“Of course, you’re free to speak, but you aren’t free to offend the feelings or sensitivities of others.” It’s like saying, “Think and say whatever you want, but you aren’t permitted to disagree with me.”
This relatively new form of “double speak” is enforced in those very lands where freedom of speech was fought for almost more than anything else. What was once considered one of the foundational freedoms of western society is now being tossed out the window.
But what else could “free speech” mean except the freedom to say things that could be offensive to someone else? Naturally, it has always been understood in places like the United States and other free societies to exclude slander, deceit, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater or “Hijack” at an airport or on an airplane. But “free speech” guaranteed the freedom to speak against the ideas and values of others without legal consequences.
This included speaking against the doctrines, principles, or tenets of other people’s religions, politics, ideology, or any other system of ideas in the marketplace. This was in effect in America since its beginning and was built into the Bill of Rights by our Founding Fathers as a right not to be infringed. It was one of the basic liberties for which they were willing to fight and die. And they did.
Now take a look at the situation in our country as well as some others. “Offensive” speech is increasingly forbidden. And it should be. But the question is, How is that defined? We aren’t even sure who defines it. This “forbidden speech” is true broadly in daily life, but particularly in our universities, where the freedom to experiment, inquire, and say what is on one’s conscience is supposed to reign supreme. But administrators, professors, and even students protest angrily when someone’s speech hurts the feelings of others. And if deemed by the current thought-police as “hate speech,” the academic career of a professor is automatically in jeopardy, and in the case of a student there is a clear danger of their being disciplined or expelled.
Many of us remember a time when even the hint of repression, either verbally or in writing, was met with instant condemnation—by virtually everyone. Now, if someone claims offense on any level, or even if there is a potential for offense, woe to that poor wretch who does the offending.
This change first came to my attention some twenty-five years ago when a noted scholar appeared on the campus of an Ivy League university to give a lecture on intelligence, to be sure a topic guaranteed to offend someone. But it was thought in those days that if a crackpot theory were presented publicly it could be refuted by debate and peer review. I was surprised to read that the lecture never took place because the students shouted him down, and out the door. So much for academic freedom. It turned out not to be merely an anomaly, but rather the harbinger of things to come.
A few years later, a professor friend of mine reported that in his own California university two male students were in the book store conversing with each other. A female student in the next aisle of the store overheard one of them joke with the other, “Well, you know how women are.” She immediately reported them to some student tribunal where they were rebuked and sentenced to “sensitivity training.” Today, such things seem routine as more schools draw up lists of forbidden words and topics.
I can’t help but think that the way we got ourselves into this mess is that freedom itself as a fundamental value has been lost. We seem to have traded it for security and comfort. When do we ever hear things like Patrick Henry’s, “Give me liberty or give me death”—one of the mottos of the American Revolution? A passion—even obsession—for freedom has always been one of those indispensable marks of American uniqueness.
And there seems to be an intrinsic connection between a passion for free speech and a passion for truth, also seemingly a vanishing commodity in our culture. There was a day when if we believed something to be true, we demanded the freedom to express it. Now, whether true or not, if a statement is offensive or politically incorrect it’s out.
Many of our founders derived their passion for freedom from the writings of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, beginning with the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt all the way through the history of the Jews, and then the Christians. Freedom from whatever oppresses and depresses is at the very heart of the biblical message. It is now being proven once again that when God, the Author of freedom, is tossed out, we may expect a continued drift away from all forms of liberty and toward tyranny.
It’s been said that if we ever turn away from our God-given freedoms and the small handful of commandments he gave us, we can expect ten thousand human commandments and prohibitions to replace them. It appears we are now well on the way, both in church and in society.