In praise of messy
There is a dangerous ethos slipping into our national psyche that has the power to upend our cherished republic. That ethos decrees that objectionable speech should be forbidden. Not challenged with more speech. Not ridiculed. Not debunked. Forbidden. Our nation’s downfall finds root in such concepts.
Our nation is not unaccustomed to robust public debate. Much of our history is the story of vigorous, heated, sometimes violent debates that burned hot in the friction created by the wheels of progress. Some of our national heroes are those who were able to introduce new, sometimes radical, concepts that lubricated the body politic in preparation for action. Such heroes of thought, pen, and voice would struggle in today’s enforced culture of leftist thought hegemony.
Liberty begins with the freedom of thought and the first public manifestation of liberty is the expression of thought. The measure of a free society is how many of those expressions are permitted. How restrictive can a society be before it toggles from a society that is considered free and one that is not?
In a perfectly free society, all expressions would be permitted without government sanction. Almost all nations, even those considered to be ardent adherents to the principle of free speech, criminalize some speech. Direct threats and defamation are almost never allowed, for example, but the bar for restricting speech is very high.
At the other end of the spectrum are those nations that maniacally regulate every utterance and have severe penalties for anyone who dares speak something deemed forbidden by the regime in power. The United States has moved along this scale throughout its history, but we are slipping toward the totalitarian end of that spectrum at an alarming pace.
In the American culture, people like to claim that they support free speech, but are increasingly willing to silence people who express views with which they disagree. Since it goes against the traditional American self-image to silence opposing views, the oppressors among us have taken the convenient moral shortcut of labeling thoughts with which they disagree as X-ist or hateful. Since everyone agrees that it is immoral to be X-ist or hateful, the oppressors can claim that silencing such thoughts, and the expression of them, as not only justified, but a moral imperative.
This is the faux moral high ground that movements like antifa and the leftists who lend them support seek to claim. They stand in righteous judgment of everyone who they deem “fascist” or “hateful” or “bigoted.” Their definitions are fluid, but their fury is constant. And when the silencing of evil foes is a moral imperative, any means of doing so can be justified because it promotes a higher good.
Those means have manifested themselves across America in a hundred different ways. News organizations have spawned “fact checking” squads to seek out opposing thoughts and label them as untrue. These self-anointed arbiters of truth stride forth with the confidence and wisdom of 19-year-olds who are home from their first year of college. In an earlier column, I rang a warning bell about the tech giants who are using their market dominance to regulate which speech is allowed to be heard and which must be quashed into the digital abyss. Some Democrat politicians and leftists are espousing the virtues of blacklists to prevent any Trump supporter from being able to work or hold a position of public influence. In both Wisconsin and in Washington D.C., we saw how elected leaders and bureaucrats weaponized government agencies to silence speech and punish the speakers.
The crushing of American public debate under the pretext of purging it of hate, X-ism, and bigotry is an attack on the freedom of thought and an affront to the ideals upon which our nation was founded. That does not mean that all thoughts are good, helpful, or positive, but the way to eradicate them is not to mute them. The way to eradicate them is to allow the light of truth in the public space to show them for what they are and allow them to retreat to the fringe. Freedom means permitting the expression of all thoughts — not just the ones that are accepted by the current orthodoxy.
Freedom relies on people being able to think, speak, introduce new ideas, resurface old ideas, subject them to the gristmill of public debate, and allow the people a robust discussion of diverse viewpoints from which to formulate a consensus public policy. Many of the ideas espoused by our Founders were considered radical, subversive, and treasonous at the time. That is precisely why our founding documents include a full-throated defense of free speech. They understood that the world would change, and new ideas would emerge. Our nation should not fear those ideas. We should welcome them, debate them, and encourage more. It is messy, but freedom always is.
(Owen B. Robinson is a conservative Wisconsin political commentator and former West Bend resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)