John Whitehead's Commentary
Tolerance Cuts Both Ways: Freedom for the Speech We Hate [SHORT]
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.
Free speech is no longer free.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.