Free Speech Absolutism Killed Free Speech

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From The Wall Street Journal:

Conservatives calling for more free speech as a way to push back against campus cancel culture are trying to repair the stable when the horses bolted long ago. It may seem reasonable to think academic diversity and open debate can counter progressive groupthink, but the intolerance prevailing on college campuses isn’t the result of too little speech. It’s a consequence of too much speech.

Older conceptions of free speech are present in texts stretching back to Plato, but the modern form of the idea is the creation of John Stuart Mill. In “On Liberty” he posited a kind of reverse Gresham’s Law of ideas: Good ideas, he argued, inevitably drive out the bad ones in the court of educated opinion.

Mill believed we are better off giving a platform to the “heretic”—his term—for two reasons. First, he might be right. Second, even if he is wrong, the exercise of combating his bad opinion strengthens society’s capacity for reason and healthy argument. The heretic should never be pressured out of the public square, Mill argued, no matter how many times his views have been refuted in the past. In the spirit of open inquiry, everyone should have a voice.

Mill’s free-speech absolutism has been a guiding light for universities for many decades. But in imagining we could cultivate thoughtful citizens by exposing them to a bazaar of competing ideas and ideologies, we ironically encouraged the decline of truth-seeking itself. As the political theorist Willmoore Kendall predicted in the 1950s, a community that treats every idea as ultimately refutable will eventually conclude that no real truth exists. And once that happens, he reasoned, a formerly “open society” will “overnight become the most intolerant of possible societies and, above all, one in which the pursuit of truth . . . can only come to a halt.”

When no dogma can finally be put to rest, it becomes easier—almost obligatory—to do whatever we like. Ideas are evaluated, not based on their reasonableness or coherence, but by how much they tickle the ears of the in-crowd. Harder truths become offensive. The only intolerable citizen, in such a regime, is the one whose belief in truth compels him to attack beliefs he believes to be false even if his attacks disturb the equanimity of the establishment. His criticism becomes too hurtful—even a form of “violence.” For the safety of the community, he must be cast out.

I once worked at a university that hired a scholar with widely published opinions on bioethics. During an introductory lunch, a faculty member took issue with his position against human cloning, in particular his concern that bereaved spouses might one day clone their lost partners and bring up the replacements, raising the specter of incest. “What’s wrong with incest?” this faculty member asked. “I can’t believe,” our new scholar replied, “I have to explain to an educated adult what’s wrong with incest.”

He didn’t last long in the job.

. . . .

We’re seeing free speech driven from campuses, in other words, because our unthinking commitment to it has kept us from constraining radicals who use their classrooms and administrative perches to persuade the young that freedom is a fiction. These ideologues have a chokehold on our universities and many other institutions. They have no interest in the principle of free speech, and we’re wasting time trying to get them to abide by it.

Consider how even the University of Chicago—birthplace of the 2014 “Chicago principles,” affirming the importance of open debate—has bowed to anti-free-speech fervor. Two years ago, the university that once famously extended free speech to an actual Nazi allowed radical faculty members to obstruct Steve Bannon from speaking on campus, claiming his words were dangerous to students.

The solution is not to issue more bromides about the importance of free speech. It’s to take the principle itself more seriously. Mill believed heretics should be heard, not put in charge of classrooms and permitted to create despotic speech codes. Everybody should be allowed to express his views, but that doesn’t require us to empower and elevate people who would afford themselves the right to speak and take it from everybody else.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Note that PG doesn’t agree with everything he posts on TPV and PG doesn’t want to see TPV turned into a political blog. There is no shortage of those to be found elsewhere.

However, PG doesn’t need to remind visitors that freedom of speech is essential to authors.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of nations around the world where someone can get into serious trouble over something they have written.

1 thought on “Free Speech Absolutism Killed Free Speech”

  1. As the political theorist Willmoore Kendall predicted in the 1950s, a community that treats every idea as ultimately refutable will eventually conclude that no real truth exists.

    Could be. But, I have yet to encounter such a community. However, I have seen many that consider every idea subject to refutation. There’s a big difference.

    And authors? For many of the folks who call themselves “creatives,” their record on free speech for others is dismal.

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