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Conservatives, free speech and the disputed question

Disputation on the subject of Free Speech arises again. I have written before that, generally speaking, conservatives have a temperamental inclination to let everyone have his say, while at the same time a robust understanding of the inherent philosophical limits on free expression. The conservative as a dour censor, ever ready to silence dissent, is little more than a calumny from the port side of the political spectrum. The enormous diversity of conservative opinion and the eccentricity of its notable characters should be evident on even a cursory study. Stated simply, conservatives have a very hard time holding a party line. Beyond opposition to abortion and a distrust of government intervention, no strict orthodoxy of opinion can be found. Furious quarrels regularly bubble up on economics, political theory, culture, foreign policy, and theology, among other things.

Right-wingers in America, especially those in media and academia, have long experience with being, intellectually, “behind enemy lines.” It goes back at least as far as Buckley’s God and Man at Yale. Last year, a new hue and cry was raised against Harvard’s only prominent conservative, Harvey Mansfield, purposed toward silencing him for deviation from feminist orthodoxy. On matters of sexual mores and environmentalism, the puritanical urge to snuff out dissent from the Left is particular determined.

From this conservatives have developed very thick skins. Likewise, they have been habituated to a higher standard of quality, arising in part from a close familiarity with the doctrines and monomanias of liberalism; they know their opponents’ arguments well, and they know how to seek out and discover the best arguments among them. The contrast could hardly be plainer: few pro-abortion agitators have even a passing familiarity with the best pro-life arguments. Not two out of ten Leftist culture warriors could supply a single pertinent fact about Russell Kirk. Books like Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Great Melody are so noteworthy because they are so uncommon: here is that rare man of the Left who treats Burke with seriousness and sympathy. (Indeed, the first portion of O’Brien’s book is precisely dedicated to exposing the egregious and unscholarly belittling of Burke’s life and work by the British historical establishment; his denunciation of the “Namierite” school of Burke denigration is enough to make conservatives stand up and cheer.)

Conservatives are also the modern inheritors (if anyone may claim this mantle) of the Thomist approach to argument: the disputed question. One key feature of this method lies in the meticulous effort to state objections accurately. Here is the late Harry Jaffa, explaining this method in the 1972 Preface to his masterly The Crisis of the House Divided:

It seemed to me that the proper way to explicate a debate was to adopt, however provisionally, the viewpoint of the debaters themselves. And it seemed that the Socratic method — and in particular its medieval form, the dispute question — was an apt model for this purpose. In the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas asks the question, proposes an answer, and then gives both the objections to that answer and the replies to the objections. In each case Thomas gives a response drawn from authority and then his own argument in support of that response. Yet the objections elaborate the contentions on the other side, usually with such fullness that the attentive scholar may perceive stronger ground than that occupied by Thomas himself. At any rate, I found in this procedure an openness to conflicting opinions for which I could find few, in any, analogies in our own more liberal age.

But Thomas Aquinas differed from contemporary authorities not only in the habit of stating the arguments on both sides of every question. He had done so in the conviction that there was a possibility of reaching reasonable opinions as to where the truth lay in most cases if the arguments on the contrary were set forth with sufficient fullness and perspicacity. It was above all this belief in the power of reason to guide judgment, and therefore to guide human life, not only concerning the true and the false, but concerning the good and bad, and the just and the unjust, that distinguished his scholarship and the tradition it represented. It also occurred to me that Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Jefferson, whatever their differences, shared a belief concerning the relations of political philosophy to political authority that neither shared with, let us say, the last ten presidents of the American Political Science Association. It seemed to me that both believed it was the task of political philosophy to articulate the principles of political right, and therefore to teach the teachers of legislators, of citizens, and of statesmen the principles in virtue of which political power becomes political authority.

Jaffa certainly makes good on his method: his treatment of Stephen Douglas is thorough, meticulous, and above all fair. It is doubtful that the Little Giant ever received so searching and sympathetic a presentation from an opponent.

From all of these fragmentary thoughts we can discern a strong trend: conservatives are not, and never have been, opponents of free inquiry. While careful not to absolutize Free Speech, they are usually more prepared to give a respectful hearing to even their deadly enemies in intellectual argument, than modern liberals whose occasional incantations of Free Speech dogma are regularly belied by the stern censorious cast of mind that asserts itself whenever favored orthodoxies are openly questioned.

Comments (4)

Speaking of this...

On matters of sexual mores and environmentalism, the puritanical urge to snuff out dissent from the Left is particular determined.

It should be noted that the Left is simply puritanical about whatever it wishes to pursue, not a particular set of fixed policies on a given issue. For example, there are many on the Left who viciously assault anyone who "slut shames" and then there are their opposites who are equally vigorous and vehement in attacking women who are openly sexual, especially for the benefit of men. See the feminist foaming-at-the-mouth campaign to destroy The Sun's Page 3 girl as a good recent example of the latter coexisting with a mainstream feminist push to make the world safer for female promiscuity.

Consequently this is why it's foolish to try to make common cause with the Left. There is strategic victory possible in common cause with them and even tactical victories are of subjectively minimal value since they aid the Left's push which is almost invariably orthogonal to conservative interests even where common cause seems to exist. As in Charlie Hebdo, it is better to permit that which is wrong because it cannot be banned for the right reason than to permit the left to unintentionally "do the right thing" for reasons we know are blatantly wrong.

There is no strategic victory...

Conservatives and progressives both accept limits on freedom of expression, but those limits are so different as to make each group's understanding of freedom of speech unrecognisable to the other. If some group of radicals, revolutionaries, or self-righteous troublemakers arrives at a scheduled lecture and blocks the entrance, makes so much noise that no one can hear the speaker, and otherwise disrupts the event preventing people who came to hear a talk from hearing the talk they came to hear and the speaker from being heard, I have known progressives to defend the actions of these radicals as their "freedom of speech" or "freedom of expression". If, on the other hand, a scientist was asked to give a talk on the hereditary component of intelligence and/or the differences in group averages between races in intelligence testing, the same progressives would support efforts on the part of the university administration or even the government to prevent the lecture on the grounds of it being "scientific racism" and hence "hate speech." To such progressives, freedom of speech or expression extends to disruptive behaviour but not to certain ideas. I think it is fair to say that for most of us who identify as conservative the acceptable limits would be the exact opposite of this. We would say that no concept should be excluded from free discussion without being given a hearing but that expression in the form of behaviour that disrupts other people and prevents them from speaking or hearing should not be tolerated.

Very good example, Gerry. Quite right.

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