Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Free Speech and Our Upside-Down Ideologies

For those inclined to believe there is only one right way of thinking about "free speech", especially on college campuses, this summary news article is worth reading:
A More Nuanced View of Law on Campus Speech
As I mentioned in a brief post yesterday, I am old enough to recall a time in the past when "conservative" meant something very different - even radically opposed - to its meaning today. Growing up in the 1970s, I watched the conservative movement try to make sense of the upheaval of the 1960s.

Free speech - the kind of free-for-all "marketplace of ideas" position described as one pole in the article above - was largely a cause of the Left, which saw society as stifling dissent and diversity and wanted new voices (African Americans, Latinos, women, LGBTQ, and others) to have a place.

The conservative response was the other pole: the "order and morality" theory, in which the good of society and societal order and the prevailing norms and mores of the day were held to be important. Indeed, that's what "conservative" meant - a desire to preserve the values of the past and present, to "not throw the baby out with the bathwater". Rousseau's Social Contract - a forerunner to what used to be called "conservative" - sought to provide the stability necessary for human thriving.

Like many great debates, both sides had a point. Existing social norms and structures of the 1950s and 1960s were indeed stifling and repressive, especially to women (who were confined to very restrictive roles in society) and ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. However, all well-functioning societies do need a level of order and common understandings of morality.

The battle of the 1960s was about how to change the repressive nature of those common understandings without tearing the country apart entirely. We succeeded, but only just.

Fast-forward to today, and the positions have entirely reversed. Self-proclaimed "conservatives" are now the ones who have thrown the order and morality position out the window. They are the ones who are arguing that any speech, no matter how offensive or harmful, must be protected, even celebrated. They organize provocative events around speakers who are noted not for their wisdom or their contribution to important debates, but for their ability to inflame and insult. Indeed, sometimes that appears to be the entire point of the exercise.

It is sadly ironic that the descendants of those who once argued that order and morality matter are now defending the position that neither order nor morality count for anything, and that freedom should be infinite and absolute. This puts the Left in the position of discovering the value of common decency and the virtue of order and stability - a somewhat strange place for a movement built on (sometimes revolutionary) change.

There were excesses during the 1960s, when we threw out rules about how we should treat each other in the service of fostering change. We are now throwing those rules out again (as I remarked on yesterday) - but in the service of what? I don't see that today's firebrand conservatives have a vision of a more just society and a better future. MLK had a dream of racial and economic justice, and the feminist movement yearned for a world in which women were economic and social equals to men. What vision do these folks have? What kind of a world are they trying to create?

I think this may be the key difference this time around. The movements of the 1960s, for racial justice, better economic opportunity, gender quality, and the rest, were rooted in a vision of a more just society. For the most part, we have accepted most of these ideas, and the strong majority believe that we are better for being more accepting of diversity and less socially and politically restrictive.

Perhaps what we are seeing is the rearguard action of those who do not share these ideas - those who believe that there ought to be a racial hierarchy, that the United States should be dominated by a particular racial/gendered/sexualized structure. That they cannot articulate the alternative in a way that appeals to anybody else suggests that, ultimately, they will lose. But that doesn't mean they won't cause as much pain as possible in the process.

Ultimately, this is where the radical libertarian view that "all speech is acceptable, no matter how painful" is problematic for me. Even if you're trying to create change, change that may be resisted by people who really don't want it, you use words that are designed to include and to heal, not to hurt. Go back and listen to MLK speeches. He challenges the prevailing orders of his day, but he never called anybody names. Never insulted them personally. Never used words to anger or harm. That some people got angry at what he said was a sad byproduct, not the main point.

When I seek solid ground on which to stand, I always come back to the Gospel. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang all the Law and the Prophets." I see no love in today's "conservative" free-speech movement - I see only anger and hatred. This is not of God.

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