Free Expression and the Reformation of Morals

Rowan Atkinson, who famously played Mr. Bean, argues here for free expression and free speech. Comedians feel keenly the importance of saying what they believe must be said, including the thing that certain people believe must not be said. They argue fiercely for the freedom to say it, firstly for the sake of their art, but secondly for those without the microphone or the degree of public notariety that has secured them the ability to speak up and speak out. Comedians test public norms and make us revisit the reasons the norms are there at all. Some norms, after all, are built upon falsehoods, and are thus absurd and ridiculous. They only thing maintaining those norms is a mass delusion, a captivity of the mind. Humor sobers us; a good belly laugh drops the scales from our eyes.

It feels as though we are living at a heightened moment of censoriousness in our history, not only because posting the wrong thing on social media can lead to swarming behavior and the heaping on of oppobrium from strangers, but because our awareness of outrage elswhere is felt more acutely right where we live. In other words, we not only know the norms and customs governing the place where we live, but the norms and customs being enforced and upheld elsewhere, those touted in a globalized digital village that is a “no place,” or perhaps an anti-place.

As a result, we self-censor not only on the basis of the known opinions of our peers, but on the basis of what others believe “out there.” And with the ubiquity of cameras, recording devices, and internet feeds, we know we are only a moment away from shaming and infamy, regardless of our degree of celebrity. One only need think of the label “Karen.”

I am of the opinion we are not only presently navigating how best to protect free speech and free expression. I believe we are also navigating a crisis of authority, the dissolution of community, a weakened sense of identity and belonging, and the lack of a shared, consensus view of what constitutes custom or manners. I’m am glad there are those who are defending free speech, arguing for its importance. Free speech is foundational for arriving upon sound answers regarding who we should listen to, to whom we belong, how we understand ourselves, and what we can agree upon as the good, true, right, and beautiful. Discourse can result in discomfort. But discomfort can precede discovery. Civility must be modeled; its shape, too, will be debated.

William Wilberforce, who is well known for his work as an abolitionist, also founded The Society for the Suppression of Vice. In his book A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Middle and Higher Classes of this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity, Wilberforce took it upon himself to criticize his fellow citizens and advocate not only the Christian faith, but the reformation of manners. He argued not only for religious reform and assent to certain Christian beliefs, but a different way of speaking, acting, and relating with others in society. His positions, no doubt, were debated fiercely!

As discomfiting as it may be, we are in a transitional moment, and old questions are being revisited in light of new problems and new technologies. Before we can reach a shared understanding of free speech, we must debate. Debates are often messy, until consensus emerges. And even when consensus is established, given enough time, the reasons the consensus was arrived upon will be forgotten, a challenging point of view will emerge, and the debate will begin again. This is the cycle of human societies. We experience a crisis. We implement solutions. We enjoy a brief moment of stability. Then, we find, or create, a new crisis. Many new crises are old crises, experienced afresh by a new generation, demanding old wisdom be recovered and applied anew.

Spokespersons for Christ have a role to play in this conversation, not only as defenders of free speech, free expression, and, I would add, religious liberty, but also in advocating a way of life, a way of relating to others within the society. We must reject what is evil, and hold fast to what is good. We must protect the speech rights of others, even if we disagree. But if we disagree, we must offer counter-arguments with respect to what we believe is right toward the end of building a consensus view. These arguments will be offered in words, but also through lives testifying to another Lord and another way of life, and communities—churches—displaying redemption in effect, a foretaste of the world to come. And we must model the kind of civility, respect, long-suffering and patience that we would hope to find among those with whom we will disagree. We must not return evil for evil, but instead overcome evil with good, trusting that truth, ultimately, will prevail.