With the rise of hate speech laws, students protesting speakers at college campuses, and the willful censorship of online content, the end of truly free speech seems inevitable. We may soon just have to accept hedging any thoughts and words that can possibly thwart social harmony.
However, many opponents of free speech usually claim not to eliminate free speech altogether, just bad or harmful speech. Surely, they say, the world would be a better place if bigots and ignoramuses were silenced, and the voices of victims and their advocates amplified. People would cease their pointless arguments over controversial issues like religion, politics, and culture, and finally “live in peace,” as John Lennon famously described in his song “Imagine.”
To such an argument, it does little good to reference the history of totalitarian governments and quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. To think that the American government or Google will break into people’s houses and take them away for hate speech seems like an unlikely slippery slope concocted by paranoid alarmists than a plausible reality, although England jailing a person for training his dog to do a Hitler salute might give one reason to pause.
Moreover, the American government would not even need to intervene and enforce legal punishment. As many have already witnessed, large companies like Facebook and Youtube can simply erase possibly offensive speech, silencing people more effectively than any Gestapo.
So far, only a few irate conservatives have protested, but it can be claimed that no one has actually violated their freedom to speak, only denied them a platform. If they don’t like it, they can start their own website and try to compete somehow.
This Is at Heart a Moral Debate
To have more success, free speech advocates should stop seeing this issue through a strictly political lens and start considering it as a moral problem. The arguments people give against free speech have to do more with a nebulous goal of combatting evil (in the vein of Google’s old motto: “Don’t be evil”) than a conscious plan to reengineer society and minimize dissent, like China or Cuba. In other words, this has less to do with the ideas of Enlightenment political philosophers and more to do with God’s choice to make mankind free.
To disprove God, or at least disprove God’s goodness, many skeptics have asked why God allows people to do evil. If God does not want people to sin, why does he give them the freedom to do so? Why did he even allow Adam and Eve the choice to eat the forbidden fruit and forever burden mankind with a fallen condition?
One way to answer to this is to say that God wants human beings to be free: free to love and obey him, and free to hate and reject him. True, he could force his creatures to live perfect lives and never make bad decisions, but then they would not be free. Their lives, although pleasurable and peaceful, would be meaningless.
One might object and ask if God can give a kind of limited freedom. Instead of opposing choices between life and death, good and evil, belief and doubt, he could offer choices between one good and another—between one pleasurable pursuit and another, between one love or another, and all without the accompanying pain.
As the novel “Brave New World” and today’s modern malaise can attest, this scenario again would yield a life of meaninglessness. A choice between an apple and an orange amounts to the same kind of satisfaction and does not activate one’s will and judgment; a choice between eating or starving, however, does the opposite.
This same idea applies to freedom of speech. Hearing the hateful things that individuals express makes people, usually of a progressive bent, want to limit it or prohibit it altogether. Through private companies censoring online forums and governments enforcing speech laws, they want to erase the evils that come from unrestricted speech: Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and anything else that might be offensive.
Unfortunately, the more successful the suppression of speech, the more apparent it is that speech becomes meaningless as a result. Artificially removing certain arguments or words will eventually make all arguments and words suspect.
This would still be the case if those with a conservative agenda silenced the other side. In a society where everyone abides by a script, hides their thoughts, and puts on a façade of validation and affirmation, speaking and listening—and by extension, reading and writing—would be a pointless exercise. Whether the speaker was telling the truth or not, he would still be lying because he is conforming to a narrative outside himself rather than the reality of his thoughts.
In that case, why bother saying anything? Why bother listening? Why bother thinking?
Suppression Breeds a Life of Futility
People who work in environments that restrict free speech—like the typical workplace—feel this futility daily. Movies like “Office Space” capture it well. In order to avoid offending anyone, or upsetting the boss, or rocking the boat, employees stick with a script. They tell their colleagues about the lunch they brought and upcoming plans for the weekend; they tell their supervisor about their successes, however mundane; and they sit quietly at meetings pretending to pay attention; that is all.
The one who breaks form and speaks out will be immediately shuffled off, terminated, and forgotten. This philosophy serves settings where the goal is productivity and cooperation, not independent thought and personal growth, but it often takes a toll on an employee’s humanity.
With the loss of speech comes the loss of thought. Those who comment on the decline of diverse viewpoints on college campuses recognize this. It is not only a matter of students having a biased perspective or even losing the ability to reason intelligently and honestly, it is ultimately a matter of caring about anything.
While some students adopt their professors’ ideology and fight for progressive causes, most students come to think that all arguments are worthless, everything said is a lie, and steadily purge their brain of opinions. If asked, they will regurgitate the script of the prevailing voices on their campus.
This leads to disengaging with reality. Once people stop thinking, they start escaping into fantasy and become isolated and lonely on a mass scale. While conservatives and liberals wrestle for the microphone to give their side of the story, their target audience has left the building to find something more entertaining.
But Silence Actually Breeds Worse Chaos
As Americans have a crisis of faith with the media and academia (the two biggest outlets of speech), they can take heart that they still have a chance to combat the outcome of nearly every other nation in the world that now forsakes the value of free speech. These cultures grow older, less dynamic, less fertile, and less happy.
The only verve they show is when they suppress a comedian criticizing Islam or reporters speaking out against autocracy. On problems like terrorism, immigrant slums, or rampant crime and corruption, these countries’ governments respond so much more slowly or attempt to ignore the problem altogether.
In the short term, contrary to expectations, this silencing creates more chaos than peace. Those who dissent will resort to other means to speak out. They will protest; they will create their own counter-narrative; they will move to the other extreme; or they will vote for the most charismatic leader they can find. In response, those who sought to dominate the conversation will do even more to end it, pumping out fake news, vilifying free speech advocates, and refusing to present opposing views.
So much of the polarization and division afflicting society today is a direct result of restricting speech. When figures in the media or government block certain ideas, they actually do more to validate and preserve these ideas than remove them. They validate them by granting them enough weight to merit oppressive action, and preserve them by keeping them from being debunked. Moreover, the institutions responsible for silencing these bad ideas only look insecure and untrustworthy since they choose to silence opposition rather than address it honestly.
Therefore, it should surprise no one that the Left, which has taken to opposing free speech, has grown more extreme. Idiotic ideas like socialism meet little opposition because free market capitalism allows for winners and losers and is thus hateful. Christianity and God, along with the accompanying belief in protecting life at all stages, are removed from the Democratic platform because Christianity is oppressive and not sufficiently inclusive.
Even comedy has disappeared, as comedians only feel safe obsessing over Trump. What started as a moderate coalition that worked within a constitutional framework now resembles a fractious mix of statists and activists looking to destroy the Constitution and punish the political opposition (even innocent nuns and bakers) through any available means.
The Right’s Development Is Healthier, Although Still Messy
By contrast, the Right, although frequently characterized as militant nationalists and unapologetic bigots, maintains its philosophical integrity by its insistence on free speech. Many different positions (on Trump, on trade, on military action) find articulation among conservatives, and each position tempers the other to allow for better policy and more constructive dialogue.
Even though this dedication to free speech allows alt-right nuts and populist demagogues to run their mouths, the force of reason and reality keeps them to the fringes. More importantly, arguments still have weight for conservatives. Speech still matters and has not succumbed to unquestionable scripts and narratives.
This conversation on the Right might explain why Trump has proven more conventionally conservative than otherwise. By sounding off and ignoring the presidential script, he has charged his supporters on trying to find constructive conservative solutions.
All the while, the other side has betrayed all the weakness that comes from restricted speech: a lack of serious arguments, and an abundance of rage. They have organized many protests, but have yet to organize a clear position on the many issues confronting the nation.
As people encounter the intimidating chatter of so many voices and opinions, they should always remember that arguing for free speech is arguing for meaningful speech. Restricting speech only drains it of meaning and renders it useless. When it becomes useless, reality retreats in favor of false narratives, and emotion overrides reason.
The consequence of this is more division, more extremism, more bad ideas, and a steady cultural decline. In light of this sequence, the solution to hate speech, fake news, and anti-democratic movements is letting these things surface in a free unscripted environment so that the truth can prevail and people can finally know that truth and live fulfilling lives.