John Whitehead's Commentary
Tolerance Cuts Both Ways: Freedom for the Speech We Hate
“Those who created this country chose freedom. With all of its dangers. And do you know the riskiest part of that choice they made? They actually believed that we could be trusted to make up our own minds in the whirl of differing ideas. That we could be trusted to remain free, even when there were very, very seductive voices - taking advantage of our freedom of speech - who were trying to turn this country into the kind of place where the government could tell you what you can and cannot do.”—Nat Hentoff
Tolerance cuts both ways.
This isn’t an easy pill to swallow, I know, but that’s the way free speech works, especially when it comes to tolerating speech that we hate.
The most controversial issues of our day—gay rights, abortion, race, religion, sexuality, political correctness, police brutality, et al.—have become battlegrounds for those who claim to believe in freedom of speech but only when it favors the views and positions they support.
“Free speech for me but not for thee” is how my good friend and free speech purist Nat Hentoff used to sum up this double standard.
This haphazard approach to the First Amendment has so muddied the waters that even First Amendment scholars are finding it hard to navigate at times.
It’s really not that hard.
The First Amendment affirms the right of the people to speak freely, worship freely, peaceably assemble, petition the government for a redress of grievances, and have a free press.
Nowhere in the First Amendment does it permit the government to limit speech in order to avoid causing offense, hurting someone’s feelings, safeguarding government secrets, protecting government officials, insulating judges from undue influence, discouraging bullying, penalizing hateful ideas and actions, eliminating terrorism, combatting prejudice and intolerance, and the like.
Unfortunately, in the war being waged between free speech purists who believe that free speech is an inalienable right and those who believe that free speech is a mere privilege to be granted only under certain conditions, the censors are winning.
We have entered into an egotistical, insulated, narcissistic era in which free speech has become regulated speech: to be celebrated when it reflects the values of the majority and tolerated otherwise, unless it moves so far beyond our political, religious and socio-economic comfort zones as to be rendered dangerous and unacceptable.
Indeed, President Trump—who has been accused of using his very public platform to belittle and mock his critics and enemies while attempting to muzzle those who might speak out against him—may be the perfect poster child for this age of intolerance.
Even so, Trump is not to blame for America’s growing intolerance for free speech.
The country started down that sorry road long ago.
Protest laws, free speech zones, bubble zones, trespass zones, anti-bullying legislation, zero tolerance policies, hate crime laws and a host of other legalistic maladies dreamed up by politicians and prosecutors (and championed by those who want to suppress speech with which they might disagree) have conspired to corrode our core freedoms, purportedly for our own good.
On paper—at least according to the U.S. Constitution—we are technically free to speak.
In reality, however, we are only as free to speak as a government official—or corporate entities such as Facebook, Google or YouTube—may allow.
Emboldened by phrases such as “hate crimes,” “bullying,” “extremism” and “microaggressions,” the nation has been whittling away at free speech, confining it to carefully constructed “free speech zones,” criminalizing it when it skates too close to challenging the status quo, shaming it when it butts up against politically correct ideals, and muzzling it when it appears dangerous.
Free speech is no longer free.
The U.S. Supreme Court has long been the referee in the tug-of-war over the nation’s tolerance for free speech and other expressive activities protected by the First Amendment. Yet the Supreme Court’s role as arbiter of justice in these disputes is undergoing a sea change. Except in cases where it has no vested interest, the Court has begun to advocate for the government’s outsized interests, ruling in favor of the government in matters of war, national security, commerce and speech.
When asked to choose between the rule of law and government supremacy, the Supreme Court tends to side with the government.
If we no longer have the right to tell a Census Worker to get off our property, if we no longer have the right to tell a police officer to get a search warrant before they dare to walk through our door, if we no longer have the right to stand in front of the Supreme Court wearing a protest sign or approach an elected representative to share our views, if we no longer have the right to voice our opinions in public—no matter how misogynistic, hateful, prejudiced, intolerant, misguided or politically incorrect they might be—then we do not have free speech.
What we have instead is regulated, controlled speech, and that’s a whole other ballgame.
Just as surveillance has been shown to “stifle and smother dissent, keeping a populace cowed by fear,” government censorship gives rise to self-censorship, breeds compliance, makes independent thought all but impossible, and ultimately foments a seething discontent that has no outlet but violence.
The First Amendment is a steam valve. It allows people to speak their minds, air their grievances and contribute to a larger dialogue that hopefully results in a more just world.
When there is no steam valve—when there is no one to hear what the people have to say—frustration builds, anger grows and people become more volatile and desperate to force a conversation. By bottling up dissent, we have created a pressure cooker of stifled misery and discontent that is now bubbling over and fomenting even more hate, distrust and paranoia among portions of the populace.
Silencing unpopular viewpoints with which the majority might disagree—whether it’s by shouting them down, censoring them, muzzling them, or criminalizing them—only empowers the controllers of the Deep State.
Consider some of the kinds of speech being targeted for censorship or outright elimination.
Offensive, politically incorrect and “unsafe” speech: Disguised as tolerance, civility and love, political correctness has resulted in the chilling of free speech and the demonizing of viewpoints that run counter to the cultural elite. Consequently, college campuses have become hotbeds of student-led censorship, trigger warnings, microaggressions, and “red light” speech policies targeting anything that might cause someone to feel uncomfortable, unsafe or offended.
Bullying, intimidating speech: Warning that “school bullies become tomorrow’s hate crimes defendants,” the Justice Department has led the way in urging schools to curtail bullying, going so far as to classify “teasing” as a form of “bullying,” and “rude” or “hurtful” “text messages” as “cyberbullying.”
Hateful speech: Hate speech—speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as gender, ethnic origin, religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation—is the primary candidate for online censorship. Corporate internet giants Google, Twitter and Facebook are in the process of determining what kinds of speech will be permitted online and what will be deleted.
Dangerous, anti-government speech: As part of its ongoing war on “extremism,” the government partnered with the tech industry to establish a task force to counter online “propaganda” by terrorists hoping to recruit support or plan attacks (the program started under President Obama). In this way, anyone who criticizes the government online can be considered an extremist and will have their content reported to government agencies for further investigation or deleted.
The upshot of all of this editing, parsing, banning and silencing is the emergence of a new language, what George Orwell referred to as Newspeak, which places the power to control language in the hands of the totalitarian state.
Under such a system, language becomes a weapon to change the way people think by changing the words they use.
The end result is control.
In totalitarian regimes—a.k.a. police states—where conformity and compliance are enforced at the end of a loaded gun, the government dictates what words can and cannot be used.
In countries where the police state hides behind a benevolent mask and disguises itself as tolerance, the citizens censor themselves, policing their words and thoughts to conform to the dictates of the mass mind lest they find themselves ostracized or placed under surveillance.
Even when the motives behind this rigidly calibrated reorientation of societal language appear well-intentioned—discouraging racism, condemning violence, denouncing discrimination and hatred—inevitably, the end result is the same: intolerance, indoctrination and infantilism.
It’s political correctness disguised as tolerance, civility and love, but what it really amounts to is the chilling of free speech and the demonizing of viewpoints that run counter to the cultural elite.
The police state could not ask for a better citizenry than one that carries out its own censorship, spying and policing.
This is how you turn a nation of free people into extensions of the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent police state, and in the process turn a citizenry against each other.
Indeed, the U.S. government has become particularly intolerant of speech that challenges the government’s power, reveals the government’s corruption, exposes the government’s lies, and encourages the citizenry to push back against the government’s many injustices. Indeed, there is a long and growing list of the kinds of speech that the government considers dangerous enough to red flag and subject to censorship, surveillance, investigation and prosecution: hate speech, bullying speech, intolerant speech, conspiratorial speech, treasonous speech, threatening speech, incendiary speech, inflammatory speech, radical speech, anti-government speech, right-wing speech, extremist speech, etc.
To emphasize: the powers-that-be understand that if the government can control speech, it controls thought and, in turn, it can control the minds of the citizenry.
In fact, some of this past century’s greatest dystopian authors warned of this very danger.
In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, reading is banned and books are burned in order to suppress dissenting ideas, while televised entertainment is used to anesthetize the populace and render them easily pacified, distracted and controlled.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, serious literature, scientific thinking and experimentation are banned as subversive, while critical thinking is discouraged through the use of conditioning, social taboos and inferior education. Likewise, expressions of individuality, independence and morality are viewed as vulgar and abnormal.
In George Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother does away with all undesirable and unnecessary words and meanings, even going so far as to routinely rewrite history and punish “thoughtcrimes.”
And in almost every episode of Twilight Zone, Rod Serling urged viewers to unlock their minds and free themselves of prejudice, hate, violence and fear. “We’re developing a new citizenry,” Serling declared. “One that will be very selective about cereals and automobiles, but won’t be able to think.”
The problem as I see it is that we’ve lost faith in the average citizen to do the right thing. We’ve allowed ourselves to be persuaded that we need someone else to think and speak for us. And we’ve allowed ourselves to become so timid in the face of offensive words and ideas that we’ve bought into the idea that we need the government to shield us from that which is ugly or upsetting or mean.
The result is a society in which we’ve stopped debating among ourselves, stopped thinking for ourselves, and stopped believing that we can fix our own problems and resolve our own differences.
In short, we have reduced ourselves to a largely silent, passive, polarized populace incapable of working through our own problems and reliant on the government to protect us from our fears.
In this way, we have become our worst enemy.
As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once warned, a silent, inert citizenry is the greatest menace to freedom.
Brandeis provided a well-reasoned argument against government censorship in his concurring opinion in Whitney v. California (1927). It’s not a lengthy read, but here it is boiled down to ten basic truths:
1. The purpose of government is to make men free to develop their faculties, i.e., THINK. 2. The freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are essential to the discovery and spread of political truth. 3. Without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile. 4. The greatest menace to freedom is a silent people. 5. Public discussion is a political duty, and should be a fundamental principle of the American government. 6. Order cannot be secured through censorship. 7. Fear breeds repression; repression breeds hate; and hate menaces stable government. 8. The power of reason as applied through public discussion is always superior to silence coerced by law. 9. Free speech and assembly were guaranteed in order to guard against the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities. 10. To justify suppression of free speech, there must be reasonable ground (a clear and present danger) to believe that the danger apprehended is imminent, and that the evil to be prevented is a serious one.
Perhaps the most important point that Brandeis made is that freedom requires courage.
“Those who won our independence by revolution were not cowards,” Brandeis wrote. “They did not fear political change. They did not exalt order at the cost of liberty.” Rather, they were “courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government.”
In other words, the founders did not fear the power of speech.
Rather, they embraced it, knowing all too well that a nation without a hearty tolerance for free speech, no matter how provocative, insensitive or dangerous, will be easy prey for a police state where only government speech is allowed.
What the police state wants is a nation of sheep that will docilely march in lockstep with its dictates. What early Americans envisioned was a nation of individualists who knew exactly when to tell the government to take a hike.
“If the freedom of speech be taken away,” warned George Washington, “then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
Either “we the people” believe in free speech or we don’t.
Either we live in a constitutional republic or a police state.
Never forget that we have rights.
As Justice William O. Douglas advised in his dissent in Colten v. Kentucky, “we need not stay docile and quiet” in the face of authority.
The Constitution does not require Americans to be servile or even civil to government officials. Neither does the Constitution require obedience (although it does insist on nonviolence).
Then again, if we just cower before government agents and meekly obey, we may find ourselves following in the footsteps of those nations that eventually fell to tyranny.
The alternative involves standing up and speaking truth to power.
Jesus Christ walked that road. So did Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and countless other freedom fighters whose actions changed the course of history.
Indeed, had Christ merely complied with the Roman police state, there would have been no crucifixion and no Christian religion.
Had Gandhi meekly fallen in line with the British Empire’s dictates, the Indian people would never have won their independence.
Had Martin Luther King Jr. obeyed the laws of his day, there would have been no civil rights movement.
And if the founding fathers had marched in lockstep with royal decrees, there would have been no American Revolution.
So where do we go from here?
If Americans don’t learn how to get along—at the very least, agreeing to disagree and respecting each other’s right to subscribe to beliefs and opinions that may be offensive, hateful, intolerant or merely different—then we’re going to soon find that we have no rights whatsoever (to speak, assemble, agree, disagree, protest, opt in, opt out, or forge our own paths as individuals).
The government will lock down the nation at the slightest provocation.
It is ready, willing and able to impose martial law within 24 hours.
Indeed, the government has been anticipating and preparing for civil unrest for years now, as evidenced by the build-up of guns and tanks and militarized police and military training drills and threat assessments and extremism reports and surveillance systems and private prisons and Pentagon training videos predicting the need to impose martial law by 2030.
Trust me: when the police state cracks down, it will not discriminate.
We’ll all be muzzled together.
We’ll all be jailed together.
We’ll all be viewed as a collective enemy to be catalogued, conquered and caged.
Indeed, a recent survey concluded that a large bipartisan majority of the American public already recognizes the dangers posed by a government that is not only tracking its citizens but is also being controlled by a “Deep State” of unelected government officials.
Thus, the last thing we need to do is play into the government’s hands by turning on one another, turning in one another, and giving the government’s standing army an excuse to take over.
So let’s start with a little more patience, a lot more tolerance and a civics lesson on the First Amendment.
What this means is opening the door to more speech not less, even if that speech is offensive to some.
It’s time to start thinking for ourselves again.
It’s time to start talking to each other, listening more and shouting less.
Most of all, as I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, it’s time to make the government hear us—see us—and heed us.
This is the ultimate power of free speech.