“Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.”
That quote from Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became one of America’s most powerful voices for freedom, highlights an important statement issued August 11 by a distinguished group of academic scholars, faith leaders, and commentators.
The Philadelphia Statement—so named in recognition of the historic, contentious debates in that city that ultimately produced the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution—is a call for renewed respect for the freedom of thought and expression that those documents bequeathed to our nation.
The statement—signed by, among others, such distinguished Catholics as recently retired Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput and Dr. Robert P. George of Princeton Law School—deplores the “Social media mobs, Cancel culture” and “Campus speech policing” that today are stifling such free expression.
“Blacklisting is spreading,” the statement laments. From corporations “enacting ‘hate speech’ policies to protect people from ‘wrong’ and ‘harmful’ content,” to colleges and universities “imposing speech regulations to make students ‘safe’” from ideas they don’t like, policies and regulations are being imposed that “foster conformism (‘groupthink’) and train us to respond to intellectual challenges with one or another form of censorship.”
“A society that lacks comity and allows people to be shamed or intimidated into self-censorship of their ideas and considered judgments will not survive for long,” the authors warn. In contrast, “dissenting and unpopular voices…have often guided our society toward more just positions.” For that very reason—fostering a more just social order—such voices, “be they of the left or the right—must be afforded the opportunity to be heard.”
Dr. George has issued several similar statements in recent years—including one as recently as July 15 of this year— with Cornel West, a philosophy and African-American studies professor at Harvard. In 2017 the two published a statement denouncing “campus illiberalism,” and supporting “truth seeking, democracy and freedom of thought and expression.” Moreover, while diametrically opposed on many issues—George identified by Inside Higher Ed as “one of the country’s most prominent conservative intellectuals,” West “a self-described ‘radical Democrat’”—they have modeled, in exchanges on various issues, how it is both possible and desirable to engage in spirited but respectful disagreement and debate.
Of particular import, in my view, is the Philadelphia Statement’s concern about “‘hate’ labeling.” While acknowledging that free speech is not an absolute, citing proscriptions on defamation, intimidation and threats, or incitement to violence, the authors deplore the effort to silence even mainstream groups and ideas by defaming them as “hate groups” or “hate speech.” They point out that imposing “‘hate speech’ exceptions to free speech principles is foreign to our free speech ideals, impossible to define, and often used by those wielding political, economic, or cultural power to silence dissenting voices.” Instead, they call for “openness, to allow ideas and beliefs the chance to be assessed on their own merits,” trusting “that bad ideas will be corrected not through censorship but through better arguments.”
Decades ago, when our pro-life youth group used to give talks in high schools and colleges on Long Island (we were even welcome in some public schools in those days, something not likely to happen today) we were challenged one day by a particularly aggressive high school student. As I was answering her arguments, she grew exasperated and finally blurted out “Oh! Are you Catholic?”
To their credit, the two teachers present immediately rebuked her. I could have let it go at that, dismissing her apparent appeal to anti-Catholic prejudice as not worthy of a response. Better, I thought, to refute what she was implying—and others in the class may have been thinking—that our pro-life convictions were rooted solely in Catholic religious beliefs. So I took the opportunity to answer her, pointing out that nothing we had said reflected a religious argument against abortion. We had detailed the development of the baby in utero, described what abortion does to that living baby, and talked about positive alternatives to the very real crises that can lead women to choose abortion.
Was that girl’s question an example of “hate speech”? Well, it was not for us to judge what was in her heart. Confident in our pro-life arguments, our purpose was to stick to the real issues—the facts about life before birth, the sanctity of human life, and its protection and nurturing—rather than be distracted by real or perceived “hate speech” from one who disagreed with us.
And that seems to be a weakness among today’s cancel culture—particularly among those on college campuses termed “snowflakes” by some for their insistence on being shielded from hearing any perspective different from their own. They seem unable or unwilling to develop or articulate positive arguments to support their own ideas, and so instead they simply resort to labeling any opposing views as “hate speech” and shutting them down.
Are they really against “hate speech,” or do they simply “hate speech” they disagree with?
That is not a formula for advancing true social justice. Rather, as the Philadelphia Statement makes clear, it is a formula for destruction of the social order.