One of the recurring themes on this site is the endangerment of freedom of speech caused by Political Correctness. Unfortunately, in championing the cause of free speech, I often end up butting up against an uncomfortable dilemma.
On the one hand, I believe in negative rights over positive rights. To see what I mean, consider the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which, in its entirety, states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Notice, it’s all about what the government can’t do. It doesn’t say anything about what one citizen has to provide to another. For instance, lefty commenters have complained over the years that my blog isn’t free speech friendly because I insist on approving every comment before I post them. My reply has always been that this is a my speech zone not a free speech zone (even though I have only ever refrained from posting one comment: a physical threat made by one commenter against another).
An example of a positive right is the so-called fairness doctrine that used to exist in the US. It forced public broadcasters to provide equal time for opposing points of view. The practical result was that broadcasters avoided presenting any point of view at all for fear of ending up in a ratings soaking, tit-for-tat between opposing ideologists. Instead of promoting political debate, the positive right to ‘fairness’ squelching it. It was only after the Reagan administration got rid of it that Rush Limbaugh and talk radio began to flourish.
Therefore, in the interest of free discourse, I am against a positive right to free speech.
The problem with this stance is that Political Correctness flourishes in a climate of no positive free speech rights, just as long as the PC bullyboys don’t cash a government paycheque. Take campus free speech. In the US, many important post-secondary schools, like Harvard and Stanford, are private. The negative rights enshrined by the First Amendment offer no protection for their students against free-speech-hating administrators. Fortunately, because most of these schools are large-scale recipients of federal grants, governments can enforce an atmosphere of free discourse - if they choose to do. A group that I very much support - FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) - has been doing a lot of good, insisting that governments do just that.
But what about the many cases of free-speech suppression where government grants can’t be used as leverage. What do you do there? The most recent incident concerns the Toronto Blue Jays’ shortstop who was subject to an obligatory two-minute hate for having an anti-homosexual (oops, I almost said homophobic) slogan on his eye-black during a recent baseball game.
Here is my dilemma: I support the negative right to free speech while opposing the positive right, but this is precisely the legal environment that grants the non-governmental PC thugs free reign.
What I yearn for is the climate of free speech that existed briefly in the 1970’s. If you are old enough, you may recall that in that era liberals were fond of quoting Voltaire’s line, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” While a lot of them omitted the “to the death” part, fat chance of hearing a liberal say something like this today. More likely, she will spit out, “Racist! Sexist! Homophobe! Fire ’im now!” The 1970’s were a charmed time for free speech because conservative prudery had withered but left-wing prudery had not yet metastasized (though there were some ominous signs, if you looked).
You don’t believe me? Consider the article entitled Foreigners Around the World that appeared in the National Lampoon in May, 1976 by then lefty anarchist P J O’Rourke. While National Lampoon was criticized for its X-rated, scatological humour, this article inspired no particular outrage above the norm. These days it would be a career-ender, assuming you could find a publisher suicidal enough to publish it. Even National Lampoon has scrubbed it from its website. It would be denounced in Parliament and by the President. Hell, even I am shocked rereading it.
And yet, there is no doubt that P J O’Rourke is not a racist. And the article is funny. And in the 1970’s most people got that. Why can’t we in the 21st century just tell the PC goons where to stick it?
I think I am beginning to answer my own question here when I say that there are two parts to the free speech issue: the negative right to be free from government censorship, and tolerance by the public at large. And when I mean tolerance, I don’t mean the perverted form of that word in common usage today: a moral obligation on the part of people to not dislike people belonging to protected groups, on penalty of thought-crime. I mean tolerance in the Voltairean sense of being able to associate with people in a civilized manner even though you disagree with them.
Of course, if everybody had to be a Voltairean then we wouldn’t have freedom of thought either. What I am pining for are the days when most people were Voltaireans most of the time, so that society as a whole could disagree with but tolerate the Illinois Nazis among us (the Blues Brothers film being another great cultural artifact from the 1970’s - yes, yes I know it came out in 1980).
How do we get there from here? I think the first step is a realization that rights and civilization are not printed on paper but in the hearts of men. The second step is for all friends of free speech and freedom of thought and true tolerance to go out and proselytize for it and insist on it.
That has always been the way real political and cultural change has been affected.