The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Son of God is Risen

It starts -
a soft glow
grows in the east
and lights up the sky -
the sun is risen.

Like so,
Love's bright light
escapes the tomb
to shine o'er the world -
the Son is risen!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Thought

This essay is dedicated to the late Douglas H. Christie Jr., who passed away Monday, March 11, 2013.   Mr. Christie championed the cause of freedom of speech, both as the lawyer who defended James Keegstra, Ernst Zundel, Malcolm Ross, and virtually everyone else who has been charged with a “hate crime” over the things they said in the last three decades, and as the founder of the Canadian Free Speech League.

Liberalism, which became the dominant political ideology in the English-speaking world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was wrong about a great many things.   It was also right about a number of things.   It tended to be wrong – extremely wrong – about first principles and what we might call “the big picture”.   Its view of human nature, the nature of and relationship between the individual person and society,  the relationship between religion, state, and society, the source of suffering, injustice, and other evils in the world, and of history, were completely and totally wrong.  It was in the realm of applied politics that liberalism produced its best ideas.

There is a reason for this.  The ideology of liberalism had two parents.  One of these was the English political tradition that had developed over more than a thousand years.  The other was the Enlightenment project.  The English political tradition and the Enlightenment project were not sympathetic to each other.  Indeed, they were mortal enemies.  The English tradition had evolved as part of the larger tradition of medieval Christendom.   Indeed, as Christopher Dawson explained in The Formation of Christendom, the founders of the English tradition had been very important in the development of the larger tradition. (1)   The Enlightenment project, however, was the sworn enemy of all things medieval and Christian.  It’s roots go back to Renaissance humanism (2), which sought to revive classical civilization after what it considered to be the dearth of culture and civilization in the Middle Ages (3).   The architects of the Enlightenment regarded religion in general and Christianity in particular, especially Christianity as an organized, public, institution, as the enemy of human reason, knowledge, creativity, and happiness, and sought to establish a secular society, in which religion would be entirely private and personal.  In such a society and only in such a society, the Enlightenment philosophers believed, could man, guided by reason and science, escape the suffering and evil which had plagued him from time immemorial and build a better and brighter future for himself.

So how did these two radically different sources come together to produce liberalism?

The best explanation of it that I know of is found in the essay “Rationalism in Politics” by British philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who was Professor of Government at the London School of Economics.(4) Ever since the Renaissance, Oakeshott explained, Western thought has gradually come to be permeated by modern rationalism. This modern kind of rationalism reduced human knowledge to technical knowledge, i.e., knowledge that can be expressed as a formula and written down. This, however, was a kind of intellectual impoverishment because technical knowledge represents only a fraction of human knowledge. A tradition of thought contains much knowledge that is valuable but which cannot be formulated as technical knowledge. Rationalism strips a tradition of this knowledge, abbreviating it and reducing it to its technical elements, thereby producing an ideology. As an example of this, he pointed to the political ideology contained in the writings of John Locke, as what you get when the English political tradition is reduced by rationalism to an ideology.

This was the genesis of liberalism, of which John Locke was the father.   The English political tradition, reduced by Enlightenment rationalism to an ideology, became liberalism.   Or, to be more precise, one side of the English political tradition, reduced by Enlightenment rationalism to an ideology, became liberalism.   For in the seventeenth century, in a conflict stemming from the English Reformation of the century before that, the English tradition had split into two warring sides.  One side, which came to be represented in Parliament by the Tories after the Restoration, sought to preserve the ancient constitution of church and state, the traditional prerogatives of the monarch, and the organic connection via apostolic episcopal succession of the Church of England with the early Catholic Church.   The other side, which came to be represented in Parliament by the Whigs after the Restoration, consisted of radicals who wished to subvert the constitution, seize the powers of government for the House of Commons, and eliminate the remaining links between the Anglican Church and medieval Catholicism.  The Tories, in other words, emphasized the elements of the English tradition that connected it to the larger tradition of medieval Christendom, whereas the Whigs sought to purge the English tradition of those elements.   The Revolution of 1689 was the ultimate triumph of the Whigs.   John Locke was a Whig, and liberalism was his rationalist abridgement of a tradition that had already been whittled down by his party’s century long attempts to severe its roots in medieval Christendom.
Neo-Thomist philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre described the Enlightenment project as an “attempt to discover an independent rational justification for morality.” (5)  In the case of English classical liberalism it was more an attempt to discover an independent rational justification for the common law and constitution of Great Britain, at least in the form they would take when the modifications the Whigs were undertaking at the time Locke was writing were complete.   Thus liberalism’s inheritance from the Enlightenment project was a set of theories that provided arguments justifying English laws and government that did not depend upon the Christian tradition in which those laws and government evolved.   Liberalism’s grossest errors arise out of these theories. (6)

If liberalism’s theories were tainted by Enlightenment rationalism, they were at least developed to justify good laws and a good constitution. The Whigs had modified the English tradition and constitution, but they had not obliterated them, and so classical liberalism often argued for rights, freedoms, and laws, that had their source in the pre-Modern, Christian English tradition.

In developing their rationalist case for a constitution, laws, rights and liberties that had evolved within the Medieval Christian tradition, the liberals occasionally hit upon a brilliant and worthwhile principle or ideal. The most important of these were the closely related ideas of freedom of speech and freedom of thought.

Freedom of speech is the idea that a person should be free to express the thoughts that are on his mind in whatever words he so chooses and that he should not be silenced or penalized over the content of what he says. Freedom of thought or opinion is the idea that a person should be free to use his own faculties of reason and observation to come to his own views and conclusions. These two freedoms are inseparably intertwined.

The classical liberal argument for freedom of speech and thought was penned by liberal and utilitarian thinker John Stuart Mill, as part of his famous treatise on the civil liberty of the individual.     On Liberty was first published in 1859 and it was a liberal essay from start to finish.   The wrongheaded ideas of liberalism are on prominent display within it from the first page, indeed from the first sentence in which Mill declared his subject to be “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual.” Mill thought of liberty and authority as being in perpetual conflict, of non-democratic governments as the antagonists of their subjects, and of civil rights and liberties and constitutional checks as things which patriots had to wring from the hands of the authorities by force.   All of these ideas arise out of the all too human spirit of suspicion of and rebellion against authority, which Whiggery made into a virtue, but which St. John declared to be the very essence of sin, (7) justifying Dr. Johnson’s remark that “the first Whig was the devil.”

Nevertheless, Mill had some good insights. He went on to talk about how liberals had grown dissatisfied with civil rights and liberties and constitutional checks and balances and how they had demanded that government power be placed in the hands of elected and temporary governors, but that many of them had come to think that with this new form of “popular government” that was supposed to embody the voice of the people, they could abandon civil rights and liberties and constitutional checks on the sovereign power because these things would now be a hindrance rather than a help. Reflecting upon what this line of thinking had produced in France at the end of the previous century, but also unconsciously anticipating the direction liberalism would take in the English-speaking world a century after his own time, Mill rejected this line of thinking and argued for the necessity of civil rights and freedoms and limitations on government power under any form of government, warning against the “tyranny of the majority.”

In his second chapter, entitled “On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”, Mill articulated the basic concepts of freedom of thought and speech. He wrote of freedom of these freedoms as things long and well established in his own day, as indeed, they were. As he put it:

[S]peaking generally, it is not, in constitutional countries, to be apprehended that the government, whether completely responsible to the people or not, will often attempt to control the expression of opinion, except when in doing so it makes itself the organ of the general intolerance of the public.

What, however, if there was a government that truly was completely in tune with its people, that spoke with their voice, and only exercised power in accordance with their will?

Even then, Mill declared, it would be wrong for that government to try and control the expression of thought. The people did not have the right to do so, nor did any government good or bad, because “the power itself is illegitimate”. In one of his most memorable statements, Mill declared freedom of thought and speech to be absolutely, not to be limited by government, society or the people under any circumstances:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

This is a powerful assertion.  Mill argued, in favour of his position, that to silence an opinion is to rob mankind, and especially those who disagree with the opinion, because if it is right and they are wrong, they lose the opportunity to be corrected, whereas if it is wrong and they are right, they lose the confidence and certainty in the truth that comes from it having coming into conflict with and triumphed over opposing errors.   Over the course of the chapter he expanded this argument into four basic supporting points – that a silenced opinion might be true, it being an assertion of one’s own infallibility to claim otherwise, that the conventional view is seldom if ever the whole truth, that even if the conventional opinion is the whole truth people will accept it as a mere prejudice without understanding the reasons it is true apart from conflict with opposing views, and that people will give mere lip service to the truth apart from any real conviction in the absence of a free debate.

While many of the things Mill wrote in the course of making this case for free speech are questionable, the main idea that comes across, that the truth is better off for being allowed to compete with error in free discussion and is weakened by the suppression of dissent, rings true.

It is a great irony that Mill, in laying down the intellectual foundation for absolute freedom of thought and speech, was championing the cause of liberalism against its sworn foe – religion and religious orthodoxy.   The irony lies in the fact that freedom of speech and thought may ultimately prove to be the means of the preservation of religious orthodoxy, while liberalism evolved in the twentieth century into the archenemy of freedom of speech and thought.

Liberalism thought of religion, especially organized public religion, as the enemy of freedom.   This was in part due to real abuses of religious authority within Christendom in the late centuries of the Middle Ages, but also because of liberalism’s individualistic orientation.  Liberalism conceived of freedom in strictly individualistic terms.  Religion, on the other hand, was and is a community institution that serves a social purpose.

Religion is not, as some evangelical Protestants have grown accustomed to saying, “man’s attempt to reach God”.   The term  religion comes from the Latin word religio, which means reverence for the sacred.   Religio was itself believed to be derived from the verb religare, which means “to bind fast”. (8)   This etymology points to the social function of religion as the institution which connects the members of a community to one another and to the sacred..  Religion does this by means of shared beliefs and rituals which, because they are passed down from one generation to another, are able to connect past, future, and present generations of a community into an organic whole. (9)   This is also the role of culture, which is why, as a myriad of commentators including Christopher Dawson and T. S. Eliot have pointed out, religion is the heart and soul of culture.

Liberals like Locke and Mill, obsessed with the individual, have never fully appreciated the importance of the community, or of the essential social function of religion within the community and the larger society.  Thus they fail to appreciate the importance of orthodoxy, apart from which religion could not perform its function.   Orthodoxy, which means “right belief”, is a religion’s definition, as a community of faith, of what its essential shared beliefs are.   If a religion did not identify a set of core beliefs as its orthodoxy, it could not create a sense of organic oneness between those who share its beliefs.

While there is tension between orthodoxy, the right of religion as a community to define what its common beliefs are, and freedom of thought and speech, the right of the individual to dissent from the community and think his own thoughts, the two do not necessarily contradict each other. Indeed, if the religious community in defining a set of beliefs as orthodox and the individual in drawing his own conclusions are both guided by the ideal of what is true, there is reason to hope that the relationship between the two might be one of harmony rather than opposition. In fact, by Mill’s own arguments, free discussion should strengthen orthodoxy, by clarifying the reasons behind orthodox beliefs and deepening the believer’s convictions.

Of the rationalist, Michael Oakeshott wrote “And by some strange self-deception, he attributes to tradition (which, of course, is pre-eminently fluid) the rigidity and fixity of character which in fact belongs to ideological politics.” (10) The importance of this insight cannot be underestimated. Tradition, which includes everything that a community, society, or civilization passes down through the generations, including its religious orthodoxy, is a living thing, which like all living things, is a combination of change and constancy. From birth to death, a living organism remains the same being, but it also undergoes changes. Some of these changes, such as natural growth and the replenishing of dying cells, are necessary to sustain the life of the organism, whereas others, such as severe disease or injury can cripple or even kill the organism. The same is true of a tradition, and while liberals believed that the ideas that would arise in a free discussion would kill tradition by emancipating the individual, they may also be the fresh ideas that will keep the tradition alive.

Whichever is the case, liberalism itself has become noted for the inflexibility that Oakeshott rightly said was the attribute of ideology.   In the twentieth century it became itself the enemy of freedom of thought and religion as, in pursuit of the next stage of what it considered to be social progress, it demanded that certain ideas and forms of speech be driven from polite society.   In the phenomenon that has come to be known as “political correctness”, liberals have insisted that language they consider to be offensive to racial minorities – regardless of whether or not the racial minorities themselves consider it to be offensive – be banned, that the structure of the English language be altered to be “gender inclusive”, and that ethnic humour, unless directed at one’s own ethnic group (or against whites) be forbidden.   More disturbingly, liberals have demanded that major academic disciplines including the sciences, adhere to the egalitarian doctrines they are currently obsessed with.   Worst of all, they have in some places, including Canada at both the federal and provincial levels, introduced laws that define the expression of certain thoughts as criminal acts or as acts of discrimination that make the speaker liable to expensive civil lawsuits.

In Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief the rascally adventurer Basil Seal, having fled England and his mother’s attempt to impose respectability and responsibility upon him, and arrived in Azania, where his Oxford friend Seth has just been crowned emperor, agrees to help Seth modernize his empire with disastrous consequences.  “You know”, he remarks to the emperor “we’ve got a much easier job now than we should have had fifty years ago.  If we’d had to modernize a country then it would have meant constitutional monarchy, bi-cameral legislature, proportional representation women’s suffrage, independent judicature, freedom of the Press, referendums…”  In response the emperor asks “What is all that?” to which Seal replies “Just a few ideas that have ceased to be modern.” (11)
  So, it would seem, freedom of thought and speech, have ceased to be liberal. The kind of thinking that Mill identified as being common in continental liberalism in his own day and which was represented in England by Jeremy Bentham in the generation prior to his own, in which constitutional rights, freedoms, and protections are regarded as hindrances to progress when the government is democratic has eclipsed Locke’s and Mill’s emphasis on personal liberty to become the mainstream of liberal thought.

In defense of their new position, some liberals make a distinction between what they call “hate speech” and “free speech”. Hate speech, they maintain, is not covered by Mill’s arguments for freedom of speech, because it has no value and would not be “robbing the human race” of anything. It is not the expression of a thought, right or wrong, they say, but a verbal assault upon “vulnerable” groups like racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, women, and homosexuals.

The first clue that something is wrong with this reasoning is that the hate speech liberals believe should be suppressed may be true.   Liberals have argued that those accused of hate speech should not be allowed to present evidence that what they have said is in fact true in their defence.   What matters, they claim, is that the speech has the effect of casting negative aspersions on a group that hate speech laws are designed to protect.   It makes no difference if the speech is true.  Hence the wording of the notorious Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which declares speech to be defamatory if it is “likely to expose” members of protected groups “to hatred or contempt” and the ruling by the Supreme Court in the John Ross Taylor case that “truth is no defense”. 

The second clue that that distinction between hate speech and free speech is spurious can be found when we look at what is considered to be hate speech.  What is hate speech, anyway?  Actually saying “I hate you” to someone does not seem to be prohibited by any existing hate speech law.  Attempting to prove that the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis in World War II was less than six million, by contrast, is prohibited by hate speech laws.   Surely there must be something terribly wrong with a theory that justifies the suppression of speech that contains hate, but allows expressions of actual emotional hate, while silencing those who claim that Hitler only murdered five million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine Jews.

The final clue that something is wrong with hate speech laws is the expanding nature of the definition of hate speech. At first, when hate speech laws were introduced, they were used against people who had extremely marginal views and few defenders. Today it is not uncommon to hear expressions of Christian opposition to the deliberate taking of the life of the unborn or of the Christian doctrine that sexual intercourse outside of marriage between a man and a woman is sinful denounced as hateful, no matter how much the Christian may say that we are to hate only the sin but love the sinner.

What we can see in all of this is that laws against hate speech are not really exceptions to the arguments Mill made for freedom of speech but examples of the very thing he was arguing against, the social engineering of public opinion by democratic governments.

Whatever else the classical liberalism of men like Mill may have gotten wrong, at least their concept of absolute freedom of thought and speech was superior to this.

(1)   Christopher Dawson, The Formation of Christendom, (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967), especially chapter eleven (pp. 165-177) and chapter thirteen (pp. 190-213).  In chapter eleven, Dawson describes how the Celtic monasticism of St. Columba and St. Aidan of Lindisfarne and the Benedictine monasticism of St. Augustine of Canterbury had planted a Christian culture in Northumbria and Kent respectively, and how out of this culture arose men like St. Bede “the real father of medieval history” and St. Boniface the evangelist of northern Europe.   In chapter thirteen he describes how Alfred the Great of Wessex, while the Vikings were wiping out these monasteries in the north, preserved the Christian culture they had founded in the south,  and “found time to think out afresh the problems of Christian education and to lay with his own hands the foundations of a Christian vernacular culture.”       

(2)   Richard M. Weaver traced its roots further back, to the nominalism of William of Ockham in the thirteenth century, in his Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).   Weaver saw the nominalist break with Christian Platonism by rejecting the reality of the forms as the start of the unraveling of the Christian worldview of an order of being descending from God.   Interestingly, Christopher Dawson, through a different line of reasoning, also traced the origin of the breakdown of the unity of medieval Christendom to Ockham, in  The Dividing of Christendom (London: Sidwick & Jackson, 1965), pp. 24-25, 27.

(3)   Robert Nisbet in Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982) p. 261, wote “The Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century is unique among ages of claimed cultural efflorescence, or so-called golden ages, in that it is almost entirely the product of egocentric illusion.  The century was barely under way when the Italian humanists began to celebrate what they called, with consummate impudence, the eta moderna, the modern age, the age of renewal of civilization, after the long dark night of the church-dominated millennium, the medium aevum, that separated them from classical civilization.   They were destined, the humanists believed, to terminate the murk of scholasticism by calculated revival of Greek and Roman ideas, style, dress and ceremonies.  On the basis of this revival, they would bury medieval culture and at the same time build imperishably to the future.   They and they only were the true heirs of Plato and Aristotle and also the architects of the future of Europe.”   This attitude towards itself and toward medieval Christian civilization, which Nisbet went on to mercilessly tear to shreds, is the attitude, taken to the nth degree by Voltaire and Diderot, became the foundational view of the world and history of the Enlightenment project.

(4)   This essay was first published in the first volume of the Cambridge Journal in 1947.  It was later republished as the first and titular essay in a collection of his writings entitled Rationalism in Politics: And Other Essays (London: Metheun Publishing, 1962), Oakeshott’s second and best known book.

(5)   Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd edition, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, 1984) p. 39.

(6)   Locke, for example, in his Two Treatises Of Government borrowed the theory of the social contract from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.   In this theory, man in his “natural state” is an individual rather than a member of a society, and society is an artificial construction of man, external to his nature, formed by compacts made between individuals.   This in itself is obviously wrong.  It is the opposite of what is observable all around us. Human beings are born into their families, communities, and larger societies and that their individuality is something that gradually develops. Man is a social animal by nature, hence the same basic social institutions recur, albeit in different forms, wherever there are people, in every place and time. While some social relationships – friendship, business partnership, and recently marriage, are entered into voluntarily – many of the most fundamental social relationships, such as those between father and son, mother and daughter, and brother and sister, are not voluntary at all but are permanent relationships defined by blood.  As wrong-headed as social contract theory is – except for Edmund Burke’s version of an “eternal contract” written by God Himself – Locke made it even more unrealistic when he modified Hobbes’ version to fit his liberalism (if Locke’s writings put forth an “independent rational justification” for the Whig interpretation of the English political tradition, reducing it to an ideology, Hobbes’ writings could be said to have done the same for the Royalist/Tory interpretation of the English political tradition) .   Hobbes recognized what human beings in the absence of law, government, or society, would actually be like – a war of all against all.  Locke rejected this “bellum omnium contra omnes” view of man outside society – as he rejected the orthodox Christian doctrine of Original Sin – in favour of an optimistic view of human nature as being basically cooperative and good.

(7)   “he hamartia estin he anomia”, 1 John 3:4

(8)  Lactantius, for example, asserted this derivation in his Divine Institutes.

(9)  Religion, of course, cannot be reduced to just its social function.  This is particularly true, I would add, of Christianity, which is built on the foundation of God’s ultimate revelation of Himself in the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ.  Nevertheless, as St. Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 12, Christianity, does perform the social function of a religion, by binding its members into an organic community, the Church.

(10) Oakeshott, op. cit.

(11) Evelyn Waugh, Black Mischief (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, [1932], 1962), p. 128.