Free Speech and its Discontents
Wednesday, November 1, 2017 at 08:25PM
Micah Watson in 3. Are There Limits to Free Speech and Civil Discourse?

It is a privilege to once again participate in one of Harold Heie’s Respectful Conversations. As Harold emphasized in last month’s conversation, one cannot predict where a respectful conversation will go. Nevertheless, I’m glad to be “going” somewhere in this conversation with Julia Stronks as we follow up a rather provocative showing last month. I will also say from the start how grateful I am that we can have in conversation freely in the most literal sense. Neither Julia nor I, nor the previous discussants, need to be looking over our shoulders worrying about being arrested for our musings here. The American constitutional commitment to free speech, even if imperfectly realized, is a significant accomplishment that has been and continues to be all too rare in the world. We do well to remember our neighbors in other regimes who literally sit in prison cells because their governments do not value free speech.

Our leading questions ask us to follow up on Harold’s proposed Christian perspective on political discourse by considering its strengths and weaknesses, and then to consider several incisive follow-up questions. I had in mind a rather straightforward plan to do this, but that plan was upended by the surprising turn(s) we witnessed in the back and forth between Harold and Greg. In what follows I will take up Harold’s invitation to us, Julia and me, to weigh in on the mutual concerns of and differences between Harold and Greg. I.e., Harold writes that “[Julia and Micah] will likely say something that addresses Greg’s legitimate concern that the public square . . . has left out many who have been marginalized . . ..” It turns out that despite some important areas of commonality, the differences between Harold and Greg go quite deep, so deep that I don’t think we can go much further until they are addressed. After doing so I will bracket some of those differences and move on in future posts to the articulated questions about free speech and its limits.

The Framework and the Challenge

Harold rightly points out how polarized and ugly our political discourse is and identifies the root causes in three “lacks”, lack of humility, lack of courage, and lack of love. He is most concerned with how Christians in particular engage each other in political (broadly understood) discourse, and persuasively argues that we should practice and promote humility, courage, and love by adopting a posture of other-centeredness. We welcome and listen to others, we express our convictions, we look for common ground when we can find it and respectful openness when we cannot. In seeking to act in certain ways we aspire to become characterized by particular virtues: humility, courage, patience, and love. For what it’s worth I think these are worthy practices. They are necessary, though they may not be sufficient. And as virtues they will not be absolute, but our exercise of them will depend on practical wisdom and knowledge of particular situations.

Harold is quite correct to note how polarized our politics have become, and social scientists have the tools to measure this polarization. That said, it’s also the case that polarization comes and goes in American politics. This season feels new to us, but unfortunately our history is littered with examples of gross incivility and outright hostility, whether we think of the personal insults that flew back and forth between the camps of Jefferson and Adams (Adams supposed had a “hideous hermaphroditical character” and Jefferson was a “mean-spirited, low-lived fellow” and an “atheist, a libertine, and a coward.”) Political hostility could erupt into more than just a war of words, as Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow recounts in describing an episode in Congress in January of 1798:

Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont, a die-hard Republican, began to mock the aristocratic sympathies of Roger Griswold, a Federalist from Connecticut. When Griswold then taunted Lyon for alleged cowardice during the Revolution, Lyon spat right in his face. Griswold got a hickory cane and proceeded to thrash Lyon, who retaliated by taking up fire tongs and attacking Griswold.


This sort of personal acrimony metastasized into law and policy with the passage in 1798 of the Alien and Sedition Acts, laws written only a few years after the adoption of the First Amendment that changed the amount of time one needed to be in the country to be a citizen from 5 to 14 years, authorized the president to depart any foreign-born residents without a hearing, made it a crime to speak “any false, scandalous, or malicious writings” against the U.S. Government or Congress “with intent to defame or to bring them into contempt or disrepute.” Guilty verdicts could result in up to $2000 fines and two years in prison. People were fined, and people were put in prison.

All this is to underscore the reality that a lack of humility, courage, and love are not new to the American experience and indeed not new to the human experience. As pastor Tyler Watson (no relation) put it well, “As divided as the nation looks right now let us soberly remember at one point our third (and sitting) vice president shot and killed our first treasury secretary.” We have always needed people like Harold Heie calling us back to the best angels of our natures.

Gregory Williams is not so sure. In a rollicking, hard-hitting, incisive, entertaining and at the same time very civil—in one sense—set of responses, Williams echoes Karl Barth’s “Nein!” to Emil Brunner on the subject on natural law. Harold is entirely right to note in his conclusion to their conversation that the exchange was a success insofar as they were respectful and there is room for further dialogue in the future.

While there is much to sift through in their exchange and readers can revisit it for themselves, there are two fundamental disagreements that stand out as important background and context for this month’s conversation. The first is whether discourse in American society can be improved or salvaged given its current sorry state. The second is whether there is any coherent sense in which we can speak of a unified “we” or “us” in American society.

Harold is hopeful that political discourse can be improved even as he recognizes that others will find this naïve. But hope is a theological virtue, and thus Harold has hosted several of these conversations and plans more for the future. Harold’s hope is based on an implicit judgment that there is the potential for a healthy political dialogical culture in American society, a society that despite its deep flaws and mixed history has in the past done better on this score. That is, there’s no sense of talking about the decline of public civility and decency unless at a previous time it was in a healthier position from which to decline. Harold’s America, and Harold’s Americans, are a mixed bag, with good and bad moments.

Greg fundamentally challenges the very possibility of improving political discourse in American society because the American political experiment is rotten to its core. Its very identity is grounded in the demonic exercise of Empire, a political and cultural system designed for the benefit of one particular group at the intended expense of other people groups. American society is not a sick patient needing a cure but a murderous opponent that needs to be put down by any means necessary. To put it mildly, and despite the areas in which they agree, this is a significant disagreement.

But this disagreement is not quite as fundamental as the second, from which the first follows. Harold believes all people are made in the image of God, and thus deserving of respect and civility. Christians are called to love their enemies, even if they are Neo-Nazis or venture capitalists. Harold believes that a faithful reading of the New Testament Jesus implies that we should at the very least be wary of any use of violent coercion, that is if we shouldn’t embrace pacifism entirely. Harold sees an America full of human beings who differ wildly, yet have enough in common as human beings that we can speak meaningfully of an American society and try earnestly to reach those on the other “side” of this or that issue.

Greg strongly disagrees. The United States is the smoldering cauldron of injustice that it is because of the abusive bourgeois classes who have lorded their power over the marginalized classes of women, LBGT, ethnic minorities, and the working class. There is no singular “us” or “we”, there is a binary “us and them”, with Greg going so far as to quote his labor union’s claim that “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common”. There is a Manichean split through American society and to pursue persuasion can be a betrayal of the call for revolutionary action and violence that is need to overthrow the wickedness of the current regime. This is why Greg can endorse Harold’s call for love, but also note that it is insufficient. Love must be partisan, and appropriate partisanship is defined by the correct political positions on the far left of the American political spectrum. This is also why Greg’s side of the conversation is more of a manifesto than an attempt at persuasion, and why he begins by asserting that it is axiomatic that Christians will reject what he calls “neoliberal capitalism” and “global empire”.  An axiom is where we begin. It is not up for debate or conversation.

I strongly agree with Greg that Harold undersells the differences between them. Indeed, as someone who tilts conservative on many issues, I was surprised that there was no demurring from Greg’s charge that supporters of the American political project must by necessity be purveyors of white supremacy, slavery, and fascism. Greg is a clear, engaging, and skillful writer. Harold agrees that we may need to stand up against Neo-Nazis, but Greg’s Neo-Nazi is just a capitalist boss with the mask taken off. He writes:

Workers will not just attempt to persuade their bosses to pay them a living wage with moral arguments; they will also, often, have recourse to strikes, slowdowns, boycotts, occupations, blockages, sabotage, and all other manner of mass and covert action to force their bosses to comply . . . Christian love demands that we be militantly partisan . . . Christian love in politics will be lived not only at the podium, but on the picket line, not only in televised debates, but through the tear gas and the gall of militant street actions. (my emphasis).

The Limits of Free Speech

What does this have to do with the limits of free speech, or respectful dialogue and attempts at persuasion? I don’t think the exchange says a great deal about the legality of free speech, for this is just the sort of exchange of ideas that is meant to be protected as understood in American politics and constitutional law (“meant to be” because the practice has not always lived up to the ideal). There is nothing so dangerous or repugnant here as to be outlawed by the government. Indeed, our constitutional tradition has ruled out entirely the censoring of speech due to its content, though speech can be regulated by “time, place, and manner” restrictions such that you cannot exercise your right to speak at 3:00 am with a bullhorn in a crowded apartment building or, famously, shout fire in a movie theater. And it is true that these regulations have at times been used as cover by unscrupulous actors to suppress political unpopular speech (though if the possibility of a principle being misused discredits the principle by itself then there are no principles).

But the exchange does illustrate the limits of free speech when it comes to how we might prioritize our choices of whom and how we persuade. The chasm on how to view the claims of Christ as they pertain to American society between Harold and Greg is deep indeed. The chasm between Greg and me is very much deeper and wider. The best we can hope for with some differences that run so deep is to lay out our cases as carefully and civilly as possible and see where we come out.

(Though if I’m a business owner I’m less inclined to think my neighbors sympathetic with Greg’s position are coming to the table in good faith. And why should they given Greg’s premises? The business owner is actively complicit in the American empire that needs to be “smashed into as many pieces as possible.” There is nothing we have in common except conflict.)

I have tried to be descriptive thus far in laying out the differences between Harold’s and Greg’s positions, and by extension the very possibility of respectful conversations. The reader will have to judge. My take-away is that this exchange is helpful insofar as we can make good decisions about how and with whom we attempt to persuade. I agree with Harold that we should never close the door on a conversation with anyone as a matter of principle. At the same time, we are finite beings and have to prioritize. My other take-away is that this exchange requires us to lay bare our own background beliefs about American society. Greg is entirely right in his last posting about the free speech we desire will depend on the politics that it will serve.

To that end I’ll lay my own cards on the table, not because I expect the Antifa folks to agree with me from the radical left, nor the white supremacists on the right. As divided as those two groups are, they do share some common ground in that they both believe American society is not for everyone, but only one “side”. The white supremacists agree with Greg that the United States was founded exclusively for white males with property. They would return it to that state. The Antifa folks agree on that as a historical interpretation, and in Greg’s telling the radical Christian position is not to reclaim the country for everyone (as “we” have nothing in common with the “employing class”) because there is no such thing as “everyone”. The oppressors must be smashed. Both sides fundamentally reject e pluribus unum. I doubt I will persuade them otherwise.

Political scientist Rogers Smith describes the white-male-property view of the American founding as indeed a real part of the American tradition; he refers to it as an “ascriptive inequality” stream in his important book Civic Ideals. Yet there were other streams as well. The debate about who “we” are has been with us since the beginning of the American experiment. To whom do the magnificent promises of the Declaration apply? And for whom do the guarantees of the Constitution apply?

In my view the uniqueness of the American experiment and identity in theory is that we were not defined by blood, soil, or religion. The reality is that the practice did not live up to the theory, but the story of America, according to the Lincolnian and Martin Luther King version of that story is that we have steadily tried to live up to the promise, calling on each other to honor the promises made in the beginning, and going from white landowning men to all men to all men and women, albeit with a great deal of injustice and fits and starts along the way.

But of course given the premises of critical theory, that’s the position that one would expect me to take. I am, after all, a white, male, heterosexual who owns a little bit of property. The good thing is, dear reader, that you don’t have to take my word for it. It is an empirical question as to whether women, people of color, LGBT people, racial minorities, and the working class buy into the view that the United States is by definition and DNA necessarily white supremacist, homophobic, sexist, and oppressive. We can ask whether gays and union members and women and African-Americans believe they have and exercise the freedom to speak. Moreover, if my view is tainted by my identity, then I’d recommend reading about the experience of this gay Jamaican African-American professor. Not to mention the overwhelming popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play Hamilton, which featured a Puerto Rican playing Alexander Hamilton and African-American actors portraying George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Millions of Americans of all backgrounds and persuasions have fallen in love with this play in part because the casting shows that the American story is our story.

The point of all this is to say that sometimes we have to lay our cards on the table, respectfully of course, and walk away from some conversations even as we don’t close them off irrevocably. After laying out our positions we may find some commonality or we may not. That’s an inherent feature of democratic politics. But I do think this bracketing notion is what I would add to Harold’s proposed perspective on political discourse. Sometimes we will need to bracket some conversations and move on to others.


I have not yet truly addressed the questions laid out in our description. I think that’s okay given the turn the previous conversation took and the issues it raised. I didn’t think I could spend a good deal of time on questions of free speech when the very existence of free speech and the nature of the political regime it’s a part of were so unsettled by the provocative exchange we had last month. I will work on offering some thoughts on those questions about civility and marginalized voices after having the opportunity to read Julia’s piece and thinking about what she and I have in common and where we differ. I look forward to the continuing conversation.







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