In a rather heated recent blogger exchange, one correspondent observed that the legitimacy of our November election was so obvious that those claiming the vote counting was fraudulent or otherwise illegitimate should be legally silenced. In reply I asked which faction he would advise a newly arrived observer from Mars to believe. Should the Martian trust the party expressing skepticism regarding the election, or should she trust those resisting an investigation while attempting to forcibly silence that skepticism?
For those of us not newly arrived from Mars, the question as to who we can trust to provide us honest information is now central to our welfare. Personally, I think it makes more sense to trust the group that allows full freedom of expression for all and encourages us to consider all points of view. When we trust those who would forcibly silence opposing points of view we do so at our peril. Imagine trusting a salesman who contrives to outlaw advertising by companies selling competing products! “I recommend you buy a Ford,” he might say, “and no one will disagree with me because the Chevy salesmen are all in jail.” Today, as always, those selling socialism are intent on forcibly silencing those who oppose it. And all experience tells us that these socialists, like so many others before them, will eventually send those who publicly disagree with them off to jail (or mental hospitals, or “re-education camps”). Some are already threatening to do so.
For some reason most people reflexively conclude that censorship is a crime against the speaker who is to be censored. And that is true in a very narrow sense. But it is less than half the truth, because the real crime in censorship is the denial of potentially important information to those who are being “protected” from it by censorship. When it was against the law to teach slaves to read and write that was not so much a violation of the rights of teachers as a crime against the humanity of the slaves.
Those demanding that 2020 election skeptics be silenced seem to have forgotten that they themselves were quite outspoken in challenging the legitimacy of the 2016 election. They claimed (and many continue to claim) that Donald Trump stole the 2016 election via collusion with Russia and Vladimir Putin. They demanded that Trump be impeached even before he was inaugurated. They launched multiple investigations, all of which failed to produce what Barack Obama famously described as “a smidgeon of evidence.” Robert Mueller was not able to dredge up even a single vote that was stolen by Trump or Russia. And yet the boisterous clamor for Trump’s removal continued. At no time during all of this, to the best of my recollection, even when Democrats called Trump a “traitor,” did any Republican call for the legal silencing of those demonstrably false and borderline seditious claims.
In point of fact the option of censorship never occurred to the Republicans or anyone on the so-called “right” because conservatives generally, including most Republicans, are true liberals in the classical sense. That is to say that while the Democratic Party has abandoned its defense of personal liberty in favor of a program of constituency privileges, conservatives have become the conservators of those same civil rights, including the right to freedom of speech, to which Democrats and Progressives once gave a superficial and often self-serving lip service. Consider! The last time the party of the left defended free speech it was in the context of their beatification of the pornographer Larry Flint.
But freedom of speech is most important and most meaningful not when it is designed to titillate or arouse our sexual passions, but when it is offered in support of ideas controversial and profound—of ideas thought to be outrageous by a majority and in contravention of established norms. After all, the question of free speech in an ideological context never arises until what is to be said will deeply offend those who have the power to silence it. Freedom to express popular opinions, if not an oxymoron, is at the very least a meaningless concept. It is only when someone wishes to say something we very much do not wish to hear that the question of freedom comes into play. And yet when we do not wish to hear an idea is precisely when we most need to hear it.
John Stewart Mill explained this most eloquently in his “Essay on Liberty,” and our founders took his words to heart. “..the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”
In politics, where being fully informed is so crucial, we find that historically speaking it is always the socialist parties that resort to censorship. Do they have excuses? Of course they do! They have marvelously sophisticated and well-rehearsed rationalizations, if only because they have been refining them in gulags and labor camps for centuries. To those whose primary goal is power, all contrary ideas are lies and “triggers,” and all are “hurtful.” But in a nutshell, all of their excuses boil down to this: "The other side is evil and hateful and will tell you lies, and you, foolish child, do not have the wisdom or the intelligence to identify what is right and true without our strict supervision. We, in our quasi-parental authority, have both a right and a duty to restrict what you are allowed to hear and see."
American Indians will recognize this as “the great white father argument,” also known as noblesse oblige. This was the U.S government’s rationale for putting down the ghost shirt dance. “We, the wise and powerful, must protect you, the fragile and weak, from ideas that might harm you. (Mill called this the “harm argument,” noting its enormous propensity for abuse.) “We must do this because you are too callow, too naďve, too immature, or simply too credulous to make your own decisions. You are children. We know what is best for you. We are burning these shirts (or these books) for your own good.”
Such arguments (more subtly stated, of course) are often persuasive to those already prejudiced in favor of a particular point of view. Those who have come to identify with the authority will often mistake its seemingly benevolent despotism for collaboration with themselves. After all, it was the Indian police who murdered Crazy Horse when he refused to remain on a not entirely metaphorical reservation.
Challenging one’s own preconceptions can be painful. Critical thinking can be exhausting, and those least accustomed to it are most vexed by it. No one enjoys the prospect of having to reconsider convictions long held. But when we accept authoritarian paternalism to preserve our emotional comfort we sacrifice both our freedom and our dignity as autonomous adult human beings. In effect, we render ourselves dependent and infantile.
Is this true of you? Are you a political child dutifully awaiting instruction on what to believe, or a gullible rube who must be protected by your betters from competing points of view? If so you will doubtlessly believe what you have taken on faith – that anything the other side has to say will be lies and hate speech. But without hearing the censored words, how will you ever know for certain? Dennis Prager here offers the real explanation for why the left always strives to silence opposition. Read it if you dare, but don't let your handlers in the nanny state find out!
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