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Free Speech Round Table: When to Speak and when to be Silent

The July 7th publication of A Letter on Justice and Open Debate in Harper’s Magazine sounded an alarm: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” Glancing at the list of signatories, many of us will find figures we respect—or at least figures to whom we listen. Their letter argues against “swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” It accuses media outlets of stifling free speech by creating a cancel culture (although they do not use this exact term), which rules out “experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”

There is no denying the fact that American society is trending toward radicalization. In the current moment, how could it be otherwise? We’ve become the global pandemic hotspot, yet basic health information and action has been politicized—transforming a tragedy into yet another opportunity for “us versus them” thinking. The murder of George Floyd catalyzed protests against police brutality and, more importantly, against the enduring legacy of slavery. Racism is embedded systematically in our society—and particularly in our criminal justice system (note that both hyperlinks reference pastoral letters from US Catholic Bishops). To make things worse, we have a president who has exacerbated the racist and xenophobic undercurrents in American thought. Without a change in direction from the top, being black in America will continue to feel like an existential threat.[1] And with the events unfolding in response to Jacob Blake’s shooting at the hands of police, I am worried that we are moving hopelessly away from dialogue.

How should we use our right to free speech at times like these? When the protests began, I purposefully avoided commenting on social media.[2] It felt like a time not for words but for actions. But as the weeks pass and things don’t seem to change, it is now important to ask why. And to do so, we need free speech. We need to draw from a wide range of ideas and experiences in order to make sense of this moment—yet we need to do so critically, understanding that some voices must carry more weight than others. Perhaps analogous to the preferential option for the poor, we ought to exercise a preferential option for the marginalized in terms of speech. As my friend Jacob wrote back in 2016, we need to truly listen, especially to voices we haven’t heard well.

Liberalism has provided many marginalized individuals with platforms, but this action comes at a cost. On the one hand, authors like Michael Hobbes point out that the loudest voices critiquing “cancel culture” have maintained supporters and weathered controversies largely unscathed.[3] Characterizing the latest slew of free speech concerns as a thinly-veiled attempt by media gatekeepers to retain power, he concludes:

“Cancel culture” is nothing more than the latest repackaging of the argument that the true threat to liberalism resides not in lawmakers or large corporations but in overly sensitive college students and random social media users. It is no more sophisticated than the “war on Christmas” and has the same goal: to imply that those pushing back against injustice are equivalent to the injustice itself.

On the other hand, authors like Andrew Sullivan argue that said gatekeepers have become echo chambers. According to Sullivan, “any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is [seen as] actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.” I can sympathize with this critique. The principles of rhetoric dictate that we taper speech to meet audiences “in the middle.” But when sides are so radicalized, preaching to the choir has become the norm.

I sometimes wonder where this is all going. It’s certainly easier to deconstruct (Michael Hobbes) and complain (Andrew Sullivan) than it is to contribute meaningfully to discourse. Both of these authors have an axe to grind—but don’t we all?

Here in America, people tend to say (and do) what they want most of the time. As John Ehrett writes below, this fact can be a boon for Christianity: “Any meaningful ‘freedom to’ seek the good (ultimately, God) entails a commitment to a certain degree of ‘freedom from’ constraint, because the good (God) is imperfectly known by human beings.” I would add that “freedom from” includes putting the best construction on everything and thinking of our neighbors as better than ourselves.

As such, Christians cannot portion hate speech. Hate speech must be defined on both an individual and a societal level—with the former casting a wider net than the latter. Person-to-person, it is usually easy to tell when someone I know is engaged in hate speech. I can then follow Jesus’ instructions from Matt 18 on how to reprove one who sins publicly. But considering American society as a whole, I don’t think passing blanket laws restricting speech would do any good. The problem of pollution proceeds from the heart (Matt 15). What can be passed, however, are laws that prevent profiteering from hate speech (e.g. via advertisement revenues). We should not let slippery slope fears override our ethical duty to meet the current moment and to act—the prioritization of free speech at any cost is not an acceptable solution to the problems posed above.

Christians are called to disciplined speech. We must maintain prudence. To exercise that virtue aright, I think it’s now more important than ever to take a step back from the cacophony of free speech debates. We ought to fully embrace neither “side,” and instead contemplate the prescient words of Nietzsche:

[The modern human being] has been reduced to a condition in which even great wars and great revolutions can scarcely change anything even for a moment. Before the war is even over, it has already been transformed into a hundred thousand pages of printed paper, it has already been served up as the latest delicacy to the exhausted palates of the history-hungry.[4]

People (including myself, unfortunately) have gotten into the habit of churning out opinions—for instance, quickly commenting on articles that may have taken weeks to write, or, using hasty generalizations to tidily sum up complex topics. This proliferation of speech is having an inflationary effect on the information economy; words have depreciated in value. They are now rarely used to point to the reality that we are all members of one human family. Instead, speech in America today trends toward tribalism and selfishness.

We all need to be more responsible.

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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