Silence Is Death: The Generational Case For Free Speech

Silence Is Death: The Generational Case For Free Speech

Speak and live with an eye towards what truths you will leave championed when you die.
Mark Hemingway
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Editor’s note: This is the text of the Eugene C. Pulliam lecture Hemingway delivered at Hillsdale College on March 17, 2016.

I’m a political journalist, and one way of describing at what I do is that I spend my days arguing with people. When you put it that way, the job doesn’t sound particularly enjoyable or pleasant, and I confess that it’s often not. However, the debates roiling America at the moment — from the assaults on religious liberty to the size of America’s ever-growing administrative state — are increasingly vital. To quote Calvin Coolidge, it is important that we be “lovers of freedom and anxious for the fray.”

But as controversial and even nasty as our debates have become, the most dispiriting thing about the American politics is that I increasingly spend much of my time not debating the merits of particular candidates and policies, but having to reaffirm the necessity of having the debates in the first place.

As for needing a reminder about the threats to free speech, you do not need to take my word for it. Last year, playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Stoppard observed the threats to free speech are perilous. “I think it’s quite a frightening time,” he said accepting a PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award.

Stoppard fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia as a child and spent much of his career traveling and speaking out on behalf of artists and dissidents in the Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe, so his concerns ought to carry considerable weight.

In particular, Stoppard was concerned about last year’s attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, where Muslim terrorists stormed the newspaper’s offices and killed 12 people in response to the paper’s blasphemous cartoons.

Stoppard went on to say, “The Charlie Hebdo massacre was an appalling body shock to anybody who cares about life, let alone literature. You are left thinking, ‘Well, if it comes to making a choice here, clearly one has to choose that one should be allowed and entitled to offend without being murdered for it.’ That seems self-evident. That doesn’t mean that one is in harmony with the attitude or the particular instances of what is being said and written and drawn.”

Undoing the Cultural Consensus on Free Speech

Stoppard is right. But this point is self-evident only if you are familiar with the West’s heritage of classical liberalism, and there is currently a great effort underway to unmake this cultural consensus on free speech. Case in point: The PEN literary organization, which was honoring Stoppard for his “defense of creative freedom worldwide” last year, soon found itself embroiled in an open revolt with its own membership, who were upset that the organization also wanted to give a free speech award to Charlie Hebdo.

There’s nice literary irony to Trudeau accusing Charlie Hebdo of metaphorically ‘punching down’ when they were literally shot and killed in response.

Indeed, a number of other prominent voices used the attack on Charlie Hebdo as an opportunity not to speak out about violence or intolerance but, instead, to criticize Charlie Hebdo.

Barely a week before Stoppard made these remarks, Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau, was given a Career Achievement Award at the allegedly prestigious George Polk Journalism Awards. For you younger folks, Gary Trudeau rose to fame as a political cartoonist in the 1970s lampooning Richard Nixon at a time when every elite cultural institution in America was already assailing the corrupt president.

Naturally, Trudeau used the occasion of his career journalism award to chastise his murdered colleagues at Charlie Hebdo for drawing cartoons he called “hate speech.” He went on to say that by daring to satirize Muslims’ religious beliefs, Charlie Hebdo was “punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority.” But when you have the means and will to carry out mass executions of people you don’t agree with, you’re anything but powerless. There’s nice literary irony to Trudeau accusing Charlie Hebdo of metaphorically “punching down” when they were literally shot and killed in response.

After I criticized Trudeau’s remarks in print, my editors at The Weekly Standard received a letter from no less than John Darnton, the curator of the George Polk journalism awards. The letter attacked me personally as a “bent-for-hell headline grabber” and said I was “grievously misrepresenting” Trudeau’s argument.

Darnton went on to explain that Trudeau wasn’t failing to defend free speech, but was merely accusing Charlie Hebdo of having “fed the flames of violence and caused Muslims throughout France to rally around the extremists.” I can only thank Darnton for writing this letter, which both clearly and obliviously reinforces everything I said in the first place. The notion that it is hateful to satirize people who hold undemocratic beliefs—up to and including the belief it’s justified to massacre the staff of a newspaper you think is guilty of blasphemy—just because the people those people are labeled “a powerless, disenfranchised minority” is dangerous nonsense.

Why We Need Blasphemy

Indeed, Charlie Hebdo routinely drew blasphemous and obscene cartoons making fun of Jesus and the pope. Yet, there was never a serious worry that bunch of Christians would storm their newsroom and shoot them all. The suggestion that “Muslims throughout France” should be expected to rally around extremists who want to kill anyone who draws a cartoon mocking their faith is patronizing at best, racist at worst.

‘If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said.’

It is nearly impossible to understate how ignorant and shortsighted the view that modern notions of racial and class privilege should outweigh the need to draw a bright line protecting freedom of expression, much less serve as an excuse for violence.

Perhaps in an ideal world we’d all refrain from going out of our way to offend, but as columnist Ross Douthat has argued, even the right to blaspheme is crucial to defend. According to Douthat, “If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more.”

But among his peers, Douthat is a thinker of unusual clarity. I’m afraid that while journalists are fond of uttering self-soothing words about their commitment to free speech, the unwillingness to defend the values that enable their profession is becoming characteristic instead of exceptional.

Civilization’s Vanguard Hides Like Sissy Girls

My ongoing run-ins with the journalistic establishment over free speech are proof enough of that. After the Hebdo massacre, many news outlets noted that one of the much-beloved, now-murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, Stéphane Charbonnier, was put on a hit list in the pages of the grimly named al-Qaeda magazine Inspire. Also listed at the bottom of the same page, under the headline “Wanted Dead or Alive for Crimes Against Islam” was Molly Norris. I don’t expect you to know who that is; only that the fact you don’t know the name Molly Norris represents a major collective failing.

On September 14, 2010, Seattle Weekly announced that its cartoonist Molly Norris had gone into hiding with the help of the FBI.

On September 14, 2010, Seattle Weekly announced that its cartoonist Molly Norris had gone into hiding with the help of the FBI. Earlier that year, Norris had gained some prominence as the founder of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. Norris hoped this event would become a rallying cry to defend cartoonists. This prompted none other than prominent al-Qaeda and Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki to issue a fatwa calling for Norris’ murder.

At the time Norris went into hiding, I was working at the Washington Examiner, where we published an editorial condemning various media organizations for failing to speak out in her defense, including the Society for Professional Journalists and American Society of News Editors. In fact, I was the one tasked with writing the editorial as well as personally calling the Society for Professional Journalists and American Society of News Editors to find out what they had said in defense of Norris, which as it turns out, was nothing.

As I wrote at the time, “freedom of speech and press are in deep trouble when the American government thinks the best it can do to protect a journalist from death threats is to counsel her to go into hiding, and when the elite voices of American journalism can’t be bothered to say anything in her defense.”

The Society for Professional Journalists responded to this criticism by privately emailing reporters across the country and saying the Examiner editorial was “misleading and was most likely written to gain headlines.” Now, where have I heard that before? That particular attack on our journalistic integrity was even more laughable when the transcript of my phone call to the Society of Professional Journalists was eventually published in response.

How About Rebuffing Instead of Enabling the Aggressors

Yet the most damnable aspect of the whole episode isn’t just that most journalists chose to ignore what happened to Norris, it’s that they are instead willfully deluded about the true threats to free speech. Four days after Norris went into hiding, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof lamented the “venom on the airwaves, equating Muslims with terrorists … Muslims are one of the last minorities in the United States that it is still possible to demean openly, and I apologize for the slurs.” I’d suggest Kristof ask Norris if it’s possible to demean Muslims openly, but I’m pretty sure she’s unavailable for comment.

I’d suggest Kristof ask Norris if it’s possible to demean Muslims openly, but I’m pretty sure she’s unavailable for comment.

Even before the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Kristof’s Muslim apologia was pretty rich coming in the pages of a newspaper that had refused to print the controversial Danish Mohammed cartoons when they were the biggest news story on the planet in 2006.

The New York Times justification for this at the time was that “This seems a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols.” After the Hebdo massacre last year, the Times once again doubled down on the pretense it refrains from “gratuitous assaults” on religious believers.

“Under Times standards, we do not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities,” said the paper in a statement it gave to Buzzfeed. “After careful consideration, Times editors decided that describing the [Charlie Hebdo] cartoons in question would give readers sufficient information to understand today’s story.”

The Times regularly publishes stuff offensive to believers, provided they’re confident those believers won’t shoot up their newsroom.

Not five months after their statement on why they would not publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, the Times ran a story on Chris Ofili’s painting, “The Holy Virgin Mary.” According to the Times, the painting “caused a furor when it was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in October 1999… The eight-foot-high depiction of a black Virgin Mary, encrusted with a lump of elephant dung and collaged bottoms from pornographic magazines, outraged religious leaders.”

The story was illustrated with, yes, a picture of the offensive painting. Again we see the Times regularly publishes stuff offensive to believers, provided they’re confident those believers won’t shoot up their newsroom.

At Least Don’t Lie About Being Afraid

Saying the New York Times should be brave enough to publish things that may invite violence upon itself is a lot to ask for. What’s not a lot to ask for is for the paper to dispense with their transparently disingenuous rationalizations about why they don’t do this.

‘If you are frightened, at least have the guts to say that. The most effective form of censorship is one that nobody admits exists.’

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that originally published the controversial Mohammed cartoons that sparked violence and worldwide protests a decade ago, refused to publish any of Hebdo’s controversial cartoons. The Jyllands-Posten editor, Flemming Rose, subsequently wrote a book, “The Tyranny of Silence,” about the paper’s ordeal. It is an admirable cri de coeur about the need for free speech. But when Rose was asked about the refusal to publish the Hebdo cartoons he told the BBC, “We caved in. Violence works… Sometimes the sword is mightier than the pen.”

At first blanch, Rose’s explicit cowardice may be hard to digest; but compared to the New York Times— it’s positively heroic. In response to Rose’s comments, British columnist Nick Cohen observed, “If you are frightened, at least have the guts to say that. The most effective form of censorship is one that nobody admits exists.”

It is both sad and undeniable that much of the Western media, along with most other guardians of the public trust, are eager to self-censor and are in complete denial about it. The only question before us now is what to do about it.

The Blame for Higher Education

We certainly didn’t arrive overnight at this place where our great institutions were unwilling to uphold the First Amendment. This cowardice and hostility to free speech is the result of being learned, taught, and absorbed over generations. You can all congratulate yourselves for choosing to attend Hillsdale. But the reality is that higher education might bear more responsibility for this tragic state of affairs than any other institution.

This cowardice and hostility to free speech is the result of being learned, taught, and absorbed over generations.

To give you just one example of and how thoroughly baked into the American cake a wrongly critical view of the First Amendment has become, when issues of controversial speech arise in the news, almost inevitably you will hear some educated person quote Oliver Wendell Holmes’s admonition that you can’t falsely shout fire in a crowded theater.

No one bothers to mention that Holmes’s quote comes from a ruling where the Supreme Court decided that merely distributing flyers in opposition to the draft in World War I violated the 1917 Espionage Act. Indeed, a great many Americans did hard time because good Wilsonian progressives decided opposing the government in public was a crime. In case you’re wondering, this is the same 1917 Espionage Act President Obama invoked in 2015 to justify the Department of Justice snooping on the Associated Press newsroom and Fox News national security reporter James Rosen.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Woodrow Wilson, the man largely responsible for probably the greatest abridgment of free speech in American history, the legacy of which still haunts us, was otherwise notable for being the president of Princeton University. Further, Wilson’s pioneering academic work in Hegelian progressivism, which represents a complete denial of obvious truths about human nature, is still the dominant intellectual force governing the academy and many other American institutions.

Free Speech No Longer Means Free Speech

How’s the progressive legacy working out for higher education? Most of you are familiar with the goat rodeo at the University of Missouri last year, where a professor physically threatened a student journalist and the inmates running Mizzou’s asylum managed to get the university president fired.

‘We can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so.’

But it’s worth looking at few more of the many recent examples of higher education gone wrong. Imagine you went back to a more innocent time—say, 10 years ago, when campuses were only largely, rather than completely, insane—and posited any number of recent developments as satire. People would regard these tales as unbelievable and incredibly overwrought.

Two years ago, the University of California Berkeley was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Berkeley free speech movement, often credited with kicking off the modern era of campus activism. Romanticizing the Berkeley free speech movement too much is a mistake, but by the standards of contemporary campus activism even the use of the term “free speech” is laudable. However, I have my doubts that twenty-first-century Berkeley agrees.

To mark the anniversary, U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks sent out a memo that read, “As we honor this turning point in our history, it is important that we recognize the broader social context required in order for free speech to thrive.” You can probably tell where this is heading. Dirks went on to say, “Specifically, we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so.”

You Can’t Talk Because I Don’t Like It

It is emphatically not true that the right to free speech depends on whether you are in a “safe space,” a concept college kids like to talk about but doesn’t really exist. Rather, the entire notion of America stands or falls on the assertion that our absolute right to free speech predates and stands apart from any authority that threatens it.

America stands or falls on the assertion that our absolute right to free speech predates and stands apart from any authority that threatens it.

History is full of heroes and martyrs who can testify to that. Were he alive, Patrick Henry would no doubt inform Chancellor Dirks that “Give me liberty insofar as we feel safe and respected asking for it!” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Last year, Yale faculty member Erika Christakis sent an email in response to Yale University’s Intercultural Affairs Committee’s plea that students avoid wearing offensive Halloween costumes. Students reacted so poorly to her email that a few weeks later she announced she would suspend teaching courses at Yale.

Christakis asked what she mistakenly thought was a rhetorical question: “Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—in your capacity—to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”

Also last year, contrarian students at Amherst University posted flyers objecting to the message of campus protests sweeping the nation. These said “in memoriam… free speech.” A left-wing student group fired off an angry letter to the administration in response to the students concerned about preserving free speech.

Probably Universities Are a Lost Cause

Among their angry demands were that the students who posted the flyers expressing concern about free speech “go through the Disciplinary Process if a formal complaint is filed, and that they will be required to attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.”

‘Extensive training for racial and cultural competency’ is rapidly becoming the singular, if disturbing, definition of education these days.

Indeed, “extensive training for racial and cultural competency” is rapidly becoming the singular, if disturbing, definition of education these days. In any event, Woodrow Wilson would be proud that his enduring academic influence means that people still regard posting flyers as a crime.

Speaking of Woodrow Wilson, students at Princeton University caught up in the recent spate of campus protests have been demanding that Wilson’s name be removed from campus. This is in response to Wilson’s unvarnished racism and in spite of the fact he’s the school’s most famous alumnus… Okay, fine. I have to confess I find this incident far more amusing than troubling.

However, such absurdities suggest the campus intellectual environment is possibly beyond redemption. It would be a fool’s errand to beg professors and administrators to stop propagating the corrosive ideas they’ve been spewing for decades. I think the solution to preserving free speech requires taking different tack.

What Death Can Teach Us about Free Speech

So I propose appealing to America’s students directly, and asking them to do the one thing that young adults never do, and that is this: Please consider your own mortality.

It feels great to be young, and I hope the students here today are self-aware enough to enjoy it. But I know one fact about everyone in this room for certain, and it is that some day we’re all going to die. I don’t point out our finite existence out to be depressing. As a Christian, I would tell you death is not the end. But also I tell you this simply because it’s the truth.

The ultimate point of upholding the right to free speech is that encouraging the robust competition of ideas is the best way that we know of to reaffirm and accumulate truth. That accumulation of truth happens over time. And over time, we all die.

Interestingly enough, it is John Stuart Mill, whose ideas about utilitarianism have done much to undermine natural rights, who has most eloquently articulated the generational case for free speech:

[The] peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Now if silencing expression results in robbing future generations of the truth, then what does this say about current student attitudes? The evidence so far is pretty disheartening. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported:

The William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale recently commissioned a survey from McLaughlin & Associates about attitudes towards free speech on campus. Some 800 students at a variety of colleges across the country were surveyed.

The results, though not surprising, are nevertheless alarming. By a margin of 51 percent to 36 percent, students favor their school having speech codes to regulate speech for students and faculty.

Sixty-three percent favor requiring professors to employ ‘trigger warnings’ to alert students to material that might be discomfiting.

One-third of the students polled could not identify the First Amendment as the part of the Constitution that dealt with free speech.

Thirty-five percent said that the First Amendment does not protect ‘hate speech,’ while 30 percent of self-identified liberal students say the First Amendment is outdated.

This suggests that today’s students are retreating from the realm of debate, leaving public opinion to be dominated by the tyranny of deranged minority viewpoints. Further, if we think about free speech in terms of posterity, these trends suggest that it will be as if a huge swath of the up and coming generation never existed. If there’s a blank page in the annals of history where your name and achievements in service of others could have been written, what’s the point?

So ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen if you speak out? Well, yes, you could die. But once you come to terms with the fact that’s going to happen anyway, it’s tremendously clarifying.

Spend Your Life Exchanging Error for Truth

Tajar Djaout, an Algerian poet and novelist, put it this way: “Silence is death. If you speak, you die. If you are silent, you die. So speak, and die.” Djaout did not say this lightly; he was killed in 1993 by Muslim extremists.

If the last century is anything to go by, millions of lives will depend on the ability to speak the truth when others are incapable.

I don’t expect all of you be that heroic, and for those of you who aspire to be, I would caution you not to succumb to the fallacy that the worth of speech is judged by the size of the reaction it engenders.

But this is precisely why your education is so important and you should take it seriously. Adulthood is consumed by difficult judgments and the struggle to balance competing interests. College students are largely free of these responsibilities, because society has decided that now is the time in your development when you should learn to discern and express which ideas are the most true.

It is even hoped that you will learn to do this by also using the words that are the most appropriate and beautiful. Eventually, the best among you will serve as leaders and inspiring figures for the rest of us when challenges inevitably arise. If the last century is anything to go by, millions of lives will depend on the ability to speak the truth when others are incapable. But even a quiet life spent diligently exchanging error for truth goes a long way toward preserving freedom for future generations, and that is no small accomplishment.

So I reiterate that you are incredibly fortunate to attend a university that, from what I have witnessed, stands firmly in opposition to all of the forces conspiring to destroy our heritage of freedom. I hope all of you blessed to attend and contribute to this unique school can both serve as an example and reach out to the many other young Americans who not only aren’t being told the truth, but are being threatened the moment they stumble across it.

I hope you spend your time at Hillsdale honing your God-given abilities so that you are up to the enormity of the task being thrust upon future generations.  But most of all, I hope that when you leave this room tonight, and when eventually you leave this campus for the wider world, you do so with a renewed sense of purpose regarding the two things that all us were born to do: Speak and die.

Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. Follow him on Twitter at @heminator

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