One more try at free speech. Is this the lump of coal in your stocking? I hope not! Perhaps that depends on who’s pulling off the wrapper.
Have I said that I consider the honoring of free speech to be a holy obligation, not a mere civil right? Let me say so now, and attempt a better, fuller explanation.
I wrote earlier that we shouldn’t view keeping open the channels of communication as an extended opportunity to convince the misguided. Are all of us “free speech” advocates, then, taking for granted that we’re right, and that the freedom we seek is the chance to make the whole world admit it? That attitude reeks of the obnoxious conceit inherent in progressive and reactionary ideologues alike—the ones whose clenching argument that you have the wrong opinion is a firing squad or a burning stake. If re-education camp or a public recanting before the Inquisition doesn’t work, a bullet in the head always gets those jumbled ideas sorted out… and what better way to “open” a new channel?
I also wrote that free exchange forces one to think through one’s own position more meticulously, even if nobody else is persuaded by it. But the wording there bothers me inasmuch as it implies that we might absolutely nail the truth if we just keep refining our conceptions. It sounds rather like scientific method, which isn’t what I’m after. Approximating the truth is a worthy goal, to be sure… but also a notion fraught with such potential danger that my intended meaning, ultimately, lies in the opposite direction.
How perverse! In what way would I wish to veer down the path opposite to drawing near the truth? Wouldn’t that require me to draw away from the truth? Obviously, I do not wish to celebrate error. What I mean to say is on the order of this, if I may be allowed to stumble through a mathematical analogy. The arc of a parabola always approaches an axis—but to suppose that it intersects the axis at any eventual point is false.
Or let me return to my earlier terms. I wrote of the “mystery of presence”: there I should have lingered. Usually when one shuts down exchanges with others, one does so because a “reachable” answer has, in fact, been reached, whether those other parties acknowledge it or not. Sometimes, too, we turn and walk away because the others “have the answer” (they claim) and aren’t listening to us. Further exchange is useless. If the truth is in our court, we arrive at a point where we have no more patience with folly… and we go on about our business.
This is a good thing, and even a necessary thing, in “business” of a practical turn. A straight line cuts an axis at a given point—and life does indeed have many straight lines. You can’t confer infinitely with others about whether your car needs an oil change or your store needs to move to a less heavily taxed venue. Even though there may be irreducible vagueness in some such material matters, we must eventually go with the best evidence. We cannot operate two stores at once to find out which does the better business.
The spiritual danger of cutting short our discussions appears when controversy leaves the realm of nuts and bolts and enters that of value judgments. Once again, I will instantly and vigorously deflect the charge of being a relativist. I am no such thing. I am certain that human sacrifice is wrong; I am so precisely because the practice removes a being like myself permanently from earthly exchanges—from participation in negotiating our shared uncertainty. I am certain that child abuse is wrong; I am so precisely because traumatizing a being like myself at a stage when he or she may never be able to reason freely, as a result, is an assault on our common humanity.
The certainty I mean—the certainty that dangerously shuts down the exchange—treats issues of value as though they were mechanical questions or budgetary decisions: as though they could be arbitrated by scientific method. What is good for a human being? Easy, says the politician: a full belly, full pockets, free trips to the doctor, a thousand stations on the TV’s menu. But all of these “blessings” can rot the soul if they completely remove anguish, striving, and learning from the human condition. Their one great asset is their “thingness”—their quiddity. They allow discussions to end on the same note as our determination about an oil change. We may not agree with the collective verdict, but time will surely tell if it was correct. The number of starved bodies lying dead in the streets can be counted. Cases of influenza can be logged and graphed. The availability of ESPN2 is a fairly objective determinant for frivolous amusement’s “abundance” threshold.
Is the discussion now truly finished about liberated sexual practices, for instance, just because sex feels good and modern medicine can make its unwanted consequences disappear? Was it all always just a question of moving merchandise from A to B? I will never endorse gay marriage or homosexuality, because I believe that such practices subordinate higher objectives to lower objectives. As in hedonistic heterosexual practices, the pattern here drives child-bearing and rearing from center-stage to leave sexual satisfaction the star of the show. Sensual gratification then becomes a dominant element in defining our personhood—a mere appetite, something that defies the rule of reason, wanes with the coming of old age, and can leave us completely with sickness or accident. Yet I would not have the other side commanded to be silent, under threat of being stoned to death: I merely protest against treating the issue as an algebra problem where X has been definitively found.
For the link between body and spirit must always remain a mystery to me (and, I think, to you): I don’t see how any specific value for X can solve it. I do not and will never fully understand the connection between the spirit’s self-surpassing genius and our egocentric, carnal drives for sex, food, sleep, and the rest. If the spirit is real, why was it encumbered in this manner? How is one side intended to be integrated with the other—what formula could make so irresistibly volatile an integration seem successful?
Such “discomfort” reminds me that my mind, as it is on this earth, cannot possibly occupy every room of God’s house.
They say that Artificial Intelligence will soon be able to pass for the human variety (the goal of the so-called Turing Test). This will clearly be so if we continue to define our spiritual side downward, such that every moral quandary has a specific solution. I am already risking my career to write what few words I have offered here against gay marriage; and were I to detail my views about extramarital adventures, I would face not so much instant expulsion as enduring derision. We all know how our robot-compatriots will be programmed in those matters. What coding, I wonder, will they receive with regard to a sunset or a misty valley? “Good/pleasant”? Why so? Because the majority view would have it so? What’s our theory on why we enjoy such scenes? Probably something about our simian ancestors knowing that they’re safely on a tree limb or in a cave by day’s end… for the only reason you enjoy something is because you “get” something out of it. Right?
I love singer Giorgia Fumanti’s rendition of Espiritu. Why? Why do we love any work of art? Because it relaxes us—we “get” relaxation out of it? So the right pill, then, would have the same effect? Is Xanax the “art” drug? Do younger people actually love anything artistic any more? Where do you see such open-ended discussions taking place? Certainly not in college English departments, where works of literature are “great” because of the genitals or the pigmentation of their authors. The same departments are rich in professors who want “offensive” speech banned from campus.
Am I coming any closer to expressing the holy obligation of free speech—to expressing why the end of free speech is asymptotic? I doubt it; I have failed yet again! In my mind, I keep orbiting that single word “mystery”. We must speak to each other so that we may constantly fail to say quite what we mean to say. We must be forever reminded that the inexpressible is a reality. A robot doesn’t know that—cannot know that. We seem to know it less and less ourselves as we concurrently shut down expression and reduce it to transmissible clichés. And as free speech goes, so goes the fate of our souls.
A meaningful Christmas to you—the birthday of Him we crucify!