APPLETON, Wis. (U-WIRE) — May 3 marked the eighth annual observation of World Press Freedom Day, a heartfelt tribute to persecuted journalists around the world. The solemn irony of such an event is that while so many turn their eyes abroad, free speech is being undermined right here in America in ways infinitely more subtle — and frighteningly more dangerous — than the random imprisonment of any foreign correspondent could ever be.
From the hate-speech codes of the modern “politically correct” university, to the recent attempts to ban pornography on the Internet, censorship is increasingly becoming the tactic of choice for liberal and conservative thinkers alike. What, you may ask, explains the unlikely alliance against pornography between Catherine Mackinnon (one of America’s most radical feminists) and Jesse Helms (one of America’s most conservative rednecks)? What explains the ever-widening consensus against the founding principles of this country?
To find the answer, I would like to examine the premises that these seemingly divergent groups share in common.
In almost any case of contemporary censorship, one observes that its advocates do not repudiate the principle of free speech as such, but instead insist upon “limits” to the principle. They claim that some other competing value (such as racial harmony, or children’s innocence, or women’s dignity) somehow supersedes the value of free speech.
John Stuart Mill, seen by many as the greatest champion of free speech, argued that restriction of liberty can be justified when that liberty is shown to harm other people. Thus, on his premises, free speech’s trampling upon racial harmony, children’s innocence, or women’s dignity could be sufficient grounds to limit it — just as contemporary thinkers have argued.
The problem with this argument is that no objective standard of what constitutes “harm” is ever presented. The result is the destruction of the concept of “free speech,” since just about anything a person can say or do may harm someone else — in some sense. (Example: my thinking about philosophy takes time that could be spent tutoring poor children!)
The destruction of the concept is, indeed, what is occurring. Stanley Fish of Duke University, one of America’s most prominent postmodernist philosophers, has argued that because no speech act can ever be free of consequence (or purpose, or meaning), “there is no such thing as free speech” — the title of his 1994 book.
What explains the unlikely consensus against free speech in American politics? Shared ideas. Where do politicians get their ideas? From Duke University, and countless others where shoddy philosophy like Fish’s is taught.
To reverse the trend, we will need better philosophy — in particular, a better validation of rights.
Who needs rights, anyhow? Are there any facts that give rise to the need for rights, or are they just “social constructs,” as the postmodernists will tell us?
Here are some facts. Humans exist together in a society, and that society has the option of sanctioning certain modes of behavior. Which behavior is a society to sanction? What should individuals be doing with their lives, anyway? What is the right thing for a person to do, in general?
The only way to answer this question is to appeal to a wider body of ethical knowledge. As Ayn Rand has demonstrated, individuals must pursue values for their own lives, as it is only the concept of “life” which makes the concept of “value” possible. Society, therefore, must sanction the right thing: an individual’s pursuit of his own life. This principle is embodied in the right to life.
The right to free speech is a derivative of the right to life, insofar as free speech is a necessary prerequisite for the functioning of man’s most important survival tool — his mind.
Rights, then, are necessary conditions for human social existence, and there is only one way to violate them: the initiation of physical force. Only the gun, the whip, or the club can actively interpose itself between a mind and its grasp of reality.
This last point gives us an objective standard by which to define rights violation. By this standard, me stuffing this newspaper down your throat would violate your rights; writing an article attacking racial harmony, children’s innocence or women’s dignity would not. The content of your mind is ultimately up to you.
So let’s not forget the journalists who perish every year at the hands of thugs. Surely, they are victims of an injustice. Let’s not forget, however, about the ideas that made such thugs possible and how alive and well these ideas are today.
Benjamin Bayer’s column originally appeared in Monday’s Lawrence University Lawrentian.