Turning then to what might hold us together, I don’t think that we can form any sort of social cohesion around freedom of speech as the ultimate value. The right to insult one another in as offensive a way as we wish will not build up fraternity. Freedom of speech as a good thing must rest on something else, it is not axiomatic. At this moment in time, in pluralistic Western societies, the need to work out what that something else is has never been more urgent.
We seem, though, to acknowledge implicitly at least a part of what that something more might be in the law which bans “the incitement to ethnic or racial hatred”. Why do we permit this incursion on freedom of speech, the right which we hear spoken of in such privileged terms so often?
I think it’s at least in part because we recognise that to make decisions about the way we treat people entirely on the basis of their race or ethnicity is in fact entirely wrong. So we might conclude that certain truths are so fundamental to society that their perversion should be avoided even at the cost of free speech. Thus it seems that truth is one of those things that we hold as a higher value than freedom of speech. Again, this seems implicit in laws we see elsewhere, such as the criminalisation of holocaust denial in parts of Europe.
The other thing that is being protected by the ban on hate speech is the common good. We rightly consider that hate speech encouraging one race to rise up against another is not a good thing for anyone, neither for those attacked, nor for the perpetrators falsely set against their fellow human beings.
So it seems that at a bare minimum truth and goodness are two things that we consider more important than the exercise of freedom of speech. They seem to me a pretty good start for a civil society. It seems proper that there should be a responsibility on all of us whenever we speak to ensure that we do not corrupt the truth or the common good. Every right that we enjoy brings with it a corresponding duty to use it responsibly. Not out of some child-like fear that otherwise we won’t be allowed to enjoy the right any more but because it goes toward our dignity as human beings to use the exercise of our freedoms with thought and consideration, otherwise we’re not really free, just unthinking. It would be good if some journalists kept this a little closer to heart; there are after all some things more important than circulation figures and the exercise of a right for the sake of it, things like truth, goodness and beauty.
The real value of freedom of speech lies in having something worth saying and not being suppressed in our attempt to say it. Two of the most worthwhile things that there are to be expressed are the truth and love, in fact one should never really be without the other. Truth should always be expressed in love and love always requires that we be truthful.
As a Dominican I belong to an Order which has Veritas – truth – as its motto, and the truth we wish to proclaim is truly beautiful: that God is love and that he so loves the world that he sent his only Son, who, in an ultimate act of love, would lay down his life for us so that we might be freed from the chains of death and sin and share eternal life with him. This is a truth which countless martyrs throughout the years, but never in greater numbers than in the 20thcentury, have thought worth dying for. It’s a truth that Christians continue to die for and a truth that continues to be illegal or impossible to express in many parts of the world. Millions marched in Paris in support of the right to continue to be able to insult each other, fewer march in solidarity with those who have lost their lives for refusing to change their beliefs. That’s a sad truth which needs to be expressed. But here’s the paradox that lies at heart of the good news of the Christian message: the truth is never more powerful than when it is held by those who are weak; never more triumphant that when its expression is found in self-sacrifice; and never finds its expression in violence.
I recommend the thinking reader read the entire piece.
Mr. Lees' post is filled with common sense and decency, couldn't we use a little more of both?
And as a bonus, you'll find out why the pic of Chesterton is relevant.