The guarantee of freedom of expression in the First Amendment to United States Constitution has never abridged a publisher’s right to determine what content he prints in his newspaper. Just as surely, it protects the public’s right to demonstrate in opposition to the views expressed by influential people in both the public and private spheres. Yet the fear that free speech is currently under assault in the west extends beyond concerns about its legal status to the question of whether the principle of freedom of expression is being honoured.
The belief that reasoned discourse presents the surest pathway to social progress no longer feels like the default assumption within mainstream society. If this is true, the blame cannot lie solely with those who wilfully seek to undermine our commitment to the norms of free speech—whether in opposition to the spread of conspiratorial propaganda or in rashly conceived quests for social justice. The deeper rationale for our culture of free speech lies less in our negative right not to be oppressed for our opinions, than in our positive obligation to persuade one another towards progress. The former is a necessary condition of a legally free society. But the latter is the indispensable disposition by which we make use of that liberty in ways that help sustain our freedom itself. It is in our affirmative commitment to speak to the conscience of our fellow man that that freedom is most fully justified.
Belief in free speech is empty without a commitment to the moral imperative of persuasion: an imperative at the heart of the philosophy of nonviolence as taught by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Countering the charge that nonviolent resistance is equivalent to passivity, King explained that “while the nonviolent resister … is not physically aggressive towards his opponent, his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong.” This moral commitment to persuasion is spiritually proactive. It is the necessary attitude with which we engage our most deeply rooted social and political differences, not “to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.”
King’s philosophy of nonviolence drew upon not only the Hindu-grounded teachings of Gandhi and deeply spiritual interpretations of the social ethics of the gospels. It was—and remains—also a philosophy of democracy, indebted to a deep and evolving understanding of liberal-democratic society as it has emerged and the radius of its inclusivity has gradually expanded, during the history of the United States.
The broad arc of this story is well known—even though it is fashionable in some quarters today to speak as if the democratic progress of American history has not been substantial. The United States was born as a nation committed to the philosophical principle that all men are created equal. Over the course of her history, the US has eliminated slavery, expanded the right to vote to people of all colours, expanded the franchise to women, overturned federal and state-level legal regimes aimed at blocking access to the ballot for people of colour, and—more broadly—has opened up the major institutions of society to meaningful participation on the part of Americans from far beyond the category of white, landowning adult males, who were originally the only enfranchised constituency in American democracy. The outcomes of the moral dialectic of American democracy have time and again lent credence to King’s metaphysical assertion that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Of course, this version of the story can only look complete through rose-coloured glasses. We could just as easily tell a story of democratic progress in America that is grossly partial, uneven and far more a project of force and the wresting of political power by marginalized groups, who had to fight for their basic civil rights, than one of the evolution of democratic thought through reason.
In this telling, the idealistic verses of the Declaration of Independence were just idle words on paper, against a backdrop of slavery, genocide and gender discrimination. The independence those words declare was given life not through argument, but by revolutionary bloodletting. Likewise, the abolition of slavery—necessary only because it had been allowed to exist in the first place as the economic centrepiece of a nation supposedly founded on a belief in equality—was achieved not through conscience, but by bullets and political struggle. Women had to strive for the political equality represented by the hard-won right to vote, an equality that was belied by a persistent inequality in the marketplace that some argue continues to this day. African-Americans would labour to achieve meaningful access to the ballot box for a full century following the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Even in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, America was disgraced by the spectre of mass black incarceration and—in the view of many—a regime of systemic racism that only grew more subtle and complex, despite the gains of the movement. The genocide of the Native Americans, meanwhile, would be largely complete by the end of the nineteenth century.
One can take a cynical view of the progress of American democracy, then, and discount the serious role that moral persuasion has played in it. In this telling, the American conscience has not evolved. Or, if it has, that hasn’t been a consequence of reason so much as a mere function of the shifting balance of power. Therefore moral persuasion is not a vehicle for social progress in which we should invest much hope.
This is the argument that Ibram X. Kendi makes in How To Be an Antiracist. Kendi claims that “the problem of race has always been at its core the problem of power, not the problem of immorality or ignorance.” Redirecting those currents of power is therefore the solution: “Moral and educational suasion [breeds] the assumption that racist minds must be changed before racist policy, ignoring history.”
In his defence, Kendi cites Dr King himself. He notes that King pointed out that it was a mistake, in an unjust society, to focus all one’s energy on moral persuasion without engaging the levers of power. Yet King also consistently made it clear that there is inherent power in moral persuasion when it is aimed at the conscience of the opposition. This, in King’s view, is the proper way to do democracy.
As Civil Rights movement veteran Harry Boyte has written, “leaders like Martin Luther King enriched older traditions of everyday politics with profound insights of the human condition and what it takes to achieve ‘positive liberty,’ a community which puts human flourishing and development … at the center.” The development of human character and the bonds of community were central to King’s vision of the ideal democracy. But such things rely on human connection and our ability to reason together across the gulfs that divide us.
It is precisely this culture of humanized persuasion that Harlem Renaissance luminary Alain Locke spoke of when he said: “If we are going to have effective democracy in America, we must have the democratic spirit.” In the era of abolition, this democratic spirit was expanded by the polemics and oratory of Frederick Douglass, whose advocacy for freedom elevated the antislavery cause on both sides of the Atlantic. During a tumultuous era of reforms, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony likewise brought the cause of universal suffrage squarely into the forefront of the American conscience. Of course, the nonviolent movement is itself a central historical example of moral persuasion giving life to coalitions that in turn have made liberal democracy healthier and more robust.
The American Civil Liberties Union has traditionally been one of America’s most active and effective groups in its consistent defence of the right to free speech. It has responded to those calling for limitations on the free speech rights of prejudiced organizations and individuals, supposedly in the interests of social justice, by insisting: “Silencing a bigot accomplishes nothing except turning them into a martyr for the principle of free expression. The better approach, and the one more consistent with our constitutional tradition, is to respond to ideas we hate with the ideals we cherish.”
As the ACLU rightly points out, “Historically, restrictions on speech have proven at best ineffective, and at worst counter-productive, in the fight against bigotry.” This is in part because the power to decide what speech is and is not objectionable lies in the hands of the powerful—be they governments or college administrations—who may use such power for their own ends. Even free speech protections on behalf of genuinely white supremacist individuals and organizations have over the long run proved to be critical precedents in the legal fight for civil rights.
Nevertheless, the strongest case for free speech is neither legal nor tactical (though both of these are important), but principled and moral. We have a moral obligation to reason together towards a better world, if indeed it is a better—more just, more free, more equal—world that we seek. This demands that we be willing to persuade one another, and to be persuaded in turn. Free speech is indispensable to our ability to persuade others. And it is only through persuasion that we can win others over to the defence of free speech itself.