The whole concept of free speech is misunderstood today. Engulfed by ‘the logic of rights’, free speech has become a slogan pulled out of thin air, without connection to any principles capable of justifying it.
Free speech rightly understood is a lesser form of combat intended to preserve peace, which is to say, a form of invasive coercion that cannot be otherwise. It is combat with purpose, with social utility, and its value is social. In other words it is a contingent liberty designed to have a social benefit. But in the modern context it is reinterpreted individualistically, so that it becomes a special prerogative of individuals which they claim for themselves alone without regard to any social good. Free speech is ‘my right’ and is defended not because it is better for everyone in the long run but because it is something I am allowed to do and no one can stop me.
By locating its source and justification in the individual, which is to say, in subjectivity, free speech turns against its original reason for being. It is no longer a liberty in the service of society, but instead a form of license, wielded over and against society. Combative or disagreeable speech is no longer justified because it is a way of helping society discern the good, for the sake of mutual spiritual education, but is instead seen as one of so many other rights that need no justification whatsoever and that can therefore be exercised indiscriminately for or against the good of the community as a whole.
If free speech is valid, it can only be as a way of allowing people to come into conflict without having to resort to physical force. Free speech is a publicly sanctioned form of mental coercion of others via argument and the expression of moral sentiments. It has always been assumed that it would manifest aggression, but it is a controlled aggression, a civilized form of combat, and this is why it is acceptable.
The bizarre view of free speech that we see today is completely different. Since in liberal regimes there is no concept of the common good and no obligation to pursue it, free speech becomes an instrument for the suppression of the good.
If individuals are protected when they condemn a certain government action or policy, this is not because dissent is a good that we wish to protect, but because we know that the prolonged suppression of dissent will eventually produce revolt, and that it is better for our leaders to hear criticism than to be dragged out of their offices and hung.
Critical speech against a certain idea or activity or institution is necessarily unpleasant or hurtful to the persons involved in the criticism, but this acceptable because, if it could not happen, and if there were no hope of ‘fighting it out’ verbally before having to resort to more extreme and invasive measures, there would be bloodshed. Restricting verbal conflict undermines peace because it removes an important stopgap between peace and war.
Today all public criticism that has a moral or religious tenor is reframed as hate speech. This is the natural outcome of generations of training to the effect that you, as an individual, are in possession of a veritable library of rights, rights that have no corresponding duties, no obligatory direction for their exercise, and that they are gifts to you to use as you please to build a life as you please, and that this is the essence of freedom. When a person educated in this way runs up against resistance and outright moral criticism, they cannot but feel it as an attack, and attacks on private individuals who are, it is said, ‘not hurting anyone else’, must be unjust and wrong.