6/1/2018—This is a letter I wrote to the New York Times commenting on a Sunday column by Ross Douthat.
To the Editor:
Ross Douthat wrote an excellent column arguing that a purely procedural free speech will not save us, (5/27/2018) but neglected to say why that is. The reason is that free speech was never meant to function procedurally. The purpose of free speech is to aid in a society's search for truth. Once the concept of truth is surrendered, there is no point to free speech. Therefore, to save ourselves from the rot, we must ask a simple question. When Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "...the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," was he speaking gibberish or was he correct? For too long, left-wing intellectuals, joined now by Donald Trump, the nihilist-in-chief, have gotten away with leading our society into the ditch by denying King's vision. Let's finally have an actual debate about materialism and moral realism. I believe Dr. King will hold up very well.
In a pitch for a piece in the Online magazine Starting Points, I amplified this point.
Douthat suggested briefly why he thought that free speech by itself is an inadequate response—free speech has become merely a procedural value, a right to argue and nothing more: “If you want a healthy culture of debate, it’s not enough to complain that Marxists and postmodernists are out to silence you; you need your own idea of what education and human life itself are for.”
The very form of Douthat’s suggestion requires some form of moral realism. It requires the commitment that there is an actual answer to the question, or at least better and worse attempts to answer the question, what is human life for? That sounds very much like what would be called today an essentialist and foundational account of free speech. Free speech would then be justified not as a procedural right alone, but as a part of a people’s search for truth.
Without that underlying substantive commitment, there is little point to free speech and no good reason to tolerate speech that we hate. Unfortunately, that commitment today is lacking, both on the political Left and the political Right. We have become materialists, relativists and nihilists. Not free speech alone, but only a commitment to truth, will save us.
There is a difference here between law and culture. As a matter of law, the First Amendment protects the right to speak without regard to anything else. The law ignores the content of speech and the purpose of speech in all but the most extremes contexts, ie., an immediate threat of violence. That is why free speech is treated as a procedural right.
But in terms of the culture, it was always assumed that there was a point to free speech as a whole. The best, the only, way to assure progress toward truth was to let the people hear the speech of all and then decide over time what to do and what to believe. Yes, at a certain point, Justice Holmes seemed to turn this upside down by defining truth as what people came to believe, rather than the other way round, but there was still an assumption that deliberation and decision by the people were the ultimate goal.
We live at a time when this faith—that deliberation can be encouraged and trusted—is missing. When people think about it at all, they do not trust their fellow citizens. Therefore, bad ideas must be kept from them. Free speech transforms from an engine of liberation to a weapon of oppression. Robust exchange is just another form of harassment. Obviously this is bad for universities—and bad for football teams disciplining their players. But it is disastrous for anything like democracy.