Australian Commentary (15)

The Challenge of Free Speech

It is not the function of the state to make people better, either morally or physically. It is the function of the state to penalize certain forms of behaviour. It is not to make people better. It is to persuade them not to commit certain kinds of public acts. Whenever the state goes beyond this, it becomes tyrannical.[1]

Plain-speaking is something we value in the West, and it is something we can generally do, without someone getting upset and taking us to court. We have the Bible to thank for that. The notion that in a free country, you can say what you want, comes indirectly from the Bible.

Of course, there are limits. There is no such thing, and there never has been such a thing in a free society, as absolute freedom of speech. We do have the principle from scripture, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Ex.20:16). Our libel or slander laws legitimately spring from this.

We must remember too, that all law is religious in origin. To restrict freedom of speech indirectly means that freedom to preach and confront people with the gospel is restricted. That alone should always call into question restrictions on freedom of speech.

We tend to think quickly that its totalitarians who restrict freedom of speech, and of course, that’s true. Dictators can’t stand the thought of public dissent to their policies, because they are afraid of some kind of public revolt that could throw them out of office.

The Nazis were determined to gas to death not just Jews, but disabled people: babies, older children and adults. The evil plan came to the notice of the Catholic Bishop of Munster, Clemens von Galen. In a pastoral letter, read out in many churches in August 1941, he declared (among other things),

We are dealing with human beings, our brothers and sisters. With poor people, sick people, if you like unproductive people. But have they for that reason forfeited the right to life?…

Woe to mankind, woe to our German nation if God’s Holy Commandment “Thou Shalt not Kill,” which God proclaimed on Mount Sinai amidst thunder and lightning, which God our Creator inscribed in the conscience of mankind from the very beginning, is not only broken, but if this transgression is actually tolerated and permitted to go unpunished.

What was the consequence of this? “The sermon sent a shockwave through the Nazi leadership all the way up to Hitler.” For fear of a national reaction, Hitler suspended the gassing plan, which had already accounted for nearly a hundred thousand deaths. The program quietly continued, but without the widespread gassings.[2] Hitler later promised that “a man like bishop von Galen knows that after the war I shall exact retribution down to the last farthing.”[3]

But it hasn’t only been dictators who want to restrict freedom of speech, who seek to “…suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Ro.1:18). During World War I, President Wilson in the US had newspaper editors gaoled who opposed his policies in print, along with ministers who criticised his policies from the pulpit. What can we learn from this?

Political leaders try to harness national pride when launching wars, and that can mean getting rid of internal critics, especially those intent on revealing other motivations for war that political leaders doesn’t want aired.“Forget about this free speech nonsense. Chuck ‘em in gaol!” Not only do civil liberties in democracies get reduced during war for purposes of “security,” but after the war, political leaders are slow to return to what had been the status quo. They love the power to restrict opposition.

We don’t have a well developed sense of liberties in Australia, partially because we haven’t had to fight for them yet. So we’re rather indifferent about violations of liberties, especially if they don’t affect us personally. That’s a very dangerous attitude.

Paul believed in freedom of speech. Quoting a Cretan, he said

… “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true (Tit.1:12-13).

Why would Paul be so blunt? He wanted to confront evils in Cretan culture, because every nation in any era has its cultural idolatries, and Paul was determined to confront the cultural idolatry of his era. In this he was no different to Gideon who out of obedience to God, cut down an altar to Baal (Judges 6:25-31), or Elijah confronting the 400 prophets of Baal (I Kings 18). John the Baptist declared that “the axe is already laid at the root of the trees…” (Mat.3:10) for a reason. He lost his life for speaking freely against an evil governor.

Thus a commitment to free speech will not be popular with everyone, especially evildoers, who want to hide their activities from public gaze.

Minority groups can be very sensitive about utterances that are perceived as zenophobic or racist. Naturally, these utterances may be undesirable and ill-mannered. Or it may be just blunt, plain speaking, for every social group may have attributes which some find offensive. In a mature and free country, statements such as the above quote from Paul must be acceptable, even if they offend some people. Being forbidden by law to offend, means we have become a sanitised, muted society, at the mercy of those with the power to offend.

“I’m so upset, because you’ve offended me. In fact, I’m going to take you to court.” Well, that person has some growing up to do.

Conclusion:                                                                                                                        

Whenever a society cannot accept some plain-speaking levelled against itself, it has embarked on a path of self-deception, for no society is perfect. This means that we all have to take the rough with the smooth, laugh at ourselves, and be a bit less pretentious at perfection.

For a lot of good men have died for the right of a free people to speak their mind, as they wish. And if others are offended, that’s too bad.

                        For you were called to freedom, brethren… (Gal.5:13).

 

[1] Gary North, “The Logic of Insurance: Private and Statist,” 2014.

[2] Quoted by Babette Francis, ‘Blessed Cardinal Clemens von Galen-the pro-life Lion of Munster,’ “Endeavour Forum,” October 2011, p.8.

[3] Quoted in M. Cohen and John Major,” A History in Quotations,” 2004, p.831.

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