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Martin Center Column Questions Free-Speech ‘Dogma’

Sumantra Maitra writes for the Martin Center about the debate surrounding free speech.

“My most ‘illiberal’ claim is that all societies necessarily have standards. Even the freest of speech regimes has limits.” This is the claim of Michael Knowles in Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds, a fascinating new book that attempts to do away with some common conservative dogmas, and raises important questions about free speech, liberty, and authority.

In particular, is the core tenet of liberalism, that everything can be solved without the use of power, true? And can a society be free without the use of power? Knowles has some doubts. Knowles is a conservative, in the original sense of the term. That means he cuts through the fantasy that has permeated “American conservatism” (as opposed to their more power-friendly and reactionary Euro cousins) in the past forty years, namely, that humans are all fundamentally rational animals, and that everything can be solved by civil persuasion in the marketplace of ideas. It’s increasingly hard to square that worldview with the reality of the last four years, and Knowles’s book offers a mild reprimand while suggesting a few course corrections.

A significant part of the book is dedicated to the central theater where this philosophical war is being fought: college campuses and universities. Knowles points out that universities have historically never been “value-neutral.” Victorian Britain had universities produce the cream imperial officer class, as did Republican colonial France. American higher education, while never colonial on the scale of Europe, also favored strong patriotic education. All that changed, however, post-WWII. …

… Now, a higher-ed sector that got rid of teaching objective truths, in favor of “freedom” and deconstruction, is going back to teaching a different version of truth. Power begs to be balanced, as Kenneth Waltz once noted.

Knowles continues, “Meanwhile, gullible conservatives adopted the radicals’ shallow, tactical, and temporary laissez-faire rhetoric as their raison d’être, abandoning the moral clarity and confidence necessary to oppose the new standard of political correctness.”

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...