January 21, 2008

What is "freedom"?

I happened to catch "1984" yesterday afternoon before the big football games while doing some laundry. It's a pretty powerful adaptation of the famous Orwell novel; John "an Alien burst from my chest" Hurt plays Winston Smith and does a superb job. Watching the back-and-forth between Hurt and Richard Burton's O'Brien got me pondering just what the essence of freedom is.

I don't think there's anything more defining of the term than freedom of thought, and subsequently the expression of that thought. There's nothing more stark, when contrasting the West and totalitarian countries, than how each handle their respective populace's speech and expression. The unfortunate thing for the West, however, is that the very things that have made us so prosperous and knowledgable have also given us "too much time on our hands," so to speak. Now that we've achieved a level of economic and cultural affluence never before witnessed on the globe, certain "progressive" elements in our convention want to make our society even more affluent, in their view -- at least culturally.

In the last year or so, perhaps no single incident personified how Western "progressives" want to make the West "more progressive" than the furor over those inflammatory cartoons of Mohammed. This progressive desire to make the West "better" now includes the "right not to be offended." At first glance, who can really denounce that? No one wants anyone to be offended, nor does anyone want to offend someone, right? The problem comes, of course, when you try to codify this supposed "right" into law. Colleges and universities have been doing this for decades now with their "speech codes." "Enlightened" Western progressives believed, for example, that publication of those Mohammed cartoons should have been suppressed because Muslims would be offended. Just take the Boston Globe, for instance. Some college professors will even invoke quite unusual definitions of "freedom" to support just the opposite, like Temple's Mahmoud Mustafa Ayoub:

"It has a lot to do with the difference in belief about freedom ... the essential difference is how freedom is understood. I believe that my freedom ends where the dignity and respect for all the prophets begins."

That's quite, if I may say so, an Orwellian definition of "freedom." But Ayoub's views are shared by many Western progressives and are creeping into our law. Shortly after the Denmark paper reprinted those Mohammed 'toons, even the United Nations got into the act. Denmark was "accused of breaking its international obligations by not conforming with the following three articles in the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," which included, among other items

  • Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

But how is it "freedom" if the government is prescribed to protect the morals of others? The obvious point is that anyone's morals can be offended by any speech/expression of others. The essence of true freedom excludes the supposed "right" not to be offended. If "cannot give offense" becomes a codified right, then true freedom is thwarted. Indeed, "offense" is determined by whom, exactly? It's "progressive" bureaucrats like UN special rapporteur on racism and xenophobia Doudou Diéne and liberal major paper employees like the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt. And, most recently Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen who said "freedom of expression doesn't mean the right to offend." In addition, there's our neighbor to the north which, while finding the bureaucratic time to label the United States and Israel as "torture" nations is busy assembling "human rights commissions" in its provinces with the goal of regulating "offensive" speech. Probably the most well-known current vicitims of these commissions are Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn.

This bureaucratic/progressive attack on supposedly offensive speech does NOT include, by the way, speech that the majority population deems offensive. The aforementioned Boston Globe and Washington Post have spoken out vociferously for free speech in such instances, but changed their tune when (in this case) Muslims were offended. And it's not just out of "sensitivity" for the Islamic point of view; for, as liberal political pundit Lawrence O'Donnell admitted, it's out of naked fear of reprisals.

What is the ultimate outcome of this move to suppress "offensive" speech? That's easy: What I saw in "1984" yesterday. Levant and Steyn can actually face jail time for their expression. When people have to begin to wonder who might be offended by what they say -- because it might be against the law -- we are in a precarious situation, people. It is one thing (and plain common courtesy) to use polite language in certain circumstances. But if you have to anguish over arrest for what you say, say hello to Winston Smith.

Posted by Hube at January 21, 2008 12:43 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

And as I like to point out, we Christians are incredibly offended every time a Muslim declares that Jesus is only a prophet, when non-Christians say that Jesus is not the Son of God and Savior, and when atheists deny the existence of God. When, pray tell, with the advocates of sensitivity and "no offense" push for laws and regulations to protect Christian feelings from such horribly insensitive statements?

Perhaps when kosher pigs named Muhammad fly?

Posted by: Rhymes With Right at January 21, 2008 07:05 PM

Free speech rights are probably too broad for their own good. Speech arguing that speech which should be free speech should not be free is offensive and should be banned.

Posted by: Stephen A. Meigs at January 26, 2008 11:16 AM

Stephen: Your post was a little too confusing (unnecessary verbiage), but if I get your drift, I disagree. Even speech that advocates limiting or banning certain speech should be QUITE lawful. Government has an obligation to 1) guarantee such a right, and 2) guarantee that those who advocate (via their free speech) that speech be limited or banned not have their desires set in law. (Although certain limitations on speech may be prudent as ALL codified right have limitations.)

Posted by: Hube at January 26, 2008 12:02 PM

The problem is that once a speech becomes not free it is very difficult to make an effective case that the speech should be free, inasmuch as making a case that the speech should be free generally necessitates making speech that was banned. E.g., if I were to make a case that adolescent female sexuality can be beautiful and thus erotic literature about it should be allowed, the best way of doing that would be to write beautiful erotic literature about adolescent female sexuality, which is difficult if such writing is illegal. Or if I were to make a case that it should be legal to be able to portray sodomy as revolting, the only effective way to do so would be to explain my reasonings for my beliefs about why I think sodomy is properly revolting, which I couldn't do if such explanations were illegal. And as more and more speech gets banned, more and more people will think it appropriate and in the spirit of the law to ban more speech. It's only fair and just I think that since those arguing against free speech have the advantage that effectively they don't allow speech against wrong anti-speech laws after they are enacted, those who believe in free speech shouldn't have to tolerate speech against wrong anti-speech laws before they might get enacted. Otherwise, there is real danger of a kind of creep into less and less free speech. It strikes me that in schools, in particular, this has been happening to an alarming degree.

It is true that there might should be special cases of speech (e.g., threatening speech) not regarding free speech that should be banned. It would be important to enumerate these cases beforehand, and/or to rely on judicial common sense to distinguish these. But it is not as though these cases are carefully enumerated in our present Constitution, either.

I don't think there is a very easy way of phrasing what I mean. You can't say, "speech against free speech should be banned" without being hypocritical, because in some sense that (the phrase in quotes) is a speech against free speech. And though it might be slightly too general to be an ideal rule, there is nothing contradictory or hypocritical about saying that speech against the freedom to speak a speech which doesn't concern free speech should be banned.

Posted by: Stephen A. Meigs at January 26, 2008 04:33 PM