Over the weekend I watched a 2006 debate on free speech and the right to offend, entitled "freedom of speech must include the license to offend."
Coming one year after riots that followed a Danish magazine's publication of a Prophet Mohammed cartoon, the debate represented a high point of the anti-free speech movement.
Still, two good exchanges stand out in their prophetic relevance to today.
The first came when Christopher Hitchens offered a pre-emptive rejoinder to statue removal fanatics. Hitchens begins with an anecdote as to why Austria was wrong to imprison Holocaust denier, David Irving, on his trip to that nation. But when David Cesarani, opposing the motion, suggests it is positive that Irving was imprisoned, Hitchens destroys him.
The British writer and philosopher (who sadly died in 2011) explains that Irving's history books illuminate the realities of Nazi rule and its efforts to co-opt fascist movements in other nations. He thus repudiates Cesarani's underlying assumption that a holocaust denier could have no value to broader social interests. With this one example Hitchens proves that we don't know the value of speech unless we allow speech to be heard.
Like Civil War statues, Irving represents both (A) ideas generally regarded as unpleasant, but also (B) markers for historical curiosity. When Hitchens notes the simplicity of the issue: "Do you think you're big enough to read a book by David Irving and make up your own mind about it?" he might as well be saying "do you think you're big enough to look at a statue and make up your own mind about it?"
The second key exchange comes when another speaker for the opposition, Daisy Khan, claims that the Mohammed cartoon was unacceptable because a Rabbi had told her so. Her shallowness declared, Khan then asserts that social media has reduced "the distance" between different people and that our speech online must thus be "negotiated and re-examined" to avoid upsetting others.
With these words, Khan unveils the intellectual foundation of the "speech is violence" movement now plaguing college campuses. The only difference is that where Khan laments inflammatory cartoons, the contemporary Left focuses on gender identity politics. Regardless, in their efforts to place happy feelings above intellectual versatility, these liberal arguments from different decades prove a sustaining moral arrogance. After all, where we prioritize the avoidance of offense over the freedom to speak, we defer to the dictatorship of the loudest.
The basic identity of the anti-speech left remains the same, and just as stupid.