An old rhyme used to go: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me.” Today, this old rhymester had it all wrong. The only things that can really harm us are “words”. Nothing “hurts”, we are told, more than words. “Hate-language” is now located at the heart of the world’s problems. We almost have to re-invent etiquette and manners; we must learn to speak ever so “politely”. The news is full of apologies for some “incorrect” words. Jobs and reputations are eliminated almost daily over complaints about “hate-language”.
Yet, at the same time, in our novels, literature, and films, the most awful words are regularly written or spoken. It is often impractical today to use what used to be called “dirty” or scatological words with any of their traditional effectiveness. Words beginning with “f…” and “s…” are so overused that they hardly refer to anything.
Modern legal and political thought, however, has given much attention to what is called “free” speech. Seen against a background of what is (wrongly) called “dogmatism”, free speech was a clarion call of modern times. Its “guarantee” is enshrined in the American and other legal systems.
The classical and Christian moralists paid much attention to outright lies, slander, calumny, even to “cussing”. A lie was knowingly to use one’s speech that did not conform to the truth of the situation. Slander was to say something false about another to hurt his reputation or well-being. Calumny meant to say something of another that was true but inappropriate and designed to harm. The Second Commandment told us not to take “the name of the Lord in vain”. If we took an oath to tell the truth, we were held to our word. If we took a vow to be faithful, it was presumed that we meant it, that other lives could be built on our keeping our promises.
A funny thing has happened in our universities. They were once thought to be bastions of truth that resulted from research, free inquiry, and rational speech. The major function of a university today often seems to be to prevent anyone from speaking freely there. Once we wanted to know what was said against a position. Now, in “safe places”, we protect souls who refuse to listen to what they do not like. The famous model debates at places like the Oxford Union, where wit, gentility, logic, and argument prevailed, seem to be relics of the past. Invited speakers are now met with yells, threats, and hostility.
In the Muslim world, now present among us, though its inner culture is barely known, blasphemy laws are often strictly, even brutally, enforced. In their own context, these laws are designed to protect custom and religious belief from being examined. Pope Benedict, in an academic lecture at Regensburg, discovered that even citing an emperor of several centuries ago could be seen today as blasphemy.
Moreover, a new twist comes into free speech issues. In the earlier days, free speech belonged to a person. Today, with what are called “identity” politics, my speech does not well up from the depths of my virtuous or corrupt soul. Rather it is an expression of the class, race, gender, party, or religion to which I belong. I do not speak my own mind. When I say something that some other identity group does not like, everyone associated with me is guilty and can be punished, shouted down, or otherwise intimidated.
The police are no longer enforcers of known laws, which are established and observed as a matter of reason and argument. The police are now themselves a class. Their main function is to keep apart clashing, but irreconcilable, groupings. If someone is invited to a university whom the more vocal do not like, the police have to deal with the shouting downs and violences that occur because someone was going to speak words which some campus groups did not want anyone to hear. Safe non-hearing places are now provided.
The list of things that cannot be spoken of in academia and often in the media grows ever longer. If we are not careful, we will end up talking only to ourselves. Not only do we not have anything to say to others, they have no intention of listening to anything but their own ideas. Everyone somehow ends up in closed groupings wherein they speak only their own language to individuals who already agree with them. Then, they often find out that they do not agree with the other members of their own protest group.
Many people have pointed out the irony that the beginning of the “free speech” movement in Berkeley has end with a “no free speech” logic some decades later. This result takes us back to the “sticks and stones can break my bones” issue. Words can harm us least when we are free to answer them with our own words. What is unique in today’s “hate speech” atmosphere is that no counter-words will be allowed to be spoken. If they are spoken, sticks, stones, and broken bones follow.
What we seem to have lost are what used to be called universities wherein logos—not emotion, identity, or ideology—ruled. Socially and politically, our universities seem closer to what were once called “one party” states than they are to what was once called a university wherein real diversities of view were allowed and encouraged to be expressed and considered with the desire to know the truth and its reasons. Such a goal is difficult enough when genuine free speech exists. It is impossible when non-free speech is a “right” and hate-language stifles any real thought about issues that divide and unite us.