‘Freedom From Speech’ and Freedom From Other Things

“Freedom of speech” has been a slogan in America and the Western World for some time.  But how to explain the rise of “political correctness,” which has not much affected our civil law, but has affected policies on campus, and, as young people graduate from campus and enter the workplace, increasingly the workplace?

Greg Lukianoff, of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has published a short Encounter Broadside book called Freedom From Speech; he has also written a longer book on the same subject called Unlearning Liberty,  and a number of other shorter essays on the subject.  A radical anti-free-speech activist from Australia, Tanya Cohen, has coincidentally used the phrase “freedom from speech” as a good thing in an essay; I am relieved to see that the comment threads under the essay run highly negative!

There are certain aspects of Christian ethics that display a superficial resemblance to “political correctness” and “freedom from speech.”  I, as a young Christian, learned early, to my shock, that there’s no First Amendment with God or in the Bible.  I can start with James 3:5-6:

In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly.  Think about this: a small flame can set a whole forest on fire.  The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us.  It contaminates our entire lives.  Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire.  The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell. . . . No one can tame the tongue, though.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we both bless the Lord and curse human beings made in God’s likeness.  Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth.  My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!

And if we leave the “epistle of straw” behind and go to Paul, we find Ephesians 4:25-27, 29-32:

Therefore, after you have gotten rid of lying, each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor because we are parts of each other in the same body.  Be angry without sinning.  Don’t let the sun set on your anger.  Don’t provide an opportunity for the devil. . . . Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth.  Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.  Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy – you were sealed by him for the day of redemption.  Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil.  Be kind, forgiving, and compassionate to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.

Then, there is Jesus Himself, in the Sermon on the Mount:

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.  If they say to their brother or sister, “You idiot,” they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council.  And if they say, “You fool,” they will be in danger of fiery hell.

It’s interesting that in the PC world ‘idiot’ or ‘fool’ would be less stigmatized, because they are equal-opportunity insults that don’t stigmatize race, religion, sexual preference, or physical handicap!  And Jesus on one occasion uses what we might consider an ethnic slur: in Matthew 15:26-27, He declares to a Gentile lady on the Phoenician coast who is asking him to cast out a demon from her daughter, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”  ‘Dogs’ here is a not very nice term for Gentiles.  The lady takes it in stride: “Yes, Lord.  But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”  She got the demon cast out of her daughter.

And in Matthew 23 Jesus bases a whole discourse on “How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites!”  Evidently ‘hypocrite’ is not on the level of ‘idiot’ or ‘fool’.  And it is clear that the Christian virtue of kindness and the worldly virtue of ‘niceness’ are not quite identical.  And Christians don’t get complete “freedom from speech,” just from certain harsher kinds of speech; Paul declares in Galatians 6:1, “Brothers and sisters, if a person is caught doing something wrong, you who are spiritual should restore someone like this with a spirit of gentleness.  Watch out for yourselves so you won’t be tempted too.”  So we are not entitled to all “freedom from speech” concerning our wrong behavior, only that speech which is not in “a spirit of gentleness.”  On the other hand, the world’s “freedom from speech” would call all criticism of behavior [at least certain kinds of behavior] ‘judgmentalness’, which is sort of amusing, but the idea that there is something wrong with being ‘judgmental’ is a perversion of Jesus’ own teaching!

I think I may have said elsewhere that ‘acceptance’ and ‘tolerance’ are secular post-Christian substitutes for the lost concept of ‘forgiveness’.  My best one making the point is Representing Our Jesus to Their Jesus.

In any case, it seems like Freedom from Speech is just a symptom of a larger “Freedom From” in our culture.

The preference for “freedom from” rather than “freedom of” is an ominous tendency, to my mind, but perhaps there is a deep desire for it in human nature itself.  To live one’s life undisturbed by criticism or negativity is something that a lot of people desire.  As I have said before, Francis Schaeffer was pointing out as early as 1968 that the majority values of Americans were neither Christian nor radically leftist but were but two:  ‘affluence’ and ‘personal peace’.  The latter is not pacifism; it is the desire to be undisturbed and unaffected by the harsh realities of the world.  Such values lead to a strong interest in “freedom from” but much less of an interest in “freedom to,” as Schaeffer feared.  People might accept a form of authoritarianism that did not interfere with ‘personal peace’ or ‘affluence’.

I suspect that “freedom from” rather than “freedom to” operates in other areas.  Land use is a favorite subject on BlueKennel, and many land use regulations have long been motivated by protection of “property values.”  This was current long before “political correctness” or “freedom from speech,” but it surely represents “freedom from” land use prevailing over freedom of land use.  Here’s the latest example; in Marin County, George Lucas wishes to put middle class housing on the Skywalker Ranch and I think you can guess what happened.  I’m sorry if I rather enjoy this one, but I do, because the Marin Countians are hardly social conservatives, much less Republicans!

I also see “freedom from” in many of our liability-driven safety regulations.  I actually like to wear seat belts in cars, and I would certainly wear a helmet if I ever rode a motorcycle, or even a bicycle.  [I hope they have helmets that fit on a head that’s size 8 3/8!]  I can see the need for life jackets for motorized water activities like jet skis and water skis.  The sailboarders, however, managed to win an exemption, and I am involved in a campaign to win the same for stand-up paddleboarders.  What seems to be happening here is a desire by the public for “freedom from” any type of risk, and because the courts in recent times have been generous to the injured at the expense of property owners and organizers of events, the property owners and the organizers of events desire “freedom from” the possibility of injury as well; and insurance companies become the makers of private law under which we live.

An exception where we still have “freedom to” seems to be “sexual conduct between consenting adults.”  Of course, as I said before, Aldous Huxley called this the freedom that appears when others are taken away, and so I called it the “Last Freedom.”  But there’s “freedom from” here too; at least some forms of sexual conduct are not only legal but protected from private discrimination.  And much of the “freedom from speech” desired is to discourage speech criticizing these behaviors.  An interesting dividing line is the question; what can be a stated reason for firing someone or asking them to resign?  If a forty year old married man or woman has an affair, say, with a sixteen year old teenager, the adult’s employer is, as I understand it entitled to terminate the adulterer’s employment on the grounds that the employee committed a felony.  But if the teenager had been 18 or older, and if the affair was the stated reason for terminating the employee, I wonder if the employer could encounter legal difficulties if the adulterous affair did not adversely affect the employee’s work.

At the same time, Brendan Eich could be asked to leave Mozilla because of a political contribution he had made a few years previously that was unrelated to any corporate practice.  In this case it was definitely not a felony to make such a political contribution — if anything, it’s constitutionally protected!!  So there are illegal behaviors; behaviors that are protected at civil law but subject to discrimination in the private sector; and behaviors that are protected against discrimination in the private sector.   A survey of just what behaviors are and are not protected against discrimination in the private sector would be a very interesting study; it is beyond my competence, you need a lawyer.  But freedom from discrimination is definitely a “freedom from.”

To sum up, I believe that Schaeffer’s concern that we might end up in a soft authoritarianism because we prefer “personal peace and affluence” to true liberty is a very real concern.  And I don’t think such an authoritarianism will appear in a form that we could call traditionally ‘left’ or ‘right’.  I think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is closer to the current reality than is Orwell’s 1984; except I do have a high appreciation for Orwell’s essays on language, “Politics and the English Language” and the “Newspeak” appendix to 1984.

We all, in this time of history, have to decide what true liberty is and whether we value it.

More Posts