Conservative commentator Mark Steyn criticized the line-drawing frequently employed to limit freedom of speech in a column for The Spectator (UK) this week. Censors, he argues, say they are “striking [a] balance” between freedom and equality, but they are essentially declaring certain topics closed for debate. And though some at least claim that they will “defend to the death” someone’s right to share opinions with which they disagree, others have abandoned that commitment completely.
Unsurprisingly (at least for those who have read Unlearning Liberty), American students are among those proudly shutting their minds to viewpoints different from their own:
As Erin Ching, a student at 60-grand-a-year Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, put it in her college newspaper the other day: ‘What really bothered me is the whole idea that at a liberal arts college we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion.’ Yeah, who needs that? There speaks the voice of a generation: celebrate diversity by enforcing conformity.
This attitude should be very worrying to anyone who values First Amendment principles. Those who believe that certain debates are settled should remember that past generations felt just as certain about ideas that are now widely considered flatly wrong.
Steyn makes an important point about the function of free speech in a society where those who disagree must ultimately all live under the same rules:
Nick Lowles defined the ‘No Platform’ philosophy as ‘the position where we refuse to allow fascists an opportunity to act like normal political parties’. But free speech is essential to a free society because, when you deny people ‘an opportunity to act like normal political parties’, there’s nothing left for them to do but punch your lights out. Free speech, wrote the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson last week, ‘buttresses the political system’s legitimacy. It helps losers, in the struggle for public opinion and electoral success, to accept their fates. It helps keep them loyal to the system, even though it has disappointed them. They will accept the outcomes, because they believe they’ve had a fair opportunity to express and advance their views. There’s always the next election. Free speech underpins our larger concept of freedom.’
For more excellent insight, head over to The Spectator to read Steyn’s column in full.