advice of Thomas Aquinas:
[H]uman law cannot punish or forbid all evil deeds: since while aiming at doing away with all evils, it would do away with many good things, and would hinder the advance of the common good, which is necessary for human intercourse. (Summa Theologiae I.II.91.4)
In other words, we have to weigh the cost and benefits of prohibiting speech with the aim eliminating certain evils, and the conclusion of that analysis shows that it is (almost?) always more beneficial to protect the freedom of speech at the risk of having someone suffer hurtful words. Free discourse and the right to disagree are conducive, on the whole, to the common good and are certainly necessary for the preservation and advancement of culture.
Indeed, we could apply the Pauline principle (Romans 3:8) that we ought never to do evil that good may result from it. Freedom of speech is a good, the suppression of it an evil.
Thus I say: Offend me! I take very seriously my right to be offended. So go ahead: take issue with my religious, philosophical, political, and aesthetic views. Show me the error of my ways! I am not going to complain you are “forcing your morality on me” (unless of course you try to get your view enacted into a law such that it may never be questioned again). What I hope you will do is argue with me, if in fact we disagree, and not just hurl epithets. We do not have to be mean spirited to have a spirited debate. But if you’re simply going to call me names, go ahead. One of us will end up looking more stupid and vulgar than the other (spoiler alert: it will be you).
And while we’re arguing about freedom of speech, we can argue about the hard cases. We can argue about whether only human persons have this right to free speech or whether fake, militarily defended corporate “persons” have this right, too. We can argue whether freedom of speech means we have to accept the money influence on elections. We can argue whether non-speech expressions of ideas are also protected (burning books and flags, for instance). There is a lot to argue about. I will assume that neither of us wants to be wrong. If so, then resist will all your might the temptation to silence your opponents.
Free speech for me AND for thee!!