Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Is there still freedom after speech?

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A Cold War witticism had a dissenter in the East remarking that people in communist lands had freedom of speech just like those in the West. The only difference, he said, was that in the West there was freedom after speech. The speaker wasn't sent to the gulag.

We don't wind up in the gulag for dissenting from the received wisdom of the progressive left, but we can lose our reputations and jobs. The threat of such loss is real enough to make dissenters think twice about speaking at all. The diminution of freedom after speech tends to inhibit freedom of speech.

There are at least three sets of issues about which dissent is not allowed: the sexual revolution, climate change and honest talk about race. One of the major aims of the sexual revolution has been to morally legitimate homosexual conduct. From those purposes issue two corollary goals: gay marriage and adoption. Any public resistance to this agenda is met with ferocious retaliation by those in the commanding heights of our society — elite academia, the media, the professions, and, of course, organizations promoting the gay agenda. All the levers of intimidation are used to render traditional Christian, Jewish and Muslim teaching on these matters unfit for public expression.

For example, Chick-fil-A's CEO Dan Cathy was subject to such intimidation after saying that he personally supports "the biblical definition of marriage," and that Chick-fil-A's Winshape Foundation gave money to organizations that work against same-sex marriage. (Never mind that the CEOs of giant corporations such as Microsoft, Amazon and Costco have committed millions of dollars to organizations supporting it.) Mayors of several cities even threatened to prohibit Chick-fil-A restaurants from their bailiwicks. Not much freedom after speech.

Another example has to do with a sociologist, Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas, who had the temerity to publish research that indicated children of intact heterosexual marriages fare better in life than those in which one or both of the parents had been in homosexual relationships. Though the research was solid methodologically and humble in what it claimed, all hell broke loose in academia. His position as a professor came under threat and his personal reputation was vilified. He had violated a taboo with consequences almost as severe as those suffered by those hapless Israelites who disobediently touched the ark.

A certain kind of angry feminism was both the cause and effect of the sexual revolution. One sacred axiom of that feminism is that no man can talk — even hypothetically — about essential differences between men and women. (Women can do that, but only if they claim good characteristics for themselves.) Violating that axiom felled even the president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, after he reported that some research, which he did not endorse, indicated there may be differences in the aptitudes of women and men when it came to science and engineering. He touched the ark and had to grovel like a junior professor fighting for tenure. That finally didn't save him; he had to resign, and my guess is that he has never talked further about that subject.

Similar threats function to silence dissenters from the received wisdom on climate change and what we should do about it. The celebrated cases of suppression of dissent by the Climatic Research Unit of the University of Anglia are well known. Suppression of dissent on these issues is very common in academic circles.

When I organized a symposium at my college on global warming, its causes and what we should do about it, I asked a colleague to be on a panel to discuss those topics. But he refused, saying that appearing on a panel that even posed questions about the extent and causes of global warming would threaten his reputation as a scientist. Examples of this loss of freedom after speech could be multiplied.

Honest talk about race is another area in which freedom after speech is problematic. Witness the recent firing of a black commentator on ESPN who reported that some black folks think that the celebrated quarterback Robert GriffinIII is not black enough. That noxious opinion was not allowed to be the object of ongoing public discussion, as it should have been. The commentator had no freedom after speech, and neither did we.

We can do better; classical American liberalism was willing to engage opinions of all sorts, even those that seemed to come from left — or right — field. It was very hesitant to shut off debate by engaging in gross intimidation of unwelcome opinion. We should welcome a return to that spirit of open debate about the great issues that lie before us.

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