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KEYES: Defending Gellar’s Free Speech Serves the Common Good

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I saw an article online at The Atlantic last week with the headline “Je Suis Pamela Geller? Your thoughts.”

Pamela Geller hosted the Muhammad cartoon contest recently attacked by Islamic terrorists. After observing that the attack is “reviving the debate over the limits of free speech when it comes to ridiculing Islam”, the author, Chris Bodenner, asks “Does Geller deserve the same solidarity as Charlie?”– referring to the Islamic terrorist attack against the satirical French journal Charlie Hebdo, that left 12 people dead and 10 wounded.

Purporting to answer his own question, Bodenner asserts that “One big difference between the two is that Charlie was an equal opportunity offender, whereas Geller has singled out Islam for years.” He cites another Atlantic columnist, Jeff Goldberg, in support of this supposed rubric for discrimination, who, in a responsive comment, obligingly undercuts the implication of support for limits on “free speech” by remarking that “Pamela Geller is a nutbag, but nutbags are allowed to mock religion in a free society.”

Some anti-Roman Catholic groups populate my junk email box with diatribes attacking the Pope as anti-Christ. If tomorrow the Roman Catholic Pontiff called for a “Holy Crusade” against these detractors, I wonder what Bodenner would have to say?

Does he think, for example, that Planned Parenthood should close their abortion mills because they are not “equal opportunity” destroyers of human life? Would he therefore respond with understanding if and when some self-professed pro-life agitator expressed his outrage against them by encouraging people to threaten or murderously attack Planned Parenthood sponsored abortion facilities?

Jeff Goldberg apparently feels that “free speech” includes the freedom to defame Pamela Gellar as a “nutbag”. Goldberg also appears to be rational enough to understand that his freedom to do so without being exposed to violent attack also applies to Pamela Gellar. Though his insults are provocative, Goldberg expects people incensed by them to keep their angry passions in check.

The protection of free speech relies on the same expectation. It obliges people offended by the freely articulated views of others to practice self-restraint. Failing that, if and when they perpetrate criminal acts, the protection of free speech requires that they be pursued, and by due process, judged and punished for their crimes.

Writers like Jeff Goldberg apparently assume that the people they insult aren’t street toughs, gang members or volatile Islamic terrorists, easily provoked to violence against anyone who “disses” them. They probably assume that people they slur as “nutbags” are decent people, raised to discipline their violent impulses unless and until some actual physical attack requires, and therefore justifies, a suitably forceful defense.

Even then they would at least pretend to believe that any use of force has to be in keeping with the defensive nature of the response (i.e., aimed at stopping and discouraging such attacks, not vengefully destroying the attacker.)

Tragically, like many people who blather self-righteously about “free speech” do so without taking account of the obligatory self-restraint that it requires of others. They have forgotten, or else never really digested, the simple, crystal clear logic of a writer like John Stuart Mill, who rationally justifies “free speech” as a corollary of true justice, i.e., justice done in light of truth.

The whole “free speech” argument in Mill’s once widely known essay “On Liberty” turns on a simple train of reasoning: The best results of human thinking are provisional. They are always subject to be revised when there is good reason to do so. People must therefore be free to test them continually against any and all views offered to contradict them. For a claim of correctness that cannot be contested at all cannot be tested against better reasoning.

But without reason, what is the basis for true judgment? But where true judgment is impossible, true justice cannot be ascertained, even in approximate terms. In light of this necessity, it serves the purpose of true justice to leave the door open to every proposition, however objectionable in light of received opinion. However egregious some error is felt to be, the statement of it must be available for rational examination. Otherwise it cannot rationally be proven demonstrably false.

Especially where the people at large wield sovereign power over the composition of government, free speech is a requirement of their common good. For in order to exercise that sovereign power they must decide whether the representatives they elect are acting with justice. How can they do so if claims to the contrary are silenced without being heard?

In this respect, free speech isn’t simply about the right or wrong actions of individuals. It’s about making sure that those entrusted with the ultimate sovereignty over the composition of government have the opportunity to be fully informed. This is their conscientious duty, which they are obliged by right to perform.

It is therefore right to protect free speech, since the individual freedom it involves is ultimately connected with public right at the highest level. On account of the sovereign’s obligation to hear from all sides, it is right to allow individuals to be heard, even when we are “sure” they are wrong. In this instance, the freedom to be wrong serves the purposes of right, and those who insist on protecting it do so pursuant to an unalienable right that belongs to the people as a whole, as it is indispensable to their self-government. This public implementation of right is what must be protected by law against every assault of violent passion, whatever the view which provoked it.

But where something must be protected by law, those who act to damage it must be lawfully restrained, or it cannot be secured. Since, for example, respect for life is a requirement of the common good, it is right lawfully to constrain those who act to damage it.

If and when the otherwise rightful activities of others impel such people toward violence (for instance when a village’s abundant harvest impels marauders to attack it for plunder), the common good requires either that such violence prone people restrain themselves, or that they be subject to restraints provided by law (such as, for example, a law that sees to the equipment and training of a village militia to be ready to repel violent attackers.)

This means that when I encounter an art exhibition featuring a crucifix immersed in urine, I am obliged to quell my outrage for the sake of the common good. That is my duty as a citizen.

In order to do my duty, I may be led to ponder the thought that Christ’s crucifixion did in fact immerse him in the consequences of human sinfulness. Those consequences are like the waste of human life and happiness arising from our abuse of the likeness of God’s freedom inherent in our nature.

Perhaps the self-discipline required to respect free speech may be more than a requirement of our self-government’s sovereign good. It may be good training in the way of justice that allows peace to prevail among those who withstand any argument against truth with good grace, rather than brutal intimidation.

Training that leads them to trust that, so long as they have the courage to represent it, truth will prevail in the end, by the gracious power of God, and not by the self-degrading force of inhuman violence and intimidation.



 

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