If you were to ask me why I am proud to be an American it is because the United States Constitution takes a clear principled stand in favor of free speech as an absolute right. (It should be noted that the fact that I call myself an American should be understood merely as an expression of geography and the influence of an intellectual tradition and not as a pledge of allegiance or the recognition of the authority of the Federal Government.) While most civilized people pay lip-service to free speech, even in the West, there are few true believers. In fact, it is becoming popular to brazenly declare that free speech is a problem that needs to be reigned in.
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The reason why there is such a large gap between protestations of free speech and its practice is that free speech is one of those things that by its very nature demands extremes. Free speech is the mirror of being pregnant; you can't be a little bit for free speech, but this is because, unless you go all the way, you are not a supporter at all. The reason for this is that free speech is only meaningful if you are willing to defend the rights of your opponents. The only speech worth protecting is the speech that offends and is a threat to public order. What does it mean to defend inoffensive speech? Most claim they support free speech, but that is merely cover for the defense of their right to speech. When it comes to their opponents, they can always find some excuse to say that is is a threat. (This is very easy if you do not draw a line between physical and psychological harm as everything is psychologically harmful to someone. )
This brings me to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In reading his new book, Lessons in Leadership, containing thoughts on leadership based on the weekly Torah reading, I found a disturbing comment on free speech. In addressing the issue of cyberbullying and the unfortunate suicide of Hannah Smith, Sacks notes:
The story of Hannah Smith is a tragic reminder of how right the sages were to reject the idea that "words can never harm me," and insist to the contrary that evil speech kills. Free speech is not speech that costs nothing. It is speech that respects freedom and dignity of others. Forget this and free speech becomes very expensive indeed.
I actually agree with the first and third part of what Sacks says. I do believe in a concept of loshon harah, evil speech, and support the use of religious and social means to suppress it. Furthermore, as a free speech radical, I am very conscious of the incredible price of free speech. One of the benefits that J. S. Mill's On Liberty had on my political thinking was that it killed any naive thoughts that free speech would be anything other than radicals offending public sensibilities. The alternatives, though, are worse and, in the long run, society should emerge from the incredible damage done to it stronger than ever. Perhaps, I am reading too much into this, but free speech specifically has political connotations. Sacks certainly cannot play innocent here in a world in which even most people in the West are now supporting government regulation of speech to stop cyberbullying. In essence, Sacks, like most conservative opponents of liberty, makes the jump from saying that something is harmful in a very real sense to saying that government, with its monopoly on violence, should step in and stop this evil.