The Shotgun Blog
Monday, May 25, 2009
Jonathan Rauch assesses the state of free speech
The Economist's Democracy in America blog interviews Jonathan Rauch:
The Economist: Since your book "Kindly Inquisitors" came out, free speech has taken quite a few more knocks, culminating in a recent non-binding resolution from a UN body banning "defamation of religion". Have things gotten worse since 1995? And are free-speech advocates right to fight back by, for example, publishing cartoons of Muhammad in Danish newspapers?
Jonathan Rauch: Things are worse and better, depending where you look. Since K.I., free speech has learned to fight back against political correctness on university campuses. FIRE, for example, has made university administrators worry about getting sued or shamed if they cave in to repressive demands. That represents an important shift in the power equation.
On the other hand, campaigns by Islamic extremists to shut down full and frank discussion of religion seem to have made headway in Europe, or so Bruce Bawer says. I haven't yet read his forthcoming book on the subject, but I pay attention to Bruce on this issue, partly because he is openly gay and gay people are the canary in the mine shaft where civil liberties are concerned. First the gays, then...
Yes, I think free-speech advocates do need to fight back. I don't mean violently, of course. But freedom of expression and freedom of religion are the two great bulwarks of modern liberalism, and neither is self-enforcing. As we have learned in American universities, political correctness and other kinds of campaigns to muzzle dissent on grounds of sensitivity are really about power, not compassion, and the only thing power respects is power.
Like John Stuart Mill, the case Rauch makes for free speech against humanitarian, egalitarian, fundamentalist, and politically correct impulses is largely epistemological:
In a liberal society, knowledge is the rolling critical consensus of a decentralized community of checkers. That is so not by the power of law but by the deeper power of a common liberal morality...
Liberal systems, although far from perfect, have at least two great advantages: They can channel conflict rather than obliterate it, and they give a certain degree of protection from centrally administered abuse. The liberal intellectual system is no exception. It causes pain to people whose views are criticized, still more to those whose views fail to check out and so are rejected. But there are two important consolations. First, no one gets to run the system to his own advantage or stay in charge for long. Whatever you can do to me, I can do to you. Those who are criticized may give as good as they get. Second, the books are never closed, and the game is never over.
(h/t Andrew Sullivan)
"In a liberal society, knowledge is the rolling critical consensus of a decentralized community of checkers. That is so not by the power of law but by the deeper power of a common liberal morality..."
Great post, Kalim.
Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-05-25 2:07:47 PM
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