On Free Speech
Many claim to believe in it, but few understand or tolerate it in practice
The Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies is tasked with “advancing the good name of the Catholic intellectual tradition.” At the outset it was made clear that it was to operate at arm’s length from the Church and enjoy a high degree of independence, for its brief was not so much to proclaim the Gospel as to demonstrate its reasonableness. As Christians we in the Dawson Centre insist that there is no conflict between faith and reason, but our focus is on the intellect alone, leaving the preaching of the Gospel to others commissioned and better gifted than ourselves to teach it. We maintain that to believe the Gospel is not a naive or feeble superstition, but an intelligent act of faith, firmly founded on reason, history, anthropology, human experience, and that natural law written in our hearts, according to Christian belief, whose existence was recognized even by pagans such as Cicero:
There exists one true law, one right reckoning in accord with nature. It is common to all men, unchanging, everlasting. Its commandments call us to duty and its prohibitions deter us from deceit… Established by divine authority this law may not be annulled, nor abrogated wholly or in any part. Neither government nor people can absolve us from obedience to it.
When we speak of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition we take a broad view, living as we do at a time when Christians of all denominations are closing ranks against an often hostile world and appreciating each other’s grand traditions. We honor the great Protestant intellectual achievements and are proud and delighted to have Christians of the reformed tradition on our committee. Moreover, we have followers who are not believers yet recognize the central part that Christianity has played in the emergence of Western Civilization.
“Freedom of speech” is one of those glib notions that almost everyone claims to believe in but few understand or even, in practice, tolerate. Much is said and written today about restrictions to that freedom being imposed upon religious people, particularly. But this is a dilemma, for one man’s freedom is another’s restraint. There never has been a time in history when all people enjoyed absolute freedom to say what they think, nor could there be; there is always a need for compromise, and in every age there have been strong and sometimes severe restrictions on free expression.
There was never a golden age. Christians have suffered persecution for their beliefs, but so have non-Christians, often at our hands. Throughout the course of the past 200 years the scope of free speech has been widened, at least in Western nations, to such an extent that it is usually now thought of as some kind of “right.” This movement towards free expression reached its zenith in the 1960s when almost all forms of censorship were abandoned, universities and even schools shied away from exercising any kind of moral authority over their students, pornography flourished in ever more disgusting ways, and self-indulgence became for most the only moral imperative.
Today the pendulum is moving in the other direction, though not always in ways of which we approve. “Wokery” is a new and godless manifestation of puritanism. The so-called Woke, the Politically Correct, are deeply intolerant of opinions that do not fit the prevailing liberal narrative. Hypocrisy has found novel and breathtakingly dreadful ways of making life difficult for ordinary people. We are all against bullying, but there seem to be more bullies than ever out there telling us what to think, what to eat, what to do with our leisure, what words to use and not to use. Words even change their meaning: marriage, male, female no longer mean what they used to mean.
The traditional mainstream media seem to be willing participants in this process; commentary seems to be taking the place of reporting, and the news we are offered has been pre-selected and interpreted for our supposed edification, not so much for the truth of its content (after all, what is truth?) but for our correction. Views that do not conform to the accepted line are either not reported at all, or else quite viciously and often ignorantly condemned. On matters such as the response to COVID, gender fluidity, renewable energy, abortion, euthanasia, white complicity in the ills of the world, there is only one position that is acceptable, and divergence is treated with scorn. Anyone who has been banned by Facebook, or who has tried to find on the internet alternatives to modern secular orthodoxy, knows that this is the case.
Many have suffered abuse or discrimination because of the non-conforming views they hold. Some have been prosecuted. Some have had their livelihoods threatened. Most have felt constrained in one way or another and unable to express openly their beliefs on matters of great weight. We are also aware that the gulf between the wokery of the so-called intellectuals who try to form public opinion and ordinary people is widening to breaking point.
The Dawson Centre and other organizations like it remind us that we are not alone: we have friends and allies who are intelligent and eloquent, and the ground is shifting at last. There will be no certain victory in this world, but the game is worth the candle, and we should enjoy the adventure:
‘For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.’
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