"Tolerance of free speech is the way of improvement, of progress in liberation, not because there is no objective truth, and improvement must necessarily be a compromise between a variety of opinions, but because there is an objective truth which can be discovered, ascertained only in learning and comprehending that which is and that which can be and ought to be done for the sake of improving the lot of mankind."
--Herbert Marcuse, "Repressive Tolerance," 1965
The free speech of 21st-century America is based on a presumption of absolute relativism. Only radicals and reactionaries seem to believe in truth, beauty, and art anymore. And pretty much all we have left today are reactionaries.
In 2008, the truth of Islam is equal to the truth of atheism, the truth of homophobia is equal to the truth of gay pride, the truth of racism is equal to the truth of equality.
Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, because we no longer accept an ideal of beauty; instead, we have marketable fetishes of beauty (breasts, abs, full lips) or an undefined, all-embracing "beauty" that is ultimately destructive to the idea of beauty (if everyone is beautiful, is anyone really beautiful?)
Art is not only for its own sake, but it is anything that can sell itself under the label of "art." In the aesthetic relativism of the free market, is it even possible to find a philistine anymore? Baudelaire once complained that the bourgeois no longer exists because even the bourgeoisie have condemned it. What might Baudelaire make of 90% of today's recording "artists"?
With horrifying speed we are likewise beginning to redefine "democracy" as whatever calls itself a democracy, "health" whatever calls itself healthy, and "justice" whatever we are willing to settle for as just.
To use Stephen Colbert's apt neologism, we are seekers of "truthiness." And the defining quality of truthiness, as well as its chief appeal to the contemporary mind, is that it is not ever allowed to trump any other form of truthiness.
What Marcuse called "repressive tolerance" is the show of tolerance that demands of us to put all versions of truth on equal footing. It requires, for instance, that we teach intelligent design as no better yet no worse than scientific theories that have much better and more logical proofs--not because we are earnestly seeking the real truth of the matter, which would be a respectable objective, but because to call a lie a lie offends the liars.
We live in a world that tolerates Oklahoma State Representative Sally Kern stating that "homosexuality is a bigger threat than terrorism," and in response to expressions of outrage at her ignorant, hateful remark, she blithely has replied, "Don't I have a right to free speech?"
Indeed, she does. Perhaps more of a right to free speech than a gay teen who gets shot in the head for asking a classmate to be his valentine has a right to life.
In fact, Kern's critics are attacked in blog after blog (even by some on the political left) as censoring free speech--as if, one wonders, her critics then are not allowed to express their criticism ... or, by that means, to encourage Oklahomans to look for a somewhat less nutty state representative.
People, I'm not calling for authoritarian dictates of what is officially true and what is false. I believe in free speech, too, absolutely. But free speech whose goal is not life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all --or even the goal of truth--cannot be elevated to the same place of high esteem as free speech that potentially makes us all freer and perhaps a little closer to the objective truth.
Free speech means also freedom to criticize and evaluate the speech of others and even to hold them accountable for their words.
This is why argument, free and public, is far superior to mere tolerance.
Free speech requires open and reasonable debate on the issues. Every harebrained idea needs a wise, intelligent, and articulate advocate--it deserves its "day in court," so to speak.
But it does not then follow that every harebrained idea is equal to every other idea in the final analysis ... and, regrettably, analysis is a skill we've let slip away from us, and so now we allow not only obvious imbeciles to share the platform with their moral and intellectual superiors, we let them shout down the speakers who are presenting the better evidence and speaking in calmer, more open-minded tones.
What happens to a society that tolerates lies and shuts up those who call the lies and liars what they are? What happens to a society that no longer weighs claim against claim in the hopes of discovering a fair and objective resolution? What happens to a society that allows brutal, hateful speech to go unanswered because the speakers hide behind the facade of religion ... and, therefore, presumably, are not subject to proof or rebuttal?
What happens to a society that embraces a repressive tolerance as a lazy alternative to seeking truth, liberty, and the common good?