Racism exists in this country; denying that reality, a disease of conservativism, is just the latest reincarnation of a problem that never seems to die. But right wing extremism is not our society's only ideological woe. Sadly, liberalism has developed its own disease of decay, a growing cancer that threatens to undermine the very foundation of liberal thought.
In ostensibly promoting tolerance, the essential core of liberalism, left wing extremists have taken on an ill-advised and misguided campaign to enforce an extreme version of political correctness, a form of intolerance that is ironically self-destructively anti-liberal. Before those left of center suffer the analogous fate of conservatives who lost their initiative to the Tea Party, traditional liberals must stop this madness.
Before delving into specifics, we need to explore some baseline observations. Let us be clear: There is no constitutional right not to be offended. But we need to go even further: I actually have a constitutional right to express opinions that offend you. I have the inalienable right to hold an opinion you find heinous, and have the constitutional right to verbalize those ideas.
I derive these rights from our country's founding documents. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of expression, specifically by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak openly. Here is the actual wording:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
Yet an increasing number of students on university campuses have decided that their personal and easily-bruised sensitivities trump the Constitution and my individual freedom. These anti-liberal liberals unknowingly take the radical position of dictators, tyrants and monarchs that the way to control thought is to suppress any speech that is deemed by someone, or anyone, to be distasteful. Nothing could be more distant from true liberalism, which celebrates and warmly embraces broad tolerance of disparate worldviews.
A fundamental assumption of liberalism is that the rigid control over personal liberties, opinions or speech is the unhappy realm of conservatism, something to be fought at all costs. American liberalism is centered on the very idea of social justice, free speech, freedom of religion, celebration of diversity, and an individual's fundamental right to free expression, without fear of reprisal or being ostracized.
One can hardly imagine anything more anti-liberal than thought police. Those on the left who seek to suppress speech cannot be called liberal at all; indeed, what we get with extreme liberalism is fascism, defined most significantly by its nature of "suppressing opposition and criticism."
But how can radical left and right become one and the same? How can this be? Consider circumnavigating the globe at the equator; the two points furthest apart converge at journey's beginning and end. So too with politics. In walking the path of political extremism, we find that opposing ideologies tend to converge toward the common ground of totalitarianism. Political correctness is ground zero.
Campuses Gone Wild
One of the most egregious examples of intolerance is the growing trend in academics to disinvite speakers who hold views inconsistent with campus sentiment. Students make the terrible mistake of thinking that by inviting a speaker a university endorses the speaker's views. Nothing could be further from the truth; invitations to controversial speakers are an opportunity for debate and discussion, not endorsements. Nevertheless, the headlong rush toward ideological purity seems to be winning the day. A comprehensive study from last year shows that the number of such incidents has risen dramatically in the past 15 years. Here is the disturbing conclusion from that research:
"A faculty that is hostile to the mere presence of oppositional, inconvenient, or unpopular speakers and beliefs will likely be less adept at teaching students the values of critical thinking, open-mindedness, and free intellectual inquiry that universities are supposed to embody. Students who refuse to hear opposing viewpoints will be less likely to learn critical thinking skills and less able to defend their own beliefs once off-campus. Moreover, disinvitation efforts may be fueled by a campus climate that encourages disregard for free speech rights, as suggested by the correlation between successful disinvitations and restrictive speech codes."
Not surprisingly, the most disinvited guests are right wing conservatives. Leading the pack are former president George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Ann Coulter. But established liberals are in the cross-hairs too, an inevitable consequence of the slippery slope of censorship. There is no end point other than totalitarianism.
Students at UC Berkeley voted to disinvite Bill Maher. The petition to do so justified this action by claiming that, "Bill Maher is a blatant bigot and racist who has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for. In a time where climate is a priority for all on campus, we cannot invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment."
Once the principle is established that censoring speakers who hold offending views is acceptable, there is no barrier to pushing such suppression into the realm of real oppression. Promoting tolerance by becoming intolerant is ultimately unsustainable. We can see an analogy in what happened during the Civil War. The Confederacy held that states had a right to secede from the Union. But the very idea of withdrawing from the Union led to the potential disintegration of the coalition of states founded on the idea of secession. By war's end, two southern states threatened to secede from the confederacy. The right to secede could only lead to the balkanization of separate states because secession is inherently self-destructive. Suppressing speech is equally untenable, leading inexorably to an intolerance indistinguishable from the hate it is meant to eradicate.
I despise George Bush and Condi Rice; I have nothing but disdain for Ann Coulter. But trying to muzzle right wing nut-bags is not a solution. The opposite is true; censorship only gives them strength. Instead, we must give them enough oratorical rope to hang themselves. Let them spew their hate and bigotry. Let them expose their war crimes in public forums. Let them degrade themselves with their xenophobia and racism. Let them embarrass themselves in trying to rewrite history. Let these monsters speak, and let the whole world see them for what they are. Free speech is the oxygen feeding the fire that will destroy the ugly ideology of the right. Let them speak, and then conquer them with logic, reason and fact.
History is on our side; liberalism is the ideology that has advanced the human condition. Without liberals the concepts of human rights and civil liberties would be nothing but pipe dreams rather than broadly accepted global principles. Without liberals we would still be a colony of a distant king.
As is still the case in much of the world, in the United States we would have unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, and young children laboring in horrible circumstances. Blacks and women could not vote, mixed-race marriages would be illegal, gays would be second-class citizens, women would have no control over their own reproductive destiny. The air we breathe and water we drink would be polluted.
The history of human progress is the history of liberalism. Suppressing speech is an act of desperation that does nothing but undermine the righteousness of liberal thought. Open debate can only strengthen our position; we have nothing to fear from the corrupt ideology of right wing extremism. Let everybody have their say; we only gain by doing so.
Return to Liberalism
Fighting intolerance with intolerance is self-defeating. Denying opponents a chance to express opinions openly will backfire. In suppressing offensive speech, we become what we abhor. Let us take back liberalism and renew our commitment to the full flowering of freedom of expression, including speech we do not like.
Let us save liberalism and stop this accelerating trend of silencing those with whom we disagree. Let us return to the proposition that the way to combat hateful speech is not with suppression, but with more speech, having the confidence that truth and justice can at least sometimes prevail if given a chance to flourish in the open.