In the old days – that is, in the days prior to Vatican II – it was not uncommon for defenders of the Catholic faith to say that “error has no rights.” When I was a college freshman taking my first theology course, I heard my professor, a priest of the Dominican Order, utter those very words in class.
In those days, the ideal Catholic society would have been one in which secular authorities did not grant anything like full freedom of press or speech or religion; for the ideal society would be opposed to Error. Practically speaking, of course, these restrictions on freedom were quite impossible in countries such as the United States and Britain. And so Catholicism, while noting that these liberal arrangements were far from ideal, had as a practical expedient learned to tolerate freedom of speech, press, and religion in such societies. The government of Franco’s Spain, hewing closer to the ideal, made it far more difficult for Error to show its ugly head.
The direct antithesis of this Catholic point of view was the liberal point of view, whose classic statement was John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (published in 1859 – the same year, by the way, in which that other famous book by an Englishman was published, Darwin’s The Origin of Species). Mill argued for an almost absolute freedom of expression. I say “almost” because he did allow for three exceptions.
Society, acting either by law or by public opinion, could legitimately restrict freedom of expression (1) when it amounted to libel or slander, or (2) when it incited a riot or stampede (e.g., yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, as Justice Holmes later put it), or (3) when it amounted to a conspiracy to commit a crime.
Mill’s justification for these restrictions is that the expressions they inhibit will, if left uninhibited, cause tangible and needless harm. Mill’s overriding principle in On Liberty is that adults in modernized societies (e.g., the United Kingdom and America) should be free to do or say whatever they like provided these words and deeds do no harm to others.
In recent years many professed liberals – persons who claim to have inherited the pro-liberty mantle of J. S. Mill – have added a fourth category of needless “harm” to Mill’s list: hurt feelings.
To be sure, not all hurt feelings. After all, many hurt feelings are simply the byproduct of ordinary living: for instance, a girl’s hurt feelings when her boyfriend drops her; a child’s hurt feelings when his or her parents’ divorce; or a politician’s hurt feelings when he loses an election (I myself, by the way, have had this painful experience many times in my life); or the hurt feelings of a restaurant owner when a new and better restaurant opens a few hundred yards away.
No, the hurt feelings our liberals are concerned about are feelings that get hurt because of “hate speech” or its nonverbal equivalents. What are some examples of hate speech? Speech that is racist or sexist or homophobic or transphobic or xenophobic or Islamophobic.
Speech of this kind causes emotional pain, often very severe emotional pain, to persons who fall into any number of minority (or victim or oppressed) categories: blacks, native Americans, other persons of color, women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, undocumented immigrants (one mustn’t say “illegal aliens”), transgenders, non-binary persons, and so on.
“What?” you may ask. “Are these people so fragile that they cannot bear a little emotional pain? Are they snowflakes? Do they melt whenever the sun shines?”
To which our liberals (quoting Shakespeare) will reply: “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.” They will remind you that you are a person of “white privilege” and that you are heterosexual and probably male and probably Christian – or rather a nominal Christian; for if you were a real Christian your heart would bleed for these countless victims who have to live in an environment of hate.
The trouble with this idea of “hate speech” – or rather, the advantage of this idea from the point of view of many people who nowadays misname themselves as liberals – is that it can be used as a great weapon of intimidation. It can be used, and very often is used, as a way of silencing those who might otherwise be tempted to make statements that give offense to “liberals.”
If you’re on the verge of saying something bad about black criminals or something good about white cops; or if you think the U.S. government should prevent millions of illegal aliens from flooding into the country; or if you’d like to say that sodomy is a sin and a perversion; or if you’re about to say that transgenderism is sheer madness; or if you’re inclined to say that Muhammad was a false prophet – if you’re tempted to say any of these things, hold your tongue, for all these things will be denounced as hate speech. And you yourself will be denounced as a hater.
If John Mill were alive today, he’d be rolling over in his grave (so to speak).
This “hate speech” weapon is being used to silence Catholic objections to homosexuality. And used with a high degree of success. When is the last time you heard a priest denounce homosexuality? Every parish priest knows that if he does so, he will provoke the ire of more than a few parishioners. They will leave his parish, or they will reduce their financial contributions, or they will write to the bishop complaining of his “hatred” and “bigotry.” And he knows that many a bishop, instead of complimenting him on his courageous defense of the faith, will advise him to be “prudent.”
Soon it will require great courage for a priest to speak against euthanasia. That’s just around the corner.
The Catholic Church, which once held that “error has no rights,” today has little choice but to become a defender of free speech. Otherwise, its own freedom to speak will vanish.
You may also enjoy:
Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger’s True Liberty
Hadley Arkes’ Liberty and the Claims of Truth