On Freedom of Speech

Martha Bayles, “Taming the Furies,” The Hedgehog Review, Fall 2020.

Martha Bayles reviews the state of freedom of speech in America. She believes that America has arrived “at a troubling impasse. At one extreme, the champions of free speech embrace the ultralibertarian view that every limit on expression, no matter how benign, is a fatal step toward tyranny. At the other, the custodians of public virtue deploy star-chamber methods to enforce an ideology, congealed from political correctness, that grows ever more invasive, intolerant, and inhuman. Both extremes have forgotten that every society in history has limited speech in some way, yet some have remained freer than others.”

The question driving her article is: “Can any free nation, especially one as huge and diverse as the United States, sustain a tradition of free speech based on voluntary restraint, when the arena in which the nation expresses itself culturally and politically is dominated by participants who have little interest in sustaining that tradition—and indeed, are invested in stoking the extremes?”

Pop music and pop culture, the news media, and online culture have created a situation in which speech is weaponized to silence and destroy enemies. Online giants especially know how to manipulate readers and encourage anger as a driving force, and the temptation is to want to rein them in and restrict their powers.

But this sounds like a China syndrome, because it would mean repressing free speech rather than improving it. Bayles suggests we find a way to encourage online giants to serve the common weal, and hope that Americans will recover a fairer sense of self-restraint in their use of speech.

But can we tame the tongue so easily? Or rein in those whose only ambition is to use us to make money by selling our personal information at a premium? I doubt it. Without some dramatic change in the conscience, Americans are in for a long bout with repressive speech protocols that will work to silence anyone the dominant powers refuse to acknowledge or put up with any longer.

But this must not be allowed to silence those who hold the truth and are commanded to speak it in love.

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