Yes, Virginia, There Is Freedom of Speech

Categories constitutionalism, culture, politics, secularism, theological, tolerance

(originally posted on the Calvinist International, January 16, 2015)

The terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo bring into sharp relief a major contradiction in the intellectual framework of modern democracy. In fact, it highlights a fault line. Freedom of speech is one of the supposedly unshakeable pillars of liberal social order. But the way liberals have dealt with the issue brings into question whether it is a pillar or a facade.

Of course there were the massive demonstrations in favor of Charlie Hebdo, the cries of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, the self-identification with Charlie Hebdo (“Je suis…”). The Parisian march of unity comprised a million-plus souls, and that was not the only such demonstration. More than forty world leaders participated in the Parisian rally, including both Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Other voices were to be heard, though. There were those who refused the identification “Je ne suis pas… “), citing e.g. the cartoons blaspheming the Trinity, promoting racism, and the like. In their minds, freedom of speech is not an absolute value but one that must be balanced with other freedoms. But this then begs the question of the standard to which appeal must be made in order to strike such a balance. It stands to reason that any norm that is to balance freedom of speech with the right to a good name, the rights of religion, and the like, must stand over the various freedoms and rights that are to be balanced against each other.

This is an issue of long-standing debate. One thing all participants in that debate agree upon: these things are not deserving of death, as it were, and they certainly do not permit any group’s taking the law into their own hands to mete out justice in terms of their own lights. Which, in a nutshell, is what Islamic terrorists do.

Freedom of speech is problematic. But not for real liberals. For them, freedom of speech is an absolute value, a categorical imperative. A liberal is one who announces without qualms, “je suis Charlie Hebdo,” who says, while I adamantly oppose what you say, I adamantly support your right to say it…. [continued here].