It seems kind of crazy to me that I even have to talk about this, but that’s the world we live in. Then again, as a student of history I know that this is not something new, only the sides seem to have changed. The debate over free speech (seriously? People can’t see irony of that even being a thing?) has pretty much been an issue since the time that the city fathers of Athens decided that Socrates was a bad influence on the kids, and for the sake of the children he had to be put to death.
But I still don’t get it. I’ve been called an arrogant guy at times; sometimes even by friends, family, or significant others. So let’s concede the point, and for the purposes of the argument at hand assume I’m a really arrogant guy. Fine. And yet, in all my own arrogance, I can’t begin to imagine a situation of thinking so highly of myself that I should succumb to the notion that I should have the right to decide FOR OTHER PEOPLE what they should be allowed to read, buy, sell, or think. I can in no way conceive of a situation where I would consider myself so amazingly superior to everyone else that my own judgment would be good enough for me to decide, for someone else’s “own good”, that they should be forbidden from even considering certain ideas. And yet there are, and have always been, people who have been owners of such an unfathomable degree of arrogance as to think that they should have that very power.
Of course, one historical difference is that in the old days, the would be moral or ideological justicars had a claim to supernatural authority to hide behind. The old masters of Athens at least had the sufficient sense of shame at their own hubris as to hide behind the notions that it wasn’t just that they thought they had the personal right or authority to silence Socrates forever for saying things they didn’t like, but were only acting on behalf of the Greek Gods who they were certain were no doubt offended by Socrates’ “blasphemy.” And so it generally was in most situations of would-be thought-control, be it Popes or Kings hiding behind their stature as “god’s anointed”, or even the “Moral Majority” of a few decades back suggesting that Jesus took personal offense at rock and roll music.
And this brings us to our own lifetime (mine, at least, I would think at least a few of you dear readers will be younger than your not-very-humble author). If there was one thing that, in my own living memory, I could generally praise the western democratic Left for over the Right, it was that (up until not very long ago) they were the stalwart defenders of freedom of speech. For pretty well all of my now long-gone youth, the right was dominated by people who sought to be moral censors (usually of the “Christian” Mrs.Lovejoy-from-the-Simpsons think-of-the-children variety) while left could be counted on to oppose them. With the sole exception of a few soccer-mom Democrats of the Tipper-Gore variety, it was the republican-voting crowd that were out to ban literature, rap music, rock music, heavy metal, “blasphemous” films, clothing they thought was too revealing, comic books, and (of personal interest to me) Dungeons & Dragons. To say nothing of Gay Pride parades.
If you had told me, back then, that almost all of the pressure to censor in 2014 would have come from the Left, I would not have believed it. I mean, how could that happen? Over the course of the 20th century the Left had been the champions of personal liberty in at least that one respect; dubious economic ideologies aside, they had always understood the vital reason why it was important to defend the right of free expression, in no small part because they and the minority groups they often admirably fought to defend had all too often been the victims of would-be censorial repression. How could this change so fast?
Of course, there was one branch of the Left that had been fairly censorial all through the 20th century: hardcore Marxist-Leninists. It was a persistent irony that even as sectors of the Left in the western “first world” protested censorship at home, they made excuses for brutal Communist regimes where the situation was reversed, and people under the yoke of the Iron Curtain found themselves struggling to resist against a totalitarianism that had no room for free expression. It would be tempting to go the way of certain Tea-Partiers, and blame that Communist impulse for the current wave of thought-repression in liberal circles, but I just don’t think there’s a (direct) connection. No one today is trying to block free speech because of how much they admire Stalin, or even Che Guevara (who was very notoriously pro-censorship, but has today been reduced to a brand-logo for hipster T-shirts, and about whom most of those that paste his poster in their dorm-room wall know next to nothing, he’s just “that revolution guy”, as one hapless Che-fan once defined him).
No, the present frenzy of thought-control is not a product of an historical continuity, but rather, it is the byproduct of far too little memory. Throughout the 20th century, liberal forces won almost every single battle against censorship, certainly in the long run. In every aspect of attempted clothing bans, media bans, book banning, television restrictions, or attempts to forbid or control diversions (video games, comics, roleplaying games, etc), as well as in cases of defining obscenity, the anti-censorship side ended up the victor.
And thank goodness for that. Within the boundaries of the issue of legal harm to persons (as in the case of some very extreme forms of pornography), incitement to the same (extremist calls to violence on other human beings), or certain very limited restrictions for topical propriety, in every other respect it is my firm conviction that we are a better society for being a more free society. But the side-effect of all this is that we have now gotten to a place where it seems a number of people have forgotten just how much had to be fought in order to win those victories.
And there’s the rub: the very same victories that were so hard-won are now being undermined by people who were the beneficiaries of that success, who have largely allowed themselves to be hijacked by a group of self-styled elites that have the same sense of personal arrogance as their previous oppressors. Worse, you could argue, because they don’t even try to paint a thin veneer of “God wills it” over their attempts at social dominance; they don’t even use the old totalitarian trick of claiming that it is the State or “the People” who demand it. They have, in an ultimate act of narcissism, simply convinced themselves that they are a special elect, so elevated by their personal education or ‘social consciousness’ that they have every right to determine what is best for all of the ‘unwashed masses’. Occasionally, they mask it behind claims that they’re trying to (forcibly) raise the level of social-correctness, or somehow defending diversity by limiting the diversity of ideas. More often, however, they consider it sufficient that they personally feel “offended” by something, that their own feelings are enough by itself, regardless of the feelings of anyone else, to demand that ideas they personally dislike be banned.
But if you’re a real Liberal, or even just a fundamentally logical person, then there can be NO debate or doubt about which to chose more fundamentally between “socializing people for diversity” and “free speech”; much less so the question of giving a crap about whether someone else takes offense at someone’s free expression.
It’s Free Speech, every single time. Because the protection of diversity of all kinds DEPENDS on inalienable freedoms being preserved. If we don’t absolutely defend the freedom of expression, then the rights of minorities to express themselves do not exist. The only justifiable way we can protect both liberty and equality is if there is freedom of speech.
Without it, you can create a totalitarian Dictat where people you like get special protections and others don’t, but you have no actual moral basis to justify your actions besides that you personally feel it’s right; and thus, it will only last as long as you can violently (be it through physical, intellectual, or socio-political violence) enforce your will on the population. And then, if someone else comes along who’s stronger than you (in any of those categories) and says “now these guys can talk, and you can’t; and by the way I’m going to brutally repress this minority group I dislike”, you have no actual foundation by which to oppose him.
If we don’t live by absolute principles, which include allowing the same equal freedoms to our enemies and respecting the right-to-exist of ideas and media we personally dislike, then the only thing we’re arguing for, fundamentally, is Might Makes Right. And in the long-term, Might Makes Right tends to go very very badly for the minority vote.
This isn’t a Left vs. Right issue. Or rather, it demonstrates the fallacy of that division. The present-day crusaders who wave the banner of “social justice demands it” are in every way just as wrong as the religious Christian-Coalition crusaders of my youth. Tribalism is a poison, and whether you feel the person doing the censoring is on your “team” or not should not matter, because the urge to censor will in the long run hurt your team more than it helps. Fundamentally, all group rights stem from a vigorous defense of the rights of individuals, and any situation where a special elite set themselves up as the ones who should get to be the “Deciders” for everyone else weakens the entire foundation for universal rights. Just what or who is being censored is not the point, nor can you be so short-sighted as to care whether the people trying to be that special deciding-elite seem like nice people to you or not. The question at the end of the day is not about whether you’re conservative or progressive, it’s about whether you believe in the fundamental rights of the individual or not: it’s about whether you’re on the side of Han Solo or Darth Vader. And whether Darth Vader comes wrapped in a Christian flag carrying a Bible, or dressed in hemp yoga pants carrying a Cultural Studies textbook, is beside the point.
Kasimir Urbanski doesn’t write on a specific subject; he’s EveryJoe’s resident maniac-at-large. A recovering Humanities academic and world-traveler, he now lives in South America and is a researcher of fringe religion, eastern philosophy, and esoteric consciousness-expansion. In his spare time he writes tabletop RPGs, and blogs about them at therpgpundit.blogspot.com.
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