Checkpoint: Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil, Think No Evil
In some cases the United States makes for an endlessly interesting country, in others however, it makes for an endlessly frustrating one. The effects of this paradox, observed by everyone from de Tocqueville to Mencken, can be seen in every aspect of American life. For instance, the alleged constitutional presence of free speech, and the clear popular lacking of it. The existence of such a paradox is as sordidly evident on university campuses across the country as it is on the cable news networks, and in the White House. Not only are these corrupted manifestations harmful to American democracy, they demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of what free speech is.
UC Berkeley was embroiled in controversy last week when conservative pundit and Celine Dion’s evil twin Ann Coulter was unable to make a speech due to safety concerns. While the intellectually brittle and safe-zoned ‘liberals’ that dominate contemporary college campuses are the real story, it need be admitted that the Coulter affair isn’t black and white, or as she would prefer, white.
UC Berkeley claim that the original appearance was only cancelled because the Berkeley College Republicans and Young America’s Foundation who organized Coulter’s speech had not properly gone through college procedure in finding and reserving an appropriate venue. However, considering the ridiculous riots that erupted from a visit by the callous and contentless Milo Yiannopoulos earlier in the year, it isn’t unlikely that the shabby preparation on behalf of the young Republicans was not a matter of ineptitude, but rather of tactical indifference - that the mere presence of a differing opinion leads to riots means the promise of another is likely a transparent and provocative media stunt. This only serves to elevate a poor opinion to a platform it doesn’t deserve. Regardless of the intentions of Coulter & Co however, the ugly underbelly of the ‘regressive left’ was once again revealed.
The ‘regressive left’ as they are deservedly known, are the desperate and despotic frustrations of the once warranted movement of political correctness. Steven Pinker described this stage of a movement, in this case the politically correct, as being the “decadent phase.” The movement, having gained what it set out to achieve, feels a self-important need to persist, and in order to do so, it must find ever more “obscure grievances to maintain their moral franchise.” They are what the late philosopher Kenneth Minogue termed the ‘St. George in retirement syndrome.’ St. George, having slew the dragon, aimlessly wanders around the countryside challenging increasingly smaller foes until eventually he is left stabbing at thin air, or mistaking friends for foes. This is their degeneration into absurdity.
The 'regressives' claim to possess liberal ideas but a thin skin, and an even thinner capacity for thought, render them utterly ignorant of liberalism. In a word, they are what Nabokov described as ‘poshlust’ – falsely important, falsely beautiful, falsely clever, falsely attractive, and obviously trashy. In a word - meritricious. To borrow an analogy from the critic Peter Claven – the ‘regressive left’ parade around on the misapprehension they’d been cast as Prospero, when actually they sounded like Polonius. Worse still, their hysterical reaction to anything other than babying reiteration of their own singular shallow thought reeks of totalitarianism. Such a claim is not hyperbole, for the essential habitat of totalitarian thought resides in the ignorance of the fact that the only intellectual absolute is that there aren’t any.
The British journalist Douglas Murray summed up the sad state of affairs as being: “Instead of ‘I disagree with what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.’ It’s ‘I disagree with you so shut up.’” As the society becomes more demographically pluralistic, the ‘regressive left’ have decided the path to harmony is the absence of debate. However, the exact opposite is the preferable course; the more voices, the more testing of opinions against each other, the better the likelihood of advancing on superior and no doubt amalgamated ideas.
Censorship however, ensures a pressure cooker scenario, whereby speech, whether it’s hateful or not, is eventually pressured to burst out elsewhere, typically in violence. The absence of free speech is a more violent prospect than the presence of it. A liberal pluralist society should have no trouble weighing the shallow opinions of someone like Coulter, and finding them wanting. Comedy Central demonstrated the ease of this with its Roast of Rob Lowe, where Coulter was ripped apart by comedic crocodiles who feed solely off bad ideas. Seemingly, it's the fear of thinking past the first opinion these people were given, a trait shared by both the ‘regressive left’, and the ‘customary right,’ that serves to reinforce their own imagined self-importance and perpetuate the continual relapse of American society.
Part of the problem, at least on university campuses, is that a good portion of the student body doesn’t possess the intellectual curiosity and therefore capacity to be there. This was most shrilly evident at Yale University in 2015 when a student, in what could only be described as an infantile tantrum, impudently screamed at an over-courteous professor that his job was to “create a home” for the students, and make them feel “comfortable.” Comfort is the antithesis of what the university experience should be. A university is a place of challenge. It asks you: “What are your ideas?” because “here is everybody else’s, including many that have been continuously tested for millennia.” The collision of ideas in the arena of argument is not comfortable, but it is the source of social progress, and it is the purpose of university.
At the core of the problem of free speech is that people don’t seem to understand what it means. In America especially it is viewed as a rule, when in fact, it is a tool. The function of free speech is not to equalize opinion, but to elevate truthful opinions over vacuous ones. Yes free speech provides equal access to an opinion, but it doesn’t provide everyone an equal share of the spotlight, and to feel equally vindicated. No, free speech is a tool to arrive at the truth. As J. S. Mill argues in On Liberty, the only way you can know if something is true is by testing it in public debate, subjecting it to ridicule, criticism and discussion, otherwise it is merely dogma.
That free speech is not used as a tool is why labeling has become such a problem in the American spectrum. When all views are looked at as equal rather than competing, there is no truth, there are only labels. America needs to realize that their infantile tribalism of right and left, has ousted the mature adherence to right and wrong.
Part of the evolution of this trend is that in several Western nations, censorship is no longer solely in the hands of the state. The days of D. H. Lawrence and the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover have long since passed. Then, it was governments attempting to stop the public from encountering material that could be apparently morally obscene, seditious, or vaguely ‘bad’ for the public. Now censorship has been privatized and is seen as a style of consumer protection. The problem with this is that the market promulgates one of the biggest lies in modern life – that the customer is always right. The shrieking girl at Yale thought this. The news media now think this as well. Truth itself has been privatized, outsourced, and is now for sale to the consumer through bespoke tailors.
This is the sorry Hobbesian state of free speech. There are no lectures, there is no objective truth. There is only tribal politics and political rallies. Either you agree with something and applaud rancorously, or you don’t and you will go to perhaps violent lengths to have it silenced. The once great liberal challis that sought to hold the vibrancy and complexity of an interplaying blend is now being sullied by an anxious and immature single-varietal from la terre of totalitarian thought.