The Free Speech Fallacy

Since the Charlie Hebdo attack, the usual suspects in America have been hooting and bellowing about “free speech.” Sadly, the usual suspects include many on the Right who should know better, but are overcome by the appeal of standing next to the hippies, shouting down the dissidents, in the name of free speech.

An example of that last point is this posted on National Review. It is the inspiration for this blog post. Some at National Review have an obsession with the current Pope. I suspect it due in part to the fact this Pope is a Marxist. But, many are Catholic so it is understandable that they would have a particular interest in the Pontiff. Naturally, when he came out with his position on speech offensive to religion, they jumped all over him. The claim being that the Pope wants to bring back blasphemy laws.

First off, I would hope the Pope and every other religious leader, for that matter, would want to bring back blasphemy laws. It is a weak and dying religion that invites the scorn and mockery of non-believers. Strong religions are tough and they don’t take any guff from heretics and infidels. If given the opportunity, they will stifle dissent and punish the critics. That’s what religions do. It is what they have to do or at least try to do. Otherwise, they stop being religions and instead become a list of suggestions supported by magic.

Of course, the Pope speaks for the Catholic Church. That’s his job as God’s intermediary. It is perfectly reasonable for the Pope to oppose mocking religion and to command his flock to avoid doing it as well. It makes even more sense for the Pope to convince non-Catholics to avoid criticizing his religion and his church. Getting non-Catholics to sign off on that would be very good for his church. That horse left the barn a long time ago, but you can’t blame the guy for trying. Islam is proving the value of that strategy.

As a general principle, it is probably bad form to mock religion. That’s not to say it should be illegal or even strongly discouraged. It just means it is one of the many things we can judge one another on, like our tastes in clothes and foods. A guy with a mullet and wife beater swilling cheap beer is judged differently than a guy in a suit having a salad. Similarly, someone who gratuitously mocks religion is judged differently than someone who is respectful of other faiths. Even in our degraded age, people appreciate politeness.

What’s dangerous about this latest burst of “free speech” fanaticism is it distracts from what is important and cedes ground to the Left by adopting their choice of language. Specifically, the formulation “free speech.” There’s no such thing as free speech. It is an abstract idea that conflates official censorship with social custom at the expense of the latter. The Left sees no limit to the state and no place for the organic culture that flows naturally from ethnicity, created over thousands of years of trial and error.

The fact that the libertarian weirdos are trying to out bellow the liberals on this issue once again proves that the former suffer from the same defects as the latter. I’ll grant that the increasingly deranged Karl Denninger is probably a bad example. He obviously knows nothing about religion or self restraint. Charlie Cooke is the house libertarian hipster at National Review and he is ululating about free speech as well. Again, the defect here is the the very idea of “free speech.”

Rights do not exist in the abstract any more than left handedness exists in the abstract. People have natural rights based solely on the fact they are a living human. One of those rights Americans believe humans posses is the right to speak freely and publicly on public issues, such as politics and policy. It is not an absolute right. Speech that involves incitement, false statements of fact, obscenity, child pornography, threats, and speech owned by others are all completely exempt from First Amendment protections.

In other words, Americans give the government very limited powers to regulate speech. The state must pass a high threshold in order to limit what I can say, where I can say it and to whom I can say it. But, and this is a big one, the state does have that authority. Every society gives the civil authorities this power, some more than others. That’s the place for debate. What can the state regulate and what proof must they muster in order to exercise that authority. The reason the Left hates this line of reasoning, the view of the Founders, is it means a natural limit on state power, something the Left rejects.

The worst part, is that these free speech mavens conflate state censorship with social custom. Every society has taboos. These are things we prohibit by custom. The reasons for prohibition may be sensible or magical, but every human society has them. It’s called culture. If you doubt this, start talking about your sexual interest in children at the next dinner party. It will be your last dinner party because decent people in our culture think sex with children is monstrous. It is one of our more serious taboos.

Sex with minors is illegal, but talking about your desire to have sex with a minor is not. That type of speech is permitted to a point, based on local obscenity laws. Custom, however, is not so permissive. It rarely is as permissive as the law. That’s why every human society has counted heavily on custom, the unwritten rules of society, to regulate most behavior. Being cast out from your own has always been one of the worst things that can happen to a human. The threat of it is a powerful corrective.

Conflating social custom and taboos with state power is the dream of ever liberal. It is why they keep demanding more laws. It is why our legal code has ballooned beyond the comprehension of the citizens. The Left imagine a state that more than dominates life. They imagine the state as the medium in which the citizen is defined. A system where your very humanity is defined by your relationship with the state and there’s no space between the public and private. Accepting this premise by treating the utterances of a religious leader as equal to those of a state actor gives the game away. All that is left is the time and place of surrender.

Making the made up concept of free speech a fetish obscures the real issue that is worthy of debate. The state should have power to regulate speech only at the fringes. The people, through their customs and traditional institutions should be free to sort these issues out as they see fit, without seeking permission from the state. Freedom of speech and freedom of association go hand and hand and always mean freedom from state coercion. When a group of citizens are free to not associate with another group of citizens because of the things being said, the unwritten rules are able to work and the state is not needed to referee.

That last part is important. You’ll note that the phrase being bandied about is “protect free speech.” This is only necessary when the citizens are not free to leave the room when they hear things they find objectionable. Instead of protecting freedom from the state, the state is protecting our rights from one another – at a price. Before long the state is no longer a referee but a game warden.

12 thoughts on “The Free Speech Fallacy

  1. Which does, however, leave us back at Nietzsche’s point, and, of the very people who designed the American form of government to be suitable only for a “moral and religious people”. Whoops. This does place those of us who are are morally sane but not in fact religious in a quandary. And by religious, they decidedly meant Anglo-Protestant first, Catholic a distant second, and Islamic not at all. John Adams wiped his feet with the Koran, and Jefferson did him one better.

  2. The Pope is in way over his head, not to mention wrong, although those things do tend to go hand in hand. Perhaps he is no less caught up in the everything everybody right now electronic universalism that every other democratic mind has sunk into. Take away his smart phone.

    The Christians I know who spark the greatest respect in me have no church. They are associations of bible readers who practice their faith with their day. They are entirely non-political although their practice of faith is the very Tocquevillian model of liberty. The Pope either does not grasp liberty or does not like it. Most people don’t.

    The Nietzsche rant upon the post-Christian English mind was hilarious; it rang a lot of bells.

    Cyril Connolly-
    Those of us who were brought up Christians and have lost our faith have retained the sense of sin without the saving belief in redemption. This poisons our thought and paralyzes us in action.

    • Frankly, I think a lot of criticism at the Pope in this instance is due to him being a Marxist. For most on the Right, he has fallen in the category where everything he says is assumed to be wrong by default. I think if the Pope had used this sort of language in a Papal Edict, the criticism would be justified. In a casual interview, I’m more inclined to read it as an appeal to civility.

      That’s not the point. The point I’m making is that the limits on the state to regulate speech are open to debate. I’m way over on the side of most sensible people in that I don’t want the state doing much in the way to speech regulation. The French may prefer more regulation, but I’m not French so I don’t care what they do. Further, one cannot have the freedom to speak with the freedom of association. If the state can force you in the same room with people who say objectionable things, your free speech is worthless.

  3. JK,

    I follow. I would not ground Rights in nature either and I apologize if that’s the way it came off. I was coming at it from a Jeffersonian angle, as in the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God. I would argue that “natural order” is different from “material” order. The former being fixed while the latter is situational.

    I do agree that the Rousseau-ists of every stripe are trying to reanimate the corpse of Christian metaphysics with material explanations. That’s like trying to break loose a rusted bolt with a torch. It sort of works, but you get a different result. The Weekly Standard had a good article on this a few weeks back.

    As far as the Pope, I read his comments as merely an exhortation for politeness and maybe some special pleading for religion to be off-limits to satirists and comics. That said, Catholicism is following the protestant sects into the abyss. Once you are no longer will to kill for your cause, the only thing left is for you to die for it.

  4. “Further, Locke would have agreed with the Pope”

    Perhaps, but only because he agrees with me:

    “Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the Being of a God. Promises, Covenants, and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Humane Society, can have no hold upon an Atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all. Besides also, those that by their Atheism undermine and destroy all Religion, can have no pretence of Religion whereupon to challenge the Privilege of a Toleration.”

    “In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke argued that one of the great advantages of Christianity was that its teaching about Heaven and Hell provided the only solid ground for morality. ‘Upon this foundation, and upon this only, morality stands firm and will defy all competition'”

    Locke also lumped the Catholics in with atheists, which is not exactly Papist-friendly.

    Every attempt to ground Right in nature, from Rousseau and Hume to Darwin and Ayn Rand, has been a miserable failure. Even Nietzsche, who got so much right, ended up in delusion. When you attempt to ground morality in the power relations that govern nature, you don’t end up in some idealized ancient Greece, you end up in the Château de Silling.

    But Nietzsche got the following correct. In a rant against George Eliot and the English, he wrote:

    “They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. That is an English consistency; we do not wish to hold it against little moralistic females a la Eliot. In England one must rehabilitate oneself after every little emancipation from theology by showing in a veritably awe-inspiring manner what a moral fanatic one is. That is the penance they pay there…
    We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.”

    That pretty much describes the secular Left, doesn’t it?

    When you ground a right such as the right to free speech in utilitarian consensus, the right can change or disappear when the consensus changes. Pretty soon you end up like France, where making anti-Semitic comments can land you a fine or jail time.

    If the United States were governed like France, the likes of Sam Francis and Lawrence Auster would have been blogging from prison. Instead, we let the Klan march down main street, and the Westboro Baptist Church terrorize funerals. Secularism got a later start here.

    As I wrote earlier, the Pope blew a chance to explain all this, and reassert the necessary causal links between the Church, and the rights that the secular left prattles on about with so little understanding.

    BTW, the Darwinian Conservative has his head up his ass. How you can write, yet alone read, the following passage without dissolving into hysterical laughter, is beyond me:

    “In The Descent of Man, Darwin says that “to do good unto others–to do unto others as ye would they should do unto you–is the foundation-stone of morality,” and he claims that even primitive human beings might act according to this principle as impelled by “the love of praise and the dread of blame,” because they care about how they appear to others (1:165). He writes: “The moral sense perhaps affords the best and highest distinction between man and the lower animals; but I need not say anything on this head, as I have so lately endeavoured to show that the social instincts–the prime principle of man’s moral constitution–with the aid of active intellectual powers and the effects of habit, naturally lead to the golden rule. ‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise;’ and this lies at the foundation of morality”

  5. Joseph K,

    Humans have rights. Dogs do not. Bugs do not. That’s what I meant by rights belong to humans, not the ether. One can have natural rights without the supernatural, but man cannot have natural rights unless he exists. it is the exercise of those rights that matters, not their metaphysical dimensions that should matter.

    Further, Locke would have agreed with the Pope:

    The point being, Locke got a lot of things wrong.

  6. “Rights do not exist in the abstract any more than left handedness exists in the abstract. People have natural rights based solely on the fact they are a living human.”

    They certainly do not, any more than fleas have natural rights based solely on the fact they are living fleas. Natural right cannot be grounded in nature or in some form of utilitarian consensus. Any attempt to ground Right in nature ends not with Rousseau, but with De Sade.

    “Love thine enemy” and “turn the other cheek” are the central tenets of Christianity. As James Wilson points out, these sentiments are about as anti-nature as you can get. They are also the foundation of our civilization. They are great blows to the tribalism that inhibits civilizational advance, and that is still enshrined in Islam.

    The Pope, with his absurd statement about Moms and punches, just renounced his own religion. Talk about heretical. He put us right back to “an eye for an eye”. What’s next, an encyclical supporting vendetta against the rule of law?

    Our entire concept of Right in the West is rooted in the notion that a Creator God endowed us with those rights. Natural Right was first formulated by the Stoics, who were monotheists, then adopted and greatly expanded by the Church. Locke’s formulation, which directly inspired the American Founders, requires God, as Jefferson, a Deist, understood when he wrote the Declaration – “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”

    The Pope blew a great opportunity to remind the secular West that the rights it caterwauls about while demanding that Christmas displays be mothballed are rooted in Christianity. He blew a chance to assert that a religion that responds to criticism, however grotesque, with death and destruction, is a weak and dying religion. He blew an opportunity to demonstrate Christian dignity, strength, and restraint. Instead, he decided to imitate Bill Donohue on a bad day.

    Pope Francis heads a Church that once organized Crusades to push the Islamic barbarians back into their sandy wastes. Now he’s joining them in whining about satire and criticism. He’s not asserting strength, he’s waving the red flag of surrender. The death of the West, indeed.

  7. “It is why they keep demanding more laws.”

    I believe that the Left keeps demanding more laws because virtually all of their efforts in this direction so far have failed. For the Left to have any self-regard it must seek the next law that is perfect in their eyes. If all the previous law-making and manipulation of legal codes has failed then surely, they argue, the next law will finally prove we can make a good law.

    It is the similar mindset to their close friends, the Communists. Every Communist society and regime has failed miserably, but the Marxist belief is the next time it is done it will be done correctly (at last!) and thus never fail.

    Mirages, they say, are very attractive.

  8. The only natural right that I am aware of is the right of the strong to lord it over the weak, the vicious over the meek. There is nothing natural about civilization, quite the contrary. All advances in civilization are anti-instinctual.

    “Speech that involves incitement, false statements of fact, obscenity, child pornography, threats, and speech owned by others are all completely exempt from First Amendment protections.” Sounds like a good description of Islam.

  9. “t is a weak and dying religion that invites the scorn and mockery of non-believers. Strong religions are tough and they don’t take any guff from heretics and infidels.”

    Lucian of Samosota was a writer from the 2nd Century that mocked the “Pagan” cults and the Philosophical Schools of the time, he also made fun of Christians but when the Christians took control of the Roman Empire they persecuted ALL “pagan” religions and and didn’t tolerate mockery of their faith, the muslim did the same when they became powerful.

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