Something curious has arisen in the recent past regarding this matter of the endless arguments without resolution that is a modern affliction. There are many occasions when I will disagree with someone who kindly informs me, “Well, you are entitled to your opinion,” or I will discuss with a third party a particular statement or position someone has that I find flawed, misguided or troubling, and that third party will respond, “Well, he has freedom of speech.”
It is curious because I never questioned or doubted the person’s right to his or her opinion or the right to express it. What I questioned was the accuracy, wisdom, cogency, veracity, sensibility, logic or plausibility of that assertion. The “right” to say something is a procedural matter that it wholly unrelated to the substance of what was said. So when and how did that become an appropriate rejoinder in a discussion of a substantive issue?
From one perspective, such a claim is intended to end the discussion. A mind having been made up and thus at present immovable, “he has a right to his opinion” is tantamount to saying “let’s move on.” So rather than further debate the substance, this plea is entered in order to allow the interlocutor to maintain his stance despite its senselessness, errors, illogicalities and untenability. It is still peculiar; given that in a free country people have the right to cling to and profess the most outlandish and erroneous ideas, that fact should go unstated.
Perhaps, though, that is why this unusual declaration has become so prevalent. The right to hold and express certain views is under assault from many quarters in society, particularly the political and religious left. A recent survey indicated how basic principles of free speech are unwelcome on American college campuses. Thus, “more than half of students (57 percent) think colleges and universities should be able to restrict student expression of political views that are hurtful or offensive to certain students… A majority of students (70 percent) think students should be excluded from extracurricular activities if they publicly express intolerant, hurtful, or offensive viewpoints.” That is ominous but explains the chilling atmosphere on many campuses and classrooms where some ideas are considered beyond the pale – including support for Israel.
It has become fairly common, even outside campus life, to be impolitely informed that certain ideas are unwelcome and may not be uttered. It often is related to a moral notion, especially a defense of a traditional viewpoint. It has happened to me, usually when people felt their avant-garde, “enlightened” views should be the only ones heard in the public domain. Some feminists have become notorious for this, as well as the advocates for same-sex practices. It never much mattered to me but I would hear from others, including rabbis, who said they agreed with me but could never articulate such views publicly. That’s a shame, because then the mob wins, and this is just one aspect of the cancel culture that has made social discourse so toxic. The right of freedom of speech is not much of a right if those who enjoy it are afraid to use it for appropriate reasons.
It’s an even bigger shame because, as has been well documented, those professing conservative viewpoints have been largely intimidated into silence. Just to give one example, there are thousands of work places where it is safe to express contempt for the President and unsafe to express any support for anything he has done. Even neutrality is considered repugnant. But extrapolate from there to places where you cannot express support for Israel, and from there to what has become a most widespread phenomenon: the sheer inability of people to discuss politics or religion without descending into vitriol at best and blows at worst. That is a sad commentary on society. I have heard that there are families where certain sensitive (but not personal or familial) topics cannot be raised at any gathering lest reasonable conversation be drowned out by the cries of the moralistic monoliths who can only tolerate their own opinions.
Words that incite violence or otherwise dangerous are already proscribed, and rightly so. I always laugh when the limits of free speech are described by some pundit as ending at the point of “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” Justice Holmes prohibited “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.” Obviously, if the theater is on fire, you are allowed to shout, and then get out.
It might well be that the faulty citation is quite revealing. The context was “causing a panic” and thereby endangering lives, and such speech should obviously be illegal. But among the unduly sensitive, or censorious, speech that induces “panic” has been transformed into any speech that causes discomfort, offense, pain, hurt or even disagreement with the views of me and my friends. There are naturally religious bans on lashon hara, ona’ah and the like, which are quite edifying, but secular limitations on such speech are hazardous to the survival of any free society even if they come from civilians and not from government.
It is understandable why discussions of religion and politics often bring out the worst in emotional people. Those two areas explore the best way to live, the values we should embrace, and how to implement those in the broader world. People’s opinions in these areas are often informed by their emotions and desires than by facts, texts, and traditions, and you can’t argue with people’s emotions. But these areas are not just the spice of life; they are literally life itself, and how to make the most of it. How pitiable that people can’t listen to and learn from each other and have their views shaped accordingly.
Whatever opinions you hold, we can put an end to this pointless verbal tic of acknowledging people’s “rights to free speech” as a conversation stopper. The correct response to that is: “Of course they do. I never questioned their rights. They even have the right to be wrong. They even have the right to possess morally, logically, and religiously indefensible positions – but at least they should admit that.”
That is because we also have the right to be thoughtful people who abandon our mistakes and are glad when they are pointed out. This is especially true in the subjects that are considered the most sensitive – because they are the ones that will influence our souls for good or ill and define our quest for spiritual and intellectual perfection.