Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour!
-- William Wordsworth, “Sonnets Dedicated to Liberty”
Who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?
-- John Milton, Areopagitica
I have. Over and over again I have known truth put to the worse, when there is too much freedom, where there are no rules. And who am I to declare the rules? Nobody in particular. But I know that where there are no rules, lies prevail. The biggest fist then rules, and might makes right.
“Your right to swing your arm stops at my nose.” I heard this motto spoken at a small-town meeting on residential zoning. A developer had bought two of the town’s modest frame houses and torn them down to build mcmansions in their place. These intruders bullied the neighborhood, and towered over it. A woman broke into tears as she told how she no longer had sunlight in her kitchen window.
The town discovered that it had no rules against this kind of thing. Many were afraid it was a sign of things to come, that it was the end of “our town as we know it;” or that, as a realtor might say, the “special character” of the place was about to be demolished. So they wanted to make what the developer had done illegal.
The speaker, who so zealously guarded the prerogatives of his nose, was the developer. How dare you pass laws, he said, that limit my property rights? You can swing your arms, of course, provided that the arc never crosses my path – or any potential path that I might choose. Pass all the ordinances you want, as long as they have no impact on me.
But it wasn’t the developer who should have spoken these words. The words properly belonged to the woman who no longer had sunlight in her kitchen. Her nose had been smashed by his fist. She had done nothing, and the swinging of his arm had materially curtailed enjoyment of her property.
The developer was misrepresenting himself. What he said was true – none of us has a right to smack another in the face – but his utterance of it was false. When the smacker masquerades as smackee, the resulting speech acts are duplicitous. We have a right to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. When aggressors claim to be victims, they deserve no place in the discussion circle.
Those who deny the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, for instance, contradict the facts in order to continue the persecution of Jews. Because a few seconds of research demolishes their position, they create phony institutions of research, and publish ragtag “journals” in which the persecutors can quote each other, thus generating footnotes – those ensigns of scholarship that fool an ill-informed reader into thinking the author owns a place in the intellectual tradition.
Some Christians in America claim that Christians are persecuted in America – proving only that they do not know what the meaning of the word “persecution” is: disagreement is not the same thing as persecution. Christians have at times and places been persecuted for their faith (more often than not by other Christians), but not these Christians here and now. Conservative Christians have the right to offer their views, but not to be protected from exposure in delusion or dishonesty.
When I went to school in the still segregated south, family members and their friends told me (the Yankee kid) that the “Niggruhs” had their own schools, just as good, no, “even better than ours,” and they would show me some time. But they never did show me, because there weren’t any such places. The kids who a year or two later sat down at a Greensboro lunch counter had stopped talking; this matter wasn’t going to be resolved at a discussion circle. Discussion in that time and place had become too corrupt for that. We’re lucky that the ones who stopped talking weren’t carrying guns.
Some who sought power recently have said that the new health care laws include “death panels,” by which government bureaucrats will decide who lives and who dies. There are in fact bureaucrats who get to decide who of us will be treated and who will not: they work for health insurance companies. The death panel hoax was a scheme to smear government with sins of private enterprise. It worked, because those with higher ethical standards were too polite. I am a worker in palliative care. This lie is about me. I take it personally. No one will tell it in my presence without being called on it.
We didn’t call the liars out. We didn’t confront them with their professional and personal corruption. They should have been red-carded and sent off the field, but we tried to debate with them. They do not deserve debate. They deserve – depending on your philosophy of child-rearing – either a long time-out or a public spanking.
If Milton were alive today, he would know that truth can be put to the worse when the rules of discourse are violated and no one calls the fouls. Free speech isn’t utterly free. You don’t get to win by shouting louder. You don’t get to prove your lies by repeating them. You don’t get to quote movies as if they were history. You don’t get to ignore the facts. You don’t get to dispute the facts except on the basis of other facts. Above all, you don’t get to call yourself the lamb when you are the lion.
Radical theologians and philosophers have said in recent times that the rules of discourse are elitist. I do not think they are right; but if they are right, then justice requires that elites should rule the world. We don’t always have to listen to everybody. Though all are born with a place in the circle, some have disqualified themselves.
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