Opposing “hate speech” or just hating speech?

“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.

Amid polarized discourse, we need Catholic voices of reason

To characterize today’s public discourse as lacking in civility is, to say the least, a monumental understatement. While discussions involving politics, culture, religion have always been contentious, today such discussion has degenerated to a frightening level of anger, hatred, and intolerance. Those who hold differing opinions are not just to be disagreed with; they are to be vilified, slandered—and ultimately silenced! Across the broad scope of our public discourse—among politicians, media outlets, activist groups, on social media, and now in our streets—there runs the arrogant conceit that no ideas different from one’s own are even worth listening to; and no expression of such ideas is to be tolerated.

This is the very antithesis of what public discourse should and must be in a pluralistic, free society. We cannot begin to address our seemingly intractable problems if we cannot even engage in civil discussion about their possible causes and solutions.

From a Catholic standpoint, of course, this breakdown in civility is deplorable not only from a practical, but also from a moral perspective. For not only does it limit our ability to freely consider all possible solutions to matters of human suffering and injustice; it also indulges an extreme judgmentalism that dehumanizes, even demonizes, anyone who dares to hold, let alone express, an opinion different from our own.  

As one who has spent the last quarter-century offering commentary from a Catholic perspective, I find this terribly disheartening. While I take a back seat to no one in stating my beliefs forcefully, I have always tried to do so respectfully, persuasively—anxious to hear and respond to opposing views, not shut them down.

I learned to do this years ago when I first became active in the pro-life movement. Filled with the fervor and idealism of youth—and not a little arrogance—I was convinced that I was right, and couldn’t wait to put our opponents in their place. Veteran pro-lifers taught me that it is not enough to win arguments—that our goal is to change minds and hearts, and that is seldom done by insulting others, demeaning their views, or silencing them.

Better, I learned, if we want a fair hearing from those who disagree, to give them a fair hearing as well, and to respond effectively to their arguments if we hope to change their minds.  

I have always found, whatever the issue, that having my views challenged helped me to strengthen my arguments—or, on occasion, to find merit in a point made by a critic and thereby modify my own thinking, or at least gain a greater understanding of the perspectives and motivations of those who disagree with me.

And that is a critical point for those who, concerned with Catholic social teaching, hone in on one particular policy approach to a problem, and dismiss all who disagree as uncaring about the issue at hand—be it poverty, health care, the environment, or criminal justice, to name a few. This goes against the clear teaching of Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

That document states that, while one person’s “Christian vision will suggest a certain solution in some given situation,” it “happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that some of the faithful, with no less sincerity, will see the problem quite differently”; and that “in those cases no one is permitted to identify the authority of the Church exclusively with his own opinion.” Rather, Catholics in such instances should “try to guide each other by sincere dialogue in a spirit of mutual charity and with anxious interest above all in the common good.”

That is sage advice for everyone, not just Catholics, in our dangerously polarized current environment. It is what I will try to do with this blog site, as I tried to do in my years as editor of The Long Island Catholic: articulate and defend the teachings of the Church, through my own voice or, when warranted, by inviting the contributions of those more expert than myself; offer my own views, informed by Catholic moral and social teachings, on those matters that avail themselves of differing prudential judgments; and, in those cases, welcome the differing prudential judgments of others and engage them in discussion—always with a determination to remain civil, respectful, and non-judgmental, as truly befits a Catholic exchange of ideas.

I may also eventually try expand this site to offer coverage of hard news of interest to Catholics and the Church, particularly here on Long Island; news about critical issues and public policies, to be sure, but also, as we used to do with The Long Island Catholic newspaper, news about events and activities in our Catholic communities—our parishes, schools, diocesan agencies, Catholic lay organizations. Perhaps we can look forward to including audio and visual features, even a regular podcast. Time, and level of interest, will determine whether such expansion can happen.

For now, I look forward to rejoining the local conversation about matters impacting our Church and our world. I hope you will enjoy visiting this site, not only to read what I have to say, but to share your own responses and read those of others; and I hope you will spread the word, by sharing this post and future posts through your email, Facebook and other social media contacts.   

I remain convinced, especially in these terribly troubled times, that the teachings of our Catholic Church hold true and lasting answers to so many of the crises, moral and social, that afflict our culture. So let’s talk about those teachings and together, in our own small way, work to spread them, to offer them to a world that so desperately needs them, and to explore how they best apply to the critical issues of our time.

Together, let us “read the signs of the times,” as Vatican II called us to do, “interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.”

Please, let me hear your thoughts.