Prof. Paul Eidelberg
Freedom of speech is a fundamental human value. This value seemingly has its home in liberal democracy. Indeed, liberal democracy exalts freedom of speech over all other values of civilization, including respect for reason, truth, decency, and even national security.
This exaltation of freedom of speech in contemporary liberal democracy has led to its degradation. Today, freedom of speech lacks rational and ethical constraints. Divorced from truth, freedom of speech has become a license not only to lie but even to incite people to murder, as witness Harvard’s defense of Oxford poetaster Tom Paulin who urged that Jews living in Judea/Samaria “should be shot dead.”
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 there are fifty righteous 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 clearly this right, from a Hebraic perspective, can only be derived from man’s creation in the image of G-d (Genesis 1:26). Only because man is endowed with reason and free will does he have a right to freedom of speech. This right, however, must be understood in terms of the purpose or function of speech.
Speech is not an end-in-itself or a mere exercise of self-expression. Rightly understood, speech is a manifestation of reason, the quintessential function of which is to communicate ideas and inquire into their truth or falsity, their justice or injustice. Hence, speech is an intellectual-moral phenomenon.
To divorce speech from truth and justice is to relegate this distinctively human faculty to a mere instrument of self-aggrandizement and to reject the biblical concept of man’s creation in the image of G-d. This is the current tendency of liberal democracy, a tendency that actually degrades man and makes a mockery of his right to freedom of speech.
It cannot be said too often—it is hardly said at all—that if freedom of speech is divorced from truth, or if there is no truth, democracy is no more justifiable than tyranny. More precisely, if there are no objective standards by which to distinguish right from wrong, or modesty from shamelessness—whether in speech or in behavior—then there are no rational grounds for preferring democracy to totalitarianism.
Notice, moreover, that the denial of objective moral standards does not logically justify the toleration of all lifestyles. Moral relativism undermines any objective grounds for preferring tolerance to intolerance, or freedom of speech to censorship.
It has been said that the only rational defense of freedom of speech or of academic 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 it is commonly understood that it is wrong to cheat or deceive, to plagiarize or steal, to defame or incite to murder. This suggests that moral relativists, who very much dominate the academic world, take civilization for granted—much like children.
This is the case of Harvard and Columbia University. Thus, when questions were raised in November 2003 about the indecency of Harvard and Columbia honoring and playing host to Oxford poetaster Tom Paulin after he had urged that Jews living in Judea/Samaria “should be shot dead” and announced that he “never believed that Israel had the right to exist at all,” his apologists in Cambridge and Morningside Heights defended his right “to criticize Israeli policy.”
These apologists behave like children who know nothing of the many centuries of struggle and suffering required to achieve, preserve, and transmit the blessings of civilization.
Evident at Harvard and Columbia—presumably at most American universities—is profound ignorance and ingratitude. Indeed, one may even say that the malediction of Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “Death to America,” was absurd, for America, thanks to its institutions of higher education, had already committed suicide.
Paul Eidelbreg is a retired professor of political science and author of An American Political Scientist in Israel and The Beginning and End of American Exceptionalism: A Theo-Political Analysis.