Freedom of speech is a bedrock American principle. It is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but it cannot be reduced to that amendment. Instead, as Greg Lukianoff points out in this Encounter Broadside, it reflects “cultural values” and “intellectual habits,” such as
giving the other side a fair hearing, reserving judgment, tolerating opinions that offend or anger us, believing that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, and recognizing that even people whose points of view we find repugnant might be (at least partially) right. At the heart of these values is epistemic humility—a fancy way of saying that we must always keep in mind that we could be wrong or, at least, that we can always learn something from listening to the other side.
Lukianoff contends that these values and habits are under assault in America today, and he points to numerous examples to establish the point.
The assault on freedom of speech cannot be dismissed simply as “academia’s fault,” the result of “liberal groupthink” and “political correctness.” (Academia does play a leading role, however, as Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty details at length. So does the political Left.) Instead, the assault reflects a social trend that can be seen worldwide:
people all over the globe are coming to expect emotional and intellectual comfort as though it were a right. This is precisely what you would expect when you train a generation to believe that they have a right not to be offended. Eventually, they stop demanding freedom of speech and start demanding freedom from speech.
The problem with expecting comfort as a right is that…well, the real world doesn’t work that way. Even assuming that everyone is acting on their best behavior, diversity ensures that there will be disagreement in society about what is true, good, and beautiful. Far from helping resolve those disagreements, social rules and cultural norms that promote “freedom from speech” hinder reasonable resolutions of those conflicts—and even the agreement to disagree. Instead, freedom from speech requires power—university administrators, government regulators, etc.—to impose a version of truth, goodness, and beauty on a diverse society that literally does not have a say about it.
Far from promoting a tolerant, comfortable society, then, the right to comfort ironically creates victims and transmogrifies conflicts about fundamental principles into zero-sum conflicts about who wields power. In such a situation, reason loses and force wins. That’s not a good situation for democratic societies to find themselves in. Far better to allow Socratic gadflies to ask uncomfortable, even embarrassing, questions and to dialogue the way to reasonable answers! Unfortunately, that’s not the path contemporary American society is taking.
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