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The Terror of Free Speech
We've destroyed the American character and human capacity for thought
Verbs and nouns might might fracture crowns, But deeds can never hurt me.
I composed that nursery rhyme in about 2015 as an inversion of the familar
Sticks and stone might break my bones, But names will never hurt me.
I had noticed a trend among leftists and young adults in general: causing someone to be “offended” was becoming a greater crime than physical assault. Conversely, stating good intentions ameliorated all actual crimes. Feelings uber alles!
Following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015, many on the left excused the slaughter because the publication had “offended” Muslims. And the terrorists had good intentions of sparing other Muslims similar discomfort.
Meanwhile, the left demanded punishment for Donald Trump for “offending” illegal immigrants and women and stupid people and . . . name it. Suddenly, speech found offensive by anyone needed to be criminalized. Anyone, that is, but orthodox Christians. Conveniently, orthodox Christians glory in being attacked for their faith.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.…
My generation and those before mine were raised to shrug off offenses and insults, to counter insults with reason, and to keep our reasoning to ourselves. I was never very good at following this advice, but I knew that the world at large didn’t give two Bidens about my feelings.
Somehow that changed. Somewhere we invented a fundamental right to never be upset. We are to forgive immediately actual crimes like murder, rape, arson, battery, and rioting, but to persecute, demonize, even prosecute anyone who says or does things we don’t like.
We have all become children in a playground.
Kid: Don’t look at me!
Other kid: (stares)
Kid: I’m telling!
Other kid: (grins)
Kid: You hurt my feelings!
Adult: (to other kid), Go to your room! Tell Kid you’re sorry. Now!
This crisis of character exploded during the Trump presidency because of . . . mean tweets. I kid you not. Formerly intelligent and rational people like Jonah Goldberg lost their minds because Donald Trump talked back to his attackers.
Next, Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple, and more banned anything anyone found “offensive,” including simple statements of fact, like:
There are only two sexes: male and female, man and woman.
“Trans women” are dudes in dresses.
“Trans men” are women on testosterone.
Blacks and Hispanics like Trump more and more each day.
Masks cause more harm than good.
Covid vaccines are neither safe nor effective.
Ivermectin, Vitamin D, and Zinc reduce the chance of infection and serious illness.
The election was stolen.
Rosie O’Donnell is a pig.
Any of these statements of fact could get you banned from the internet and fired from your job because someone with an improperly managed psychological disorder felt negative emotions.
All of this, as I said, was the result of emotional coddling begun in the late 1980s and emerged as “accepted science” when Trump glided down the escalator to history in 2015. But its roots go back more than 30 years.
Charles J. Sykes, a professor, wrote about the phenomenon in his 1993 book, A Nation of Victims. In the preface, Sykes warned:
As anyone who has spent much time on campus these days knows, it is almost impossible to debate any issue of weight without running up against the politics of victimizations; its legacy is the tone of shrill intelerance and ethnic division describe, among others, by Dinesh D’Souza in Illiberal Education.1
I first read A Nation of Victims while I was writing The Conservative Manifesto. I was witnessing this collapse of character in my day job at Submarine Squadron Two in Groton, Connecticut. I had been written up on charges (which were subsequently dropped) when a sailor on temporary duty overheard my joking with another sailor. Our humor hurt his feelings, so he filed a racial harassment charge. (The conversation had nothing to do with race, but he knew that racial harassment would be get the command’s attention.)
As assistant personnel officer for the squadron, among many other duties, I processed sailors from ten submarines for discharge. For the first seven years of my service, sailors were most commonly discharged for reaching their end of service, for physical problems, or for disciplinary problems—smoking weed being the most prevalent. But that distribution changed after Bill Clinton became Commander in Chief.
By 1994, disciplinary discharges approached EAOS separations as the most common reason for discharge. And the charges for disciplinary discharges shifted from what was going into sailors’ mouths to what was coming out of sailors’ mouths. Increasingly, I was processing sailors for hurting another sailor’s feelings.
Had we listened to Dinesh D’Souza and Professor Sykes in 1993, we might have nipped in the bud what Sykes called “the decay of the American character.” But hurt feelings and victimization only grew in power over the American mind for the next 30 years.
This emotional fragility and loss of character is reaching is zenith now that Elon Musk has begun restoring free speech to the internet through his acquisition of Twitter. Exhibit A from Twitter:
Or this breathless headline from Axios:
Lives are literally at risk because people can speak their minds on Twitter—a website that, unlike masks and vaccines, no one is required to use. In other words, people might die from exposure to thoughts they disagree with. Or, in the case of recent public school graduates, thoughts they don’t understand.
The principle of natural selection would seem to dictate that those who die from hearing discomfiting ideas represent addition-by-subtraction for the species at large as well as their local societies. Someone who dies because I quote a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans ought not to reproduce. Their ilk weakens the herd.
This is not to say we should intentionally hurt people’s feelings for amusement, as tempting as that pastime might be. Rather, we have a duty to speak the truth, particularly when truth itself is under attack, as when feeble-minded physicians encourage parents to castrate or hormonally neuter their adolescent children.
It seems that today intentional offensiveness receives less opprobrium than honest attempts to establish and promote truth. Again, with roots in the late 1980s and early 1990s, punishing the truth-tellers is nothing new, especially in America’s “great” universities.
Dinesh D’Souza recounted an incident at Princeton in the 1980s that shattered the career of classicist Professor Bob Hollander. Princeton was considering introducing a “women’s studies” program exclusively for political correctness. Hollander wasn’t necessarily opposed to the idea, but he believed the debate should center on the academic value of the program, not politics. In Illiberal Education, D’Souza writes:
When he criticized the proposed program for its stated political objectives, however, Hollander remember being subjected to a barrage of personal attacks. “I achieved instant notoriety. Even now, year later, my speech is the thing that most people remember about me
. . .
When the motion to establish Women’s Studies passed, Hollander remembers, “Women were embracing and kissing the floor. This struck me as odd. Was this an academic discussion or a political rally? Were we discussing ideas or feeling?”2
To quote a 1970s pop song, “Feelings. Nothing more than feelings.”
So, for nearly two generations feelings have trumped ideas on America’s campuses. As the classes of 1991 and 1993 worked their way into the culture at large, many carried with them this feeling that feelings are all that matter. (I sit in meetings at work listening to people say, “I feel that . . .” and “how would this feel?” and “I’m not comfortable with . . . .” Feelings even run business.)
If feelings are all that matter, it makes sense that the highest crime one could commit is a crime against emotions. A large faction in America truly believes that innocuous statements rise to the level “literal violence” if even one person considers the statements could potentially be offensive to someone—even if no one on earth actually took offense to the statement. Doesn’t matter. The potential (or, as the hyperurbanalized academics would say, “potentiality”) for “literal violence” to someone’s feelings makes the speaker a “literal Hitler” who must be punished and cast out from society—or from life, if possible.
As feelings replaced thought in America, antidepressant use skyrocketed. Between 1988 and 2011, the number of people taking antidepressants increased 400%. (Finding statistics for antidepressant use after 2014 is difficult, indicating the American medical industry has put the nix on such data.) Prescriptions for anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic have increased similarly from 1988 to 2022. And over 60% of antidepressant patients have been on the pills for more than two years.
Americans simply cannot handle negative feelings.
What we call “feelings” or “emotions” involve complex brain processes that developed over eons for the preservation and advancement of the species. They perceive the good, the bad, the desirable, and the repulsive. But we’ve expanded the idea of feelings to include “sensibilities.” And it’s our sensibilities that are driving society off the rails.
Strictly speaking, “sensibility” is simply the capacity to perceive stimuli. But the common definition, from Wordlink, is more nuanced:
Mental or emotional responsiveness, especially in being offended or in having one's feelings hurt.
The crime of offense involves this definition. Saying “there’s no way Joe Biden won 81 million votes” has no emotional weight. Instead, it triggers a cognitive response (disagreement) that we allow to trigger an emotional avalanche. We then attach highly charged words to this emotional avalanche in an attempt to spread our negative emotions. “Election denier,” “traitor,” “insurrectionist,” we label the speaker on social media, just as dogs bark to warn their pack of danger.
Whether it’s plausible that 81 million registered voters cast votes for Joe Biden in 2020 is never debated, because there’s little emotional weight to probabilistic analysis. Rather, we rebuke the inquisitor for unleashing an emotional cavalcade. It doesn’t matter whether his questioning statement is valid or not. The fact that some people produced negative emotions upon hearing the statement is enough to indict, convict, and punish the speaker.
Marjorie Taylor Greene was permanently suspended from Twitter for two statements of fact that made people feel bad:
The FDA should not approve the Covid vaccines.
The Covid vaccines are ineffective at reducing the virus’s spread.
The first was the considered opinion of a Congressman. The second was a simple statement of fact that everyone recognized as of August 9, 2021 when Taylor Greene posted the tweets. Nonetheless, the hurricane of horror expressed by emotionally unstable Twitter users led to her permanent suspension (which Elon Must has since reversed.)
Yes, Pfizer, the DOJ, the CDC, the NIH, and the FDA ordered Twitter to invoke the suspension. But they couldn’t have done it without the emotionalism of thousands of unwell Americans whose lives were “literally endangered” by a reasonable opinion and an irrefutable fact. The episode—one of thousands performed daily by Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google, and others over the past six years—demonstrates America’s emotional frailty and narcissism.
The danger of unchecked emotionalism extends far beyond individual freedom or national sovereignty—it threatens the human species as a whole. Seventy percent of Americans took the Covid vaccines, mostly without an ounce of intellectual rigor. They lined up like the people of Jonestown and drank the Kool-Aid for emotional relief from their irrational fears of a virus. This unquestioning response provided valuable information to those who, like Bill Gates, believe the human population must be reduced by any means necessary. Which triggers an almost purely emotional response from the right.
Gates has said vaccines can be used to reduce the population by 10 to 15 percent, and that “death panels” are needed to bring down the cost of medicine.
And, yet, most of the reactions to Gates’s statements are purely emotional. Notice the emotionally charged words in this tweet: crazy, killers, etc. I looked at half a dozen posts of this video on Twitter and not a single one challenged Gates’s logic or conclusion. Rather, they hyperventilated over the mere mention of “death panels.”
Rationally, the idea of triage is an ancient practice. In the Christian world, triage was performed mostly by medical professionals whose judgment was informed by scripture. People mostly accepted those decisions, as when an Army field medic decides to apply a tourniquet to a crudely amputated leg instead of treating the abdominal explosion of another soldier five feet away. His reasoning is that the tourniquet applied in time will save one soldier’s life, but he lacks the skill and tools to rebuild the other soldier’s guts.
When we shared a common faith, we could accept these decisions. We trusted that the medic or doctor making those life-and-death decision based his thinking on Judeo-Christian principles, applying his specialized knowledge of the human body. For most of history since the time of Christ, this common moral code held Western societies together. We could endue emotional pain because we knew this life is just trial for the next and that the vast majority of our fellows knew the same. We trusted the decisions of authorities because those authorities shared this belief in the final things.
Once that common faith was shattered, so was our trust. Once we’d lost the idea of the beatific vision, we could see only what is immediately before us. And once we’d given up hope in God as a society, we could no longer tolerate pain of any kind. There’s’ no point in suffering unless we suffer with Christ.
As our emotional pain threshold diminished, the number of ideas that caused us pain increased. Our feelings have become like raw, exposed nerve endings that even a soft breeze will irritate. Our lack of faith allows us to wish or perpetrate harm on others who might have caused this irritation.
All of this has led to the criminalization of thought. In Ireland, Enoch Burke has been in prison for 83 day (as of this writing) for the crime of refusing to teach the lie of transgenderism. Here’s a tweet of support for Burke that summarizes the situation:
Not only has the Satanic Irish government imprisoned Burke, it threatens to imprison anyone who speaks of Burke except to condemn him. All principles of Western civilization have fled the Emerald Isle replaced by hedonism and satanism. Only a decade ago, Ireland was the most Christian country on earth.
Where God goes, reason follows. When we expel God, we divorce ourselves from the part of the brain that separates us from rude beasts.
There’s a popular aphorism that you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into. It applies to societies as well. A nation that has outlawed reason and operates on pure emotion cannot be talked off the ledge. Reason works only with those who have their wits about them. And reason is a freely-given gift from God—one we lacked the capacity to imagine, much less ask for. To restore reason, tolerance, and thinking to society, we must first open ourselves individually to God’s holy gifts.
The world will go the way of the world. Scripture assures us the world doesn’t end well, but a new world is coming for those who keep their wits, tolerate emotional and physical pain, and do so in union with Christ the King. We can never stop preaching the truth, but we cannot expect many to listen. Our American civilization might crumble in our time, but our job is not to save a nation, only to save souls beginning with our own.
America has lost its mind because it first lost its soul. But, as Bill Murray said in Meatballs, it just doesn’t matter. The only reasonable answer is Jesus Christ, and we didn’t reason ourselves to that conclusion—He does it for us.
Sykes, Charles J., A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1993
D’Souza, Dinesh, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. 1991, The Free Press.