Alan Keyes
March 7, 2017
Brits muzzle Christians, subvert self-government
By Alan Keyes

    There is a very disturbing pattern here. We declare Jesus' message and critique rival beliefs such as Islam. Some people don't like what we say, and threaten violence to silence us. Then, instead of defending free speech and protecting us, the police shut down free speech to avoid public disorder. And then a court convicts us of provoking disorder and risking violence! (Michael Stockwell, convicted street preacher)
    To say that Jesus is the only God is not a matter of truth. To the extent that they are saying that the only way to God is through Jesus, that cannot be a truth. (British prosecutor Ian Jackson)
It's fair to say that the American understanding of freedom of speech owes much to the British understanding of right and rights that greatly influenced America's founders. That influence continued, through the 19th century, with the thinking of British thinkers like John Stuart Mill. On the whole, the U.S. Constitution forbids government from making laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion or "abridging the freedom of speech." Of course, it has also been recognized in our courts of law that, depending on the circumstances, words liable to incite disorder and violence are not constitutionally protected.

In the United States, these constitutional protections are under assault. The chief engine of the assault is a view of behavior that places the entire burden of consequence for the result of speech on those who speak, not those who hear them. If people say anything that's liable to upset their listeners, they are criminally liable for the disorder that results, even if the first move toward physical violence comes from the listeners.

This is particularly clear in recent events reported from Great Britain. The British prosecutor quoted above apparently contends that since criticism of Islam is well known to provoke a violent reaction from the adherents of that religion, anyone exposing them to serious criticism commits an offense against public order. Even aside from the issue of freedom of speech, this contention raises the question of each person's responsibility to keep the peace. If people were generally permitted to fly off the handle whenever they encounter preferences and opinions contrary to their own, the inhabitants of every human society would soon find themselves living under a rule of silence as strict as any monkish order.

A simple question illustrates the self-contradictory results the British prosecutor's position will entail. Every day, from mosques throughout the world, neighborhoods resound with the Muslim call to prayer. One version of that prayer includes words to the effect that "There is no god but Allah." These words convey, in terms of Islam, exactly the sort of sentiment the Bible conveys about God and Jesus Christ. Will the prosecutor now embark on a crusade to prosecute all the mosques in England that dare, however softly, to proclaim this statement anywhere within the hearing of non-Muslims?

He won't do so. He's too afraid of a violent reaction from certain Muslims. He's also counting on the fact that people of other religions are not so likely to take violent exception to statements at odds with their convictions. So long as it is not so loudly or insistently proclaimed as to disturb the peace, others will tolerate what they hear, as they tolerate church bells, or the sounds of street musicians, or the patter of shoe-shiners shilling for trade outside a train station.

Freedom of speech thus obviously requires a measure of self-control on the part of listeners. Why is it right to demand this self-restraint? John Stuart Mill argued, with good reason, that it's in the interest of the common good to protect the liberty by which, as citizens, people participate in decisions about how their government is conducted and by whom. How are they to make informed choices if they are not allowed to hear all points of view? Allowing any group to suppress contrary viewpoints using the threat of emotional reactions that are prone to violence is the kind of censorship that must soon result in giving that group an absolute tyranny, enforced by fear and violent repression, over the whole society.

This tyranny may make sense to some Islamic imperialists, prone to use the threat of violence as their preferred weapon of mass intimidation. They aim to abuse the features of liberty (like legal due process) to subvert and destroy liberty itself. But unless the British courts mean to facilitate their aim of tyrannical domination, it makes no sense to give their strategy the semblance of lawful right.

Finally, the British prosecutor's contention that the tenets of religious faith are "not a matter of truth" is – ironically – good reason to broadly uphold the freedom of speech. It raises the question, "What is the test of truth?" In today's world, people blithely assume that the test of truth is a matter for empirical science. But though scientific experiment can tell us what happens – and even, by systematic observation, develop rules likely to tell us what will probably result from this or that sequence of events – it cannot tell us whether the result is good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust. For such judgments, we must take other premises for granted.

Adolf Hitler claimed that the ills of the German people could not be ended except by the extermination of the Jews. He and his Nazi buddies were determined to test that claim empirically. What decent person would assert that we cannot judge Hitler's claim to be false because the Nazis were not allowed to complete their experiment? Who fails to see that the preponderance of human experience confirms our common sense that such mass slaughter is an atrocious violation of the moral law, the sense of right and wrong that informs human conscience even when human beings set their will to act against it?

Based on this common sense, drawn from experience rather than experiment, it is possible to make moral judgments, and even judgments about the relative truth of this or that religion. For what are truthful religious tenets if not the epitome of our common sense of right and good, the sense that justifies, before action is taken, the conclusion that some actions are required, and others strictly forbidden? But if we forbid people to share their differing views of what is good, and true, and just, how shall we ever realize that we have some sense of these qualities in common? In pursuance of this goal, freedom of speech and debate, on every topic, serves the common good. Only one rule should govern it: the rule that condemns and seeks to punish those who make the first move from words to physical blows. Herein we recognize the real root and character of liberty, and the reason liberty is first and rightly thought of as self-government bound by right, not unbounded freedom.

To see more articles by Dr. Keyes, visit his blog at LoyalToLiberty.com and his commentary at WND.com and BarbWire.com.

© Alan Keyes

 

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Alan Keyes

Dr. Keyes holds the distinction of being the only person ever to run against Barack Obama in a truly contested election – one featuring authentic moral conservatism vs. progressive liberalism – when they challenged each other for the open U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 2004... (more)

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