Free speech is on everyone’s mind right now. Last week, a maniac stormed a baseball practice and injured Representative Scalise and four others.
A bullet to the hip left Scalise in critical condition for several days. As of this writing, doctors upgraded Rep. Scalise’s condition to “fair”. He continues to show signs of improvement, which is great news. It would be a terrible tragedy if someone died from the incident.
Mere days after the shooting, right-wing investigative reporter Laura Loomer burst onto the stage of a production of Julius Caesar. She cried, “Do you want Trump to be assassinated?” She also reportedly shouted, “Stop the leftist violence!” Meanwhile, her supporters in the crowd yelled, “The blood of Scalise is on your hands!”
The controversial adaptation of the Shakespearean play takes place in the White House, with a Donald Trump lookalike portraying Julius Caesar. The play continued after police arrested Loomer.
Some conservatives blamed liberals for the Scalise shooting. According to them, liberals have fostered a violent tone since Trump’s inauguration. The image of Kathy Griffin posing with the blood-smeared head of Donald Trump lingers.
However, liberals fired back against the play’s interruption, saying that Trump supporters are acting like the “snowflakes” they despise.
My favorite comment on the incident comes from Professor Jonathan Turley:
However, for those of us who have actively criticized liberals who shutdown conservative speakers on campuses and other public events, this is an equally objectionable effort to stop free speech. Indeed, it seeks to prevent both artistic and political expression. (source)
His comment exposes the thorny problem surrounded by this controversy: How freely should we express ourselves?
Many say that words are not violent. Their argument is that anyone should be able to say anything without consequence. However, others contend that words can cause violence and there should be a level of censorship in today’s society. Either side, though, leads to serious problems.
If we take censorship too far, then a mere opinion can lead to grave consequences. A Catholic cannot publicly disagree with a Muslim or vice versa without being labeled “phobic” in some way. Businesses suffer as lawsuits are filed and local governments penalize the so-called offenders. We already see this today but it favors the left rather than punishing everyone indiscriminately.
On the other hand, in a society where no limits on speech exist, racism and sexism run rampant with government approval. In addition, other lives are at risk because the thought of violence against a certain group becomes normal.
Because of these risks, we need a real discussion about free speech, one where both sides are looked at objectively. However, before that can happen, we need two things.
First, we need to acknowledge that words matter.
In Matthew 5:21-22, Christ says,
“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. (RSV CE)
In the above verse, Christ tells us that murder and violence begin in words. Those words affect others. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be held accountable for them. As the poet John Donne once said, “No man is an island.” What we do and what we say has an effect on our neighbors, like ripples from a stone dropped into water.
There are many examples from history of words stoking the flames of revolution. A good example of the French Revolution would be Jean-Paul Marat’s radical Parisian newspaper, Friend of the People. For the American Revolution, we have Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. The invention of the printing press, in itself, helped bring about the Protestant Reformation.
Second, free speech requires a shared morality.
Years ago, most of America shared a morality shaped by Judeo-Christian values. People used the Bible to protest an obscene book or movie.
During that time, we all agreed that killing in most forms was wrong and everyone should practice modesty. However, we lost those values and we lost that ability to refer to a single text.
Now, in a post-modern society, relativism and subjectivism rule the day. It may not matter what the objective reality is (a certain person was born male). It matters what the subjective reality is (that person feels like a female). Truth depends on the person, not on an outside absolute. Relativism and subjectivism create an atmosphere of varying moralities based on how a person feels or what appears to be true to the individual.
In the above, I hinted at the transgender debate, so let’s take a closer look to that.
The objective reality is that a person is born either male or female, except in rare cases of hermaphroditism. On a genetic level, a person is either male or female. The shape of a person’s bone structure is determined by gender, which is how archaeologists can identify gender by just looking at a skeleton. These are objective facts.
However, some people feel like a gender other than what they are born with. One website claims 63 genders exist and none of them are based on objective facts but subjective feelings. There are people having life altering surgeries based on what they feel. Even worse, children are subjected to hormones to slow or stop puberty, even surgery, because eight-year-old Timmy woke up one morning feeling more like a Tammy.
If someone stands up to defend the objective truth, that a person is the gender with which he is born, then that person is shouted down. That person’s truth is not the truth of the transgendered. Any real discussion falters because personal feelings are hurt.
The current trend is to leave each other alone in our disparate truths. In the end, though, we end up stepping all over each other without regard for the other person. No one cares what the Christian says but the Christian must accept a reality he finds morally repellant. The end result is the moral chaos and lack of discussion we see today. It all stems from a lack of shared morality.
We need this discussion.
Without free speech, plays like Julius Caesar could not be written or performed. No one could express religious views. Society loses all ability to criticize their government, each other, and their very selves. Part of what makes us human is the ability to question and explore. We are deeply curious beings. Curiosity cannot thrive without inspection, critique, and exploration. Free speech allows for all three.
But in order to agree if free speech should have limits and what those limits exactly are, then we need to agree on a shared morality and that words do matter. Until we agree, society—and her individual members—suffer.
Follow Acacia St. Anthony on Twitter.