Socrates is not remembered as that guy who, found guilty of corrupting the young minds of Athens, was denied an honorary diploma – but invited to come back to the agora to debate any time.
Galileo is not remembered as the man who claimed the Earth revolved around the sun and, for that sin, was banned from becoming pope.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wasn’t trolled on Twitter for writing One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich – he was exiled. And Lady Chatterley’s Lover wasn’t published instantly, in its entirety, in 1928, then given a lot of uncharitable reviews on Goodreads. Indeed, it wasn’t published unexpurgated in the United Kingdom until 1960.
In short, a little perspective suggests that recent reports of the death of free speech have been greatly exaggerated.
Yes, Brandeis University recently rescinded its offer of an honorary diploma for feminist and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, when some of her controversial statements about Islam (in 2007, for example, she said, “They’re not interested in peace. I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars”) were brought to the college’s attention.
Many students and faculty memberts at Brandeis objected to Ms. Ali’s being honoured there. But while the cancellation of her (symbolic) diploma is being bemoaned as an assault on free speech, the university also said that Ms. Ali “is welcome to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.” No hemlock was served.
Similarly, Mozilla’s newly appointed chief executive officer, Brendan Eich, bowed to pressure from employees, consumers and the company’s many open-source contributors and resigned last week – because, essentially, he’s the wrong pontiff for that outfit.
Mr. Eich donated money in support of a California ballot proposition denying gay couples the right to marry – a position he failed to clarify, and that’s not conducive to productivity in the milieu in which Mozilla operates.
Mr. Eich wasn’t in the mailroom. His job was to manage a crisis, should one occur (clearly, it did, and he didn’t) and to be the public face of Mozilla. As happened with Ms. Ali (tuition at tiny, private Brandeis college is almost $50,000 a year), the buyers spoke and the seller responded by ditching a liability and tailoring its brand to the consumer.
The free market triumphed and, oddly, this has sent the right into something resembling existential panic.
To hear various voices wail this week, you’d think everyone has a right to be heard at every university, and honorary degrees should be handed out like beer tickets at the doors of lecture halls.
I’m not sure they’ve thought things through. We’re going to need a lot more lecture halls – so, a massive investment in public education. (Private institutions have proven themselves to be cravenly motivated by a desire to keep customers.)
That consumers, without government interference – incentive, subsidy or legislation – should choose one product over another is apparently a travesty now: We should all buy every product and not discriminate based on our tastes or ideological leanings because that’s not fair.
Everyone should get every newspaper. No one will be able to get out their front door. Although even if they manage that task, the walk will be piled with magazines. To ensure the unbiased support for all publications (why should I, in Toronto, disadvantage a paper from Brandon because I can’t make those yard sales?), some sort of socialized subscription service must be implemented.
Even these corrections will still leave us with what many decry as the most diabolical enemy of free speech: people saying anything they want online. What’s to be done about all those cats looking at kings – some revealing themselves to be brilliant, audacious felines and thriving in the singular meritocracy that is Twitter, others simply wrong, stupid or mean?
The dystopian world of “political correctness,” of repressed expression and sexuality, not irrationally predicted in the sometimes silly 1980s, never materialized. We’re a gloriously loud, bawdy bunch these days. But a sleight of hand that equates being answered with being “silenced,” dissent with being “bullied,” allows old soldiers of that 1980s culture war to reenact battles and claim the victimhood they once dismissed as the left’s low moral ground.
Former Conservative adviser Tom Flanagan even, rather adorably, called his new book Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age because people had the audacity, and platform, to say, “You’re wrong,” when he questioned sentences for child pornography.
To be less than universally celebrated is to be censored. The ideology that lambasted the “nanny state” whines for a “wet nurse state” and what you smell from those babies is hardly books burning.