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The Resilience of Ideas

In a piece titled The Tyranny of Moderation, Oliver Kamm offers a sturdy and unforgiving defence of free speech, while taking a swipe at the evasion, dishonesty and spinelessness that increasingly surrounds the issue. Kamm points out that free speech is not, and cannot be, a matter of “balance”, “sensitivity” or fatuous moral equivalence, and that the open testing of ideas is not, as some suggest, an “ethnocentric imposition.”

“It is inevitable that those who find their deepest convictions mocked will be offended, and it is possible (though not mandatory, and is incidentally not felt by me) to extend sympathy and compassion to them. But they are not entitled to protection, still less restitution, in the public sphere, even for crass and gross sentiments. A free society does not legislate in the realm of beliefs; by extension, it must not concern itself either with the state of its citizens’ sensibilities. If it did, there would in principle be no limit to the powers of the state, even into the private realm of thought and feeling.

The debate has not been aided – it has indeed been severely clouded – by an imprecise use of the term ‘respect’. If this is merely a metaphor for the free exercise of religious and political liberty, then it is an unexceptionable principle, but also an unclear and redundant usage. Respect for ideas and those who hold them is a different matter altogether. Ideas have no claim on our respect; they earn respect to the extent that they are able to withstand criticism… It is not, in fact, a fine sentiment to require respect. Respect is not an entitlement. It is, at most, a quality that is earned by the intellectual resilience of one’s ideas in the public square… 

If those with deeply held convictions find they receive compensation for injured feelings, then mental hurt is what they will seek out. As one group succeeds, then others will perceive the incentive to fashion comparable demands… Respecting the beliefs and feelings of others is a lethal affectation in public policy. It is easy to depict freedom of speech as liable to cause hurt, precisely because it is true. The policy that follows from that is counterintuitive but essential: do nothing. The defence of a free society involves not taking a stand on its output, but insisting on the integrity of its procedures.”

Amen, brother. Related: this, this, this and this.