Since the 1960s, when I was engaged in various forms of liberal political activism, I’ve seen a waning of the support for free speech, so that now speech that offends people (erroneously lumped as “hate speech”) is under question. The UN, of course, is contantly beleaguered by Muslim countries to make “defamation” an international crime, but much of the pressure also comes from college campuses in the U.S. and U.K. In fact, in our student newspaper last week, one student, offended by a Halloween costume of another (granted, a costume expressing a noxious national stereotype) called for help from the administration to suppress that kind of thing because, as he said, “Words hurt.”
“Words hurt” is the mantra of the new suppress-free-speech movement. And yes, words can hurt feelings, but so what? They also make people think. My view has always been that of the U.S. government itself: that speech cannot be suppressed so long as it doesn’t try to incite immediate violence. If someone wants to wear a Halloween costume stereotyping Jews as hook-nosed, money-grubbing killers of Christ, more power to them. I will combat that with the best weapon I have against that kind of “speech”: other speech.
But, as we know, things are changing. And I don’t know why. The change is described in an article by John O’Sullivan in the Wall Street Journal: “No offense: the new threats to free speech.” It’s ironic that in matters like free speech and the right to criticize religions like Islam, we leftists must sometimes make common cause with conservatives, and find support not in the Guardian or the New York Times, but in the Wall Street Journal or the National Review. (Note: that does not mean that we adhere to conservative political policies!)
At any rate, O’Sullivan describes the anti-free-speech trend, but doesn’t analyze the reasons for it very deeply. Here are a few excerpts, and it’s a shame that we find such defenses of free speech mainly in right-wing venues:
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.
It isn’t just some Muslims who want the false comfort of censoring disagreeable opinions. Far from it. Gays, Christians, feminists, patriots, foreign despots, ethnic activists—or organizations claiming to speak for them—are among the many groups seeking relief from the criticism of others through the courts, the legislatures and the public square.
England’s libel laws—long a scandalous system for enabling the rich to suppress their scandals—now have imitations in Europe and the U.S. In May 2014, the European Court of Justice created “the right to be forgotten,” enabling those with ugly pasts—a fraudster, a failed politician, an anti-Muslim bigot perhaps—to delete their crimes, misdemeanors and embarrassments from Internet records so that search engines cannot find them.
Here we get a sense—and I think O’Sullivan’s right—that a some of the pressure to restrict free speech comes from religious people (especially Muslims and Catholics), “ethnic activists” (those who don’t want their ethnicity or nationality, or certain national policies, criticized), and from certain quarters of feminism that decry any criticism as misogyny and bullying. But if this is indeed the case—and I suspect there are other causes as well—why is this happening now? After all, the rectitude of treating women, minorities, and those of other ethnicities as moral equals has been a theme in Western society for at least five decades. Yes, some of the pressure comes from other parts of the world, like the Middle East, but that doesn’t explain why Western society is becoming less supportive of free speech.
Nor can it be explained by the rise of postmodernism. After all, that movement sees no “truth” privileged over any other, ergo postmodernism should never support restrictions on speech.
More from O’Sullivan:
This slow erosion of freedom of expression has come about in ways both social and legal. Before the 1960s, arguments for censorship tended to focus on sexual morality, pornography and obscenity. The censors themselves were usually depicted as benighted moral conservatives—priggish maiden aunts. Freedom of political speech, however, was regarded as sacrosanct by all. As legal restraints on obscenity fell away, however, freedom of political speech began to come under attack from a different kind of censor—college administrators, ethnic-grievance groups, gay and feminist advocates.
Could it be that now that Baby Boomers—of which I am one—are in positions of power (politicians, college administrators, and so on), our youthful fights for diversity have been transformed into misguided attempts to maintain diversity by suppressing criticism that we see as harming it? That’s of course, is a mistake; as O’Sullivan says, “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.”
The new censors advanced such arguments as that “free speech can never be an excuse for racism.” These arguments are essentially exercises both in begging the question and in confusing it. While the principle of free speech cannot justify racism any more than it can disprove racism, it is the only principle that can allow us to judge whether or not particular speech is racist. Thus the censor’s argument should be reversed: “Accusations of racism can never be an excuse for prohibiting free speech.”
Meanwhile, the narrowly legal grounds for restricting speech changed, too. Since the 18th century, the basic legal justifications for restricting political speech and publication were direct incitement to harm, national security, maintaining public order, libel, etc. Content wasn’t supposed to be considered (though it was sometimes smuggled in under other headings).
Today, content is increasingly the explicit justification for restricting speech. The argument used, especially in colleges, is that “words hurt.” Thus, universities, parliaments, courts and various international bodies intervene promiscuously to restrict hurtful or offensive speech—with the results described above. In the new climate, hurtful speech is much more likely to be political speech than obscene speech.
There it is: “words hurt”— the very phrase that appeared in our student newspaper yesterday. (The student who wrote in was offended by another student dressed up in a Halloween costume as a Mexican narco. That is offensive but shouldn’t be prohibited.)
The three paragraphs above comprise a decent analysis of the history of speech restriction, but don’t get at the reasons for increasing restriction. Surely 9/11 and the actions of extremist Muslims are one reason (we have to shut up about Islam or we’ll be threatened or killed), which plays on misguided (and bigoted) sentiments that Muslims must be treated with kid gloves compared to other groups—a double standard for behavior.
But that doesn’t explain it all. It’s palpably clear that free speech as a principle of democratic society is on the way out. Not completely, for it’s written into the American Constitution, but even Canada and the UK are restricting its exercise, and European countries like France, Germany, and the Netherlands have criminalized public denial of the Holocaust. (I find this execrable: it is through the response to Holocaust denial that I in fact learned a lot about the evidence for the Holocaust.)
In the end, I’m baffled, except in my conclusion Muslim threats and terrorism are responsible for restrictions of speech that criticizes Islam (and, by extension, religion as a whole). I’m also at a loss to explain why, in my own country, one of the foci for the anti-free-speech movement is the college campus. Surely college campuses should, if anything, be a hotbed for free speech, for that is where you learn to think about and assess your own values and beliefs. But the collusion of administrators and students is eroding that freedom, too.
I suspect readers will have their own theories about what has happened to free speech in the last 20 years or so, and I’m eager to hear your theories, which are yours.