I was very concerned reading an article on The Upheaval by N. S. Lyons called “There Is No Liberal West.” Lyons holds that no Western country is any longer committed to principles of liberalism. He summarizes these principles as follows:
- that individuals possess universal and inalienable natural rights;
- that “liberty of conscience is every man’s natural right” (as John Locke put it), and that freedom of religion is fundamental to a just and peaceable society;
- that freedom of expression is paramount, as free debate is inseparable from the process of government by reason, and to all human individual and social progress;
- that self-rule is the pinnacle of just and enlightened government, and that freedom of association and assembly is integral to political liberty;
- that the rights of the individual supersede the will of the collective, and all citizens are equal before the law;
- that there exists a necessary separation of the public and private spheres of life.
In Western nations, these principles have been eroded in varying degrees. While the United States is better in this regard than most European nations, censorship continues to make inroads. Individual expression is increasingly under attack.
If Lyons is right–and I think he is–then we in the West are headed for a philosophical dark age. Unlike progressives, I do not believe that human “progress” is an inexorable force. The free expression of ideas is necessary in order for us to make intellectual progress. Iron sharpens iron. The great Roman Catholic thinker John Henry Newman believed that we don’t really understand ideas until they have been subjected to public scrutiny and debate for some time. Only after we have argued about them, pushed and pulled on them, turned them inside out, and considered their implications can we really understand ideas. This can’t happen in an environment where we stifle speech and prosecute thought crimes. We need an active, open, and lively public sphere (to use the terminology of Charles Taylor) aimed at the public good.
If this doesn’t convince you of the danger of public censorship, then let me appeal to what might be called “enlightened self interest”: if they can silence someone else, they can silence you, too. We don’t want speech and expression to depend simply upon who is in power, or upon the ideological leanings of cultural elites. That way lies madness.
The liberal West is bleeding to death from self-inflicted wounds, and it will require concerted effort to save the patient in the days ahead.