Monday, November 29, 2010

Atheist BULLboard: Free Speech?

In a sophomoric attempt to be provocative, and proving once again that a fool and his money are soon parted, something called American Atheists spent 20 large to put up the following billboard near the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey:

One of the questions before the house is: are these people champions of free speech?  Indeed, is this a legitimate use of the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment?  Some brief observations:

-- Error does not have a right to be heard. Persons who promulgate errors do not have a right for their errors to be heard. A right of one person to be heard necessarily entails an obligation on the part of the rest of us to listen. Who wants to be forced to listen?

-- If you take the position that the public airing of errors ought to be tolerated because "who is to decide what is true and what is false?", then aren't you really saying that truth is unknowable? If you are Catholic and hold this view, how do you square it with your faith?

-- The idea that there is some benefit to the publication of error deserves more careful scrutiny than it is given. There is no basis to assume that an error will always be recognized as such once it sees the light of day, or that its folly will be obvious to everyone: its folly is clearly not seen by some, or else there would be no one who would want to preach it. True, an error publicly displayed and publicly contradicted is better than a public error that goes unchallenged; but better than either is an error that is not made public in the first place. St. John Chrysostom certainly thought so: he went so far as to say that heretics ought to be smitten across the face, and made to fear the consequences of declaring their false doctrines in public.

-- There is such a thing as hell.  How many people's journey there began because, in the name of tolerance, they were exposed to pernicious ideas?  Could we tolerate the preaching of errors -- and blasphemous ones at that -- if we took seriously the existence of hell, and the irremediable evil of damnation?  If we stopped to imagine the horror of a soul's first seconds in hell, and its realization that there is no escape, and no reprieve for all eternity -- could we bear the thought of even one person's eternal ruin?

Forty years ago, William F. Buckley, Jr. gave an interview to Playboy magazine which was later published in his excellent anthology Inveighing We Will Go.  Some of his thoughts from this interview are pertinent:
Society has three sanctions available for dealing with dissenters of this kind [Black Panthers, the KKK].  There is the whole family of social sanctions; if they don't work, we then have legal sanctions; if the legal sanctions don't work, we are forced to use military sanctions.  As an example of the social sanctions, I give you what has happened to Gerald L. K. Smith, the fierce anti-Semite.  Would Smith be invited to join the sponsoring group of the Lincoln Center?  If he gave a $1,000 contribution to the President's Club, would he be admitted as a member?  No.  Gerald L. K. Smith has been effectively isolated in America, and I'm glad that he has been.  After such an experience as we have seen in the twentieth century of what happens -- or what can happen -- when people call for genocidal persecutions of other people, we have got to use whatever is the minimal resource available to society to keep that sort of thing from growing....I would like to see people like Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver [Black Panthers and convicted felons] treated at least as badly as Gerald L. K. Smith has been.  But no: they get applauded, they get invited to college campuses, they get listened to attentively on radio and on television -- they are invited to Leonard Bernstein's salons -- all of which makes rather glamorous a position that, in my judgment, ought to be execrated.
...For as long as that kind of thing happens, you encourage people to consider as tenable a position that in my judgment ought to be universally rejected as untenable.  The whole idea of civilization is little by little to discard certain points of view as uncivilized; it is impossible to discover truths without discovering their opposites are error.  In a John Stuart Mill-type society -- in which any view, for so long as it is held by so much as a single person, is considered as not yet confuted -- you have total intellectual and social anarchy. 
At this point, Playboy asks Buckley if the ventilation of these uncivilized points of view might not serve the cause of exposing their untenability and discrediting their adherents.  Buckley is quick to point out the disparity between the abstract appeal of an argument and its real-life application: 
I acknowledge the abstract appeal of the argument, but I remind you that it can be used as an argument for evangelizing people in Nazism, racism or cannibalism, in order to fortify one's opposition to such doctrines.  The trouble is that false doctrines do appeal to people.  In my judgment, it would be a better world where nobody advocated tyranny; better than a world in which tyranny is advocated as an academic exercise intended to fortify the heroic little antibodies to tyranny.
Playboy asks: what is the harm in allowing a doctrine to be preached whose evils are apparent?  Buckley points out the road that we set ourselves on once we start tolerating the promulgation of error:
What is apparent to one man is not necessarily apparent to the majority.  Hitler came to power democratically.  It's a nineteenth-century myth to confide totally in the notion that the people won't be attracted to the wrong guy.  George Wallace [the segregationist 45th governor of Alabama] not Nixon or Humphrey, got the highest TV ratings.  Take, once more, the Panthers.  There are, I am sure, hundreds of thousands of Americans who would like to hear a speech by Eldridge Cleaver.  One reason they would like to do so is the excitement.  Another is that they like to show off.  People like to show their audacity, their cavalier toleration of iconoclasm....I contend that it is a responsibility of the intellectual community to anticipate Dachau rather than to deplore it.  The primary responsibility of people who fancy themselves morally sophisticated is to do what they can to exhibit their impatience with those who are prepared to welcome the assassination of Bobby Kennedy because that meant one less pig.  Their failure to do that is, in my judgment, a sign of moral disintegration.  If you have moral disintegration, you don't have left a case against Dachau.  If you don't have that, what do you have?  Make love not war?  Why?
Why indeed?  The question whether, in the name of free speech, we really owe dissenters like American Atheists a public forum is one that deserves, not a knee-jerk reaction, but serious consideration. 


  1. Very good points. At some level, maybe it will force Christians to defend their culture and their faith in the midst of an over-powering secular onslaught. Christmas is a huge part of Christian culture, and we've let it slip into secular consumerism. I'd like to see some more people fight for their culture and fight for the authentic messages of Christmas. Maybe this will wake them up?.... Trying to find something good in this...

  2. Wish I could bring myself to be optimistic about it, Sam...but we have been submitting silently to one public outrage after another for many, many years now. Nothing has yet roused us from our torpor. In fact, too many of us are out there coming up with all sorts of excuses for inaction on the grounds that the bad guys will win if we act. That has proven to be a recipe for impotence and defeat.