Recently at Oxford University, a debate planned in advance was cancelled after college authorities decided that it could not go ahead due to “security and welfare” concerns.
You might expect that the average Oxford student is likely to be intellectually robust enough not to be precipitated into a crisis of mental health over the mere presence on campus of a debate on a controversial subject. In order for a debate (in which two sides are presented) to be banned, you might suspect it would have to be on an unbelievably outrageous motion, such as, say, whether the holocaust was a hoax.
And yet the debate, organized by Oxford Students for Life (OSFL), was about whether Britain’s “abortion culture”—its high rates of abortion (second highest in Europe) and its relaxed attitude to the procedure—is harmful to British culture as a whole. To the credit of OSFL, who have a record of inviting some of Britain’s most articulate pro-choice activists to debate abortion, they invited Brendan O’Neill—a pugnacious left-wing libertarian commentator—to present the pro-choice case. Pitted against the polite, tweed-wearing pro-lifer Timothy Stanley—a journalist for the conservative publication The Telegraph—the combative O’Neill was almost certain to win.
This, however, was not good enough for a small group of students at Oxford who objected to the fact that the subject of abortion was even up for discussion at all. A protest group was set up on Facebook promising to “take along some non-destructive but oh so disruptive instruments to help demonstrate to the anti-choicers just what we think of their ‘debate.’” They were particularly outraged that OSFL—which has previously invited prominent female pro-choice activists to debate abortion—had this time invited two men.
Understandably, perhaps (but possibly unlawfully), the college that had been due to host the debate called it off, most likely because it did not want an angry mob of wild-eyed protestors loudly banging kitchen utensils on college premises where some 500 students and academics live, eat, study, and sleep. The story quickly hit the local news, and then the national news in England, was picked up by Buzzfeed, and then hit the international news—picked up by the Washington Post, the National Review and First Things. The banned speeches have also been published, and can be read here (pro-life) and here (pro-choice).
There are three major threats to a sound understanding of free speech in the West today. The first is the kind of authoritarian leftism displayed by the protestors at Oxford. As Brendan O’Neill explains:
If your go-to image of a student is someone who’s free-spirited and open-minded, who loves having a pop at orthodoxies, then you urgently need to update your mind’s picture bank. Students are now pretty much the opposite of that. It’s hard to think of any other section of society that has undergone as epic a transformation as students have … Where once students might have allowed their eyes and ears to be bombarded by everything from risqué political propaganda to raunchy rock, now they insulate themselves from anything that might dent their self-esteem and, crime of crimes, make them feel “uncomfortable.”
The threat that this atmosphere poses to free speech rights is obvious: It doesn’t believe that there should be any. Instead, the right to free speech should be replaced with “the right never to be challenged by disturbing ideas.” Why should we be afraid? Because, as O’Neill points out, in a few short years, students from elite universities will be running our countries, and “then it won’t only be those of us who occasionally have cause to visit a campus who have to suffer their dead dogmas.”
The second major threat to a sound understanding of free speech is the limitless expansion of the concept of “speech.” As Daniel McInerny argues, in his article “What do Catholics Believe about Free Speech?”:
Civil lawmakers must ... exercise wise political deliberation in limiting the right of free speech … Though the cultural terrain and debate over free speech is rather fluid, the West has for the most part adopted a civil-liberation approach to limitations on free speech. Pornography, for example, is tolerated in the West … because the West has a more libertarian view of the connection of free speech to the individual’s right to pursue his own conception of happiness … In the United States, to take just one instance, addiction to pornography has reached pandemic proportions. So while the U.S. approach to free speech has gained much in terms of peaceful coexistence, it has also lost much in terms of the moral formation of its citizens. Debates over just where to draw the line in limiting free speech will and must continue.
McInerny seems to have uncritically swallowed the claim that pornography should be construed as a form of speech, and therefore, if we want to have a discussion about what limits (if any) should be placed on pornography, by definition we need to have a discussion about “limiting free speech.”
But pornography is not speech. Pornography is pornography. It may include speech, but it is not credible to claim that pornography is “speech” in the same way that a speech is a speech, or in the same way that this article is speech. This is not to deny that action can symbolize and express ideas. But this is distinct from speech properly speaking.
If pornographers wish to make a point about sexual liberation, they could make the same point—express the same idea—in a society in which pornography was legally suppressed, by means of a speech, article, or poem. They would also, even in a society in which pornography was legally suppressed, be free to use reasoned speech to argue that existing restrictions on pornography should be overthrown (I am not arguing that pornography should in fact be banned, only pointing out that it is not speech).
Why is this important? Because if you accept the idea that everything can be a form of “speech,” then unless you think everything should be allowed in a free society—and no-one thinks that—you have already accepted, as a matter of principle, a vast panoply of restrictions on speech.
The third major threat to free speech is Christians.
In America, “No Platform!” incidents such as the one that occurred at Oxford are a dime-a-dozen, and mob-like attempts to shut down rational discussion are also just as likely to be perpetrated by Christian conservatives—especially Catholics—as they are by progressives and leftists. You are just as likely to come across Catholic students jangling their Rosary beads in faux-outrage at a Catholic university having invited a pro-abortion speaker (who may have been invited to speak on a completely unrelated topic), as you are to come across socialists or feminists banging saucepans.
The true Catholic spirit of dilectio veritatis is shown not in the Soviet-style attempt to safeguard students at Catholic universities from hearing any utterance that might contradict Catholic “values.” It is shown in the riotous orthodoxy of the medieval disputatio, which was willing to consider almost any question provided that a certain methodological ethic about how the question should be handled was observed. Read the Summa Theologiae, and you will see Thomas Aquinas beginning every article with an exhaustive list of objections. Catholic institutions need to offer students an education that taken as a whole has an orthodox Catholic character. But an orthodox education is different from an ideological one. As Ex Corde Ecclesiae notes, Catholic education should be “offered in a faith-filled context that forms men and women capable of rational critical judgment.” A Catholic university that pays insufficient attention to its orthodox character is not “faith-filled,” but a university that doesn’t form people “capable of rational critical judgment” is not a university. A critical approach to intellectual study is not in tension with the Catholic moral inheritance. It is part of it.
Very few Catholics are today willing to give a defense of the concept of free speech that makes sense. Instead, we complain when our speech is suppressed but secretly desire to suppress the speech of others. The few defenses of free speech offered by Catholics therefore end up being opportunistic and unconvincing. If Christian communities are to survive what Alasdair MacIntyre dubbed the “coming ages of barbarism and darkness,” we will need fewer opportunists and more people willing to give intellectually coherent defenses of genuinely Christian ideas about civil liberties.
As the Second Vatican Council teaches in its Declaration on Religious Freedom:
It is in accordance with their dignity as persons—that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility—that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth … They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom.
Because, as Centesimus Annus teaches, “the right to live in the truth of one’s faith” is the “source and synthesis of other human rights,” it is to the Dignitatis Humanae that we should look when thinking about free speech and civil liberties in general. By what means, if not speech, does man come to knowledge of the truth to which he is bound to adhere and in the discovery of which lies freedom (John 8:32)?
John Paul II rightly warned against “positivist” interpretations of the Church’s doctrine on religious liberty—positivist interpretations that, as I’ve pointed out before, form the reigning zeitgeist in American Catholicism. But we must defend true Catholic concepts of civil liberty both against their bowdlerization by neo-conservatives who seek to replace it with Lockean liberalism, and against the illiberal hordes.