A phrase that seems to be growing increasingly popular amongst the regressive left these days is ‘free speech has a cost’, usually followed by a horrendously bastardised version of Karl Popper’s thoughts on the paradox of tolerance, or a link to that bloody XKCD cartoon.
It’s a fascinating phrase, in that it’s obviously true that dissent is not traditionally well received. It is therefore a totally correct and deeply troubling phrase, in that the people most fond of using it seem to revel in the cost paid by those whose speech they disagree with.
Those fondest of the phrase seem to say it less as a fact, a mere notification that voicing an unpopular opinion may cause an individual social harm, but more as a promise that they’re looking forward to extracting their pound of flesh.
It’s not terribly surprising that there exists people who delight in the thought of their opponents suffering; man is a base animal, and an easily led one at that. It is intrinsic to our behaviour that we wish to see our own ‘team’ win, be that in sport, politics, or just in life generally. Furthermore, there are few easier ways to win than to ensure that the opposing team can’t actually play the game. What is alarming, however, is that these people seem to exist in far greater numbers now than they did 10 years ago, and existed then in far greater numbers than 10 years before that.
Amongst the Right, it is fairly standard to say that this trend is a product of the ever growing leaning within colleges and university staff towards left-wing ideologies, partly due to the influence of various Marxist-derived strains of thought since the mid-20th century. There is most likely some truth to this point, but that explanation tells us only that there was a push from the regressive left against enlightenment-era values, not why that push seems to have been so effective.
I would argue there’s a very simple reason why there appears to be a constant growth in the number of people who approach rights such as free speech in this fashion. Simply put, most people today don’t seem to understand the value of a right to free speech, or the value of most other foundational rights of democratic culture, and who can really blame them? If you ask people why these rights are important, why they’re considered foundational rights, most won’t be able to tell you. In fairness to them no one has ever really told them why these rights are that important, merely that they are that important. By not giving people a reason to see those rights as important, those of us interested in protecting those rights, on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, laid the soil for a generation that largely doesn’t understand or give a damn about rights like free speech. Hence why the Irish branch of the regressive left constantly conflates the right to free speech with the rights given under the 1st amendment to the US constitution, and is probably very happy to continue not understanding those rights, thank you very much.
Of course this is not purely the fault of the Left. The Right is in no way free of blame for this state of affairs. We effectively abandoned the pitch after the fall of the USSR, believing that with the fall of communism we no longer had to fight for capitalism, for liberty, or for any of the core values of Conservatism.
To be honest, the Right wrongly never gave that much importance to the cultural stuff. We allowed the regressive Left to conduct their long march through our institutions, traditional institutions which should have been exemplars of behaviour. Instead these cornerstones of our society failed in both thought and action, leaving people without their guidance. We refused for years (and many of us still refuse now) to realise that it is in the cultural arena, not in the economic system, where the fight has to happen and that culture is where the regressive Left have been fighting for years. We let the Left debase itself with fashionable nonsense. We let the regressive elements of the Left go unchallenged and attack the better parts of the Left and in turn we let them debase our society. Now that we are finally ready to actually challenge the regressive elements, we find that people no longer see the worth of the rights that underpinned our philosophies and systems.
We currently have a society made up of increasing numbers of people who possess an aversion to debate and dissent. This is not to say that the Right would necessarily be any better on the free speech front if it was the current culturally dominant force (although I strongly suspect it would be, and it could hardly be worse). Rather, it is to say the cultural dominance of the Left, to which the rapid societal changes of the past 25 years attest, has led to a situation in which those on the Left see no need or desire to engage with arguments against their views. Granted, they’ll allow some internal debate amongst people who all believe in fundamentally the same thing but differ slightly in ideas as to application and execution. The problem is that they’ve gone years without dealing with arguments truly opposed to their own. They think that the shoddy little works they’ve built over that time are worthwhile, that they’re sustainable, and that they’re on the right side of history. Thus, they see no reason to allow us engage now, as that might lead to some of those works being torn down.
Of course eventually they’ll have to engage, because the same thing that happened to the Right has happened to them. They’ve gone too far. They’ve forgotten that history does not have a right side, and that history does not end. They’ve forgotten that there is a constant war of ideas, and that the moment one stops fighting for what one believes in, that very same belief is already in decline. Eventually they’ll fall, most likely after having turned on each other, and a new culturally dominant force will rise. They should hope that when that time comes, we as a society have learnt something of the value of free speech. If we haven’t, or if we listen to our baser instincts of retribution, there may come a time when it’s their speech that has a cost.