The True Value of Free Speech

I’m with Goldberg on this. Free speech has to be considered a first principle; it’s the most basic of rights. Nevertheless, I have some additional concerns.

First, there’s no denying that free speech, as Goldberg notes, is being championed in a very opportunistic way by today’s reactionaries, and by some commentators on the left who taken up the issue as a cause célèbre. Student protesters at Yale had legitimate complaints about the way Erika Christakis had conducted herself as an associate college master. But because Christakis used a handful of free-speech shibboleths in her now notorious email, what should have been a dispute about her administrative role was blown up into a crisis for intellectual exchange. Simply calling something a free-speech crisis doesn’t make it so.

Second, the true test of our commitment to free speech, in this country and at this moment, is our treatment of Muslim Americans. Goldberg mentions the bevy of sanctions, official and otherwise, now inflicted on pro-Palestinian Americans. How much worse will things go for a Syrian-American who publicly criticizes American actions abroad, or condemns our hedonistic way of life, or produces literature fantasizing about the fall of the West and the rise of a worldwide caliphate? Surely there are Muslim Americans who hate lots of things about America, just as there are non-Muslim liberals and conservatives who hate lots of things about America. Do these Muslim critics receive a national hearing? Are their views met with reasoned debate, or with hostility? Most importantly, are they free from government harassment? Yet the opinions of these people (so long as they remain opinions, not active plots to do harm) are also to be protected as forms of speech.

Third, anyone who supports free speech must also accept challenges to free speech–which are, of course, themselves examples of the behavior we’re trying to protect. This means that the right to free speech can never simply be taken for granted, but must be continually questioned, examined, and reaffirmed. Students who today question whether free speech is worth upholding are doing exactly what they ought to do–exercising the very right they have been granted in challenging those who would defend its preservation. They should be met with sober arguments, not snide contempt.

As to those arguments, I think Goldberg gives essentially the best one. We defend free speech not to protect reactionaries today, but to guarantee freedom to the oppressed in years to come. Goldberg focuses on today’s divisions between liberals and conservatives, whites and non-whites. She thus worries about a right-wing backlash against leftist attitudes. But who’s to say how the political situation will shake out in twenty, fifty, a hundred years? Will America see an unexpected rise in anti-Semitism? Will an ascendant  Christian coalition cutting across racial lines complicate today’s left-right divide? Will some new anti-capitalist ideology emerge, only to be attacked and suppressed as socialists and unionists were in the last century? Will feminist literature be pilloried as a dangerous archaism by a future gender-fluid society? Will a super-elite obsessed with standards of intelligence try to quell the views of stupid people? Will technological breakthroughs create a new genetic underclass, or will unforeseen industrial disasters lead to a backlash against science? Or will there be a violent secular movement seeking to stamp out all forms of religion? Maybe the global map will be completely different, without even the countries and cultures we now recognize.

We have no idea what’s coming, but we can be sure of two things: the future world will be surprising, yet there will still be powerful groups seeking to silence and oppress the less fortunate. We should do whatever we can to hand down the tools that have served in the past to undermine tyranny, crack open closed minds, and secure justice for the disadvantaged. The right to free speech, for all its costs, is a guarantor of every other right we value.

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