Leave aside the low intellectual level of America’s 2016 “Presidential Debates,” in which almost 20 college-educated candidates participated. Instead take heart and witness the importance Americans attach to freedom of speech. But take warning also. Most Americans, including most of their professional educators, do not know the pristine origin of that simple principle: freedom of speech. Therein lies the problem.
How important is freedom of speech?
Americans recognize that freedom of speech is a fundamental human value. This is consistent with the Judaic view that speech is what distinguishes human nature from brute nature. The sounds of animals communicate pleasure and pain. In contrast, humans communicate ideas: ideas about justice, about right and wrong, about the purpose of human life, and even about the universe.
Freedom of speech seems to have its home in liberal democracy. Indeed, liberal democracy, in contradistinction to classical democracy, exalts freedom of speech over all other values. Unfortunately, the exaltation of this freedom has led to its degradation. Today, freedom of speech lacks rational and ethical constraints. Because people divorce it from truth, freedom of speech has become a license to propagate lies and obscenities.
How to redeem freedom of speech
To redeem and elevate freedom of speech, let us explore its pristine origin, the Bible of Israel.
Recall Abraham’s questioning the justice of G-d’s decision to destroy Sodom:
Peradventure…fifty righteous [live] within the city. Wilt Thou indeed sweep away and not forgive the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked. That so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee. Shall not the Judge of all earth do justly?
G-d permits Abraham to question Him. By so doing, the King of Kings affirms freedom of speech as a fundamental human right. But this right, from a Judaic perspective, can only derive from man’s creation in the image of G-d. Only because man possesses reason and free will does he possess a right to freedom of speech. However, he must understand that right in terms of the purpose or function of speech.
The real end of speech
Speech is not an end-in-itself, or a mere exercise in self-expression. Instead, properly understood, speech manifests reason. Reason serves this quintessential function: to communicate ideas, to inquire into their truth or falsity, their justice or injustice. So speech becomes an intellectual-moral phenomenon. To divorce speech from truth and justice, relegates this distinctively human faculty to a mere instrument of self-aggrandizement. And it denies man’s creation in the image of G-d.
This tendency of contemporary (as opposed to classical) democracy, degrades man and makes a mockery of his right to freedom of speech.
Without truth you cannot prefer the good
One cannot say too often (and hardly anyone says it at all,) that if freedom of speech divorces from truth and justice, democracy (of whatever type) becomes no more justifiable than tyranny. In other words, without universally valid or objective standards as to how man should live, we have no rational grounds for preferring democracy to tyranny.
Hence we should also emphasize that the denial of objective standards of good and bad conduct does not logically justify the toleration of all lifestyles. Subjectivism or moral relativism undermines any objective grounds for preferring tolerance to intolerance, or freedom of speech to censorship.
Freedom of speech must help the search for truth
The only rational defense of freedom of speech or of intellectual freedom is that it can facilitate the quest for truth, including the truth about how man should live. But no such quest can even begin unless we already know, in some general and authoritative way, what is right and wrong.
Clearly, the claim to academic freedom can have no justification unless everyone understands that it is wrong to cheat or deceive, to plagiarize or steal, to defame or murder. This suggests that moral relativists, who very much dominate the academic world, take civilization for granted.
Abraham, father of civilization
The true father of civilization is Abraham. He discovered ethical and intellectual monotheism. This philosopher taught mankind a way of life that transcends pagan polytheism.
This idolatry sacrificed children to various deities. And it exalted homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Moreover, it was steeped in tribal warfare.
In contrast, Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, set the example of “hesed,” graciousness. We can see this virtue in the extraordinary outreach programs of present day Israel. This country sends medical assistance and relief to disaster-stricken nations around the globe.
Underlying this generosity is an extraordinary insight of Abraham. This insight transcends Greek philosophy. For in discovering the Creator of man, Abraham discovered the only solid basis for the moral unity of human nature. On that basis alone can we promote the rule of reason and moral suasion over the rule of brute force or coercion.
And in this light we must understand Abraham’s dialogue with God’s awesome judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham can question God’s justice because the father of the Jewish people was not a moral relativist. The compassion of which He is the exemplar is informed by knowledge of right and wrong. That same knowledge enabled the prophets of Israel to admonish kings.
Apart from such knowledge freedom of speech devolves to noise or nonsense.☼
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