Among all the tweets on the subject of the March for Life which took place across the US last weekend, with a handful of carefully-selected Parkland schoolkids headlining the event, this one caught my eye:
While utterly nonsensical, one thing is true about this march: this generation will be voting soon and they are driven by an ideological determination to cure the ills of society through any means necessary and they do not respect the concept of inherent rights.
— Chad Felix Greene (@chadfelixg) March 24, 2018
I got exactly the same feeling a few days before when I heard that some Scottish imbecile going by the name of Count Dankula had been found guilty of hate crimes for teaching his dog to do a Nazi salute and uploading a video of the same. He’ll be sentenced in April, and will probably serve time in prison.
Although a number of people spoke out in defence of Mark Meechan’s (his real name) right to free speech, most remained silent. Disappointingly, several prominent people came out and said that folk should be banned by the government from saying certain things, or that speech should be restricted in various ways (this radio conversation between James Delingpole and James Whale is illuminating).
Now I have run the topic of free speech and “hate speech” restrictions past various people over the past couple of years, and have found that almost all believe the government should prosecute those who say things which are “obviously racist”. Most have been middle-class and middle-aged or younger, and I’ve found the women are unanimous in their views that speech should not be wholly free and expressing certain views should be punished. A few men thought speech should be absolutely free, but not many.
I believe the problem is most people don’t realise how we got to here from there. I think a lot of people reckon a few blokes sat down and made arbitrary decisions about how society should be run, and that was that (actually, that’s what the Founding Fathers did, more or less). They then, with all the hubris which modern folk seem to have in abundance, declare these decisions “outdated”. One phrase that comes up a lot when I talk to others about free speech is that “times change”. Which they do, but alas human nature doesn’t.
What they don’t understand is that society evolved to where it is now only after centuries of painful, bloody, and brutal lessons were learned, over and over, the hard way. The Founding Fathers, possessing between them more wisdom than an entire generation of modern politicians, understood this all too well and captured those lessons learned in the Constitution (and its amendments) so the citizens of their new republic didn’t have to go through the pain their forebears did.
Somewhere back in the midst of time two men trying to hack each other to death using swords decided between them there is probably a better method of solving whatever disagreement they had, and politics was born. As they say, politics is war by any other means. Later, someone got the bright idea of allowing certain people to have a say in how they were governed having worked out this causes a lot less bloodshed and suffering. Around the same time, people realised that putting constraints on what rulers may do to their people works out better for everyone in the long run. Later still, people realised that free speech was a good thing and demanded it; they had seen first-hand the inevitable results of a government which decides who says what, and they weren’t pretty. Ordinary folk knew the ruling classes didn’t want the masses having free speech, and understood why. This was as obvious to them as the sun in the sky. Far from being a lofty ideal, it was a freedom they wanted and didn’t want to lose. They knew if they did, things would get a lot tougher down the road.
Those painful lessons of the past appear to have been lost, and now – if I look around me – few understand why we should have freedom of speech. They think rights are something akin to a corporate policy, dreamed up last week in a workshop by some dimwit in HR and signed off by a CEO who will quit next month. Now I don’t believe rights exist in a vacuum, they are a product of the society which adopts them, and they can be changed or removed by that same society as they please. But any society that chooses to do so would do well to look at the reasons why these rights exist in the first place, and consider the worst that could happen once they’re gone.
People who today believe the government should ban “racist speech” don’t seem to have considered how simple it would be for a future government to widen that definition, and that future governments may not be so benign. After all, it’s only a matter of getting a big enough show of hands to get elected and then quietly update a document or two. There’s no need for them to breach any principle, or make a step-change in how we are governed; that ship sailed a long time ago. They don’t even need to consult with anyone, once they’re in power. It’s merely a matter of administration, rather like increasing the overseas aid budget, or changing the criteria for obtaining a shotgun licence.
There was a time when everyone knew the importance of the right to free speech, and were taught it in school. That time now seems to have passed. I believe it will return, but only once people have found out the hard way, and re-learned the lessons they should never have allowed themselves to forget in the first place. That might be a long time in the future, with much pain and suffering in the meantime.