Dying by the Post-modern Sword
But you don’t hear the ‘T’ word. Conservatives, libertarians, and liberals, who support the right to publish the cartoons, have yet to deploy this mighty and noble word. It’s as if the truth is irrelevant. In this post-Modern world, it has become irrelevant to the debate. And we must accept some of the blame by our default.
Let’s take the example of one articulate conservative. Charles Krauthammer, in a much praised article, does not once mention the word but instead talks about how Arab countries are hypocrites for allowing the depiction of Jews as “sons of pigs and monkeys.” These Arabs obviously perpetuate a vile lie; the Danish cartoons may be crude but they are the truth: Mohammad was violent! Krauthammer gives it away here: “Had they not been so hypocritical, one might defend their refusal to republish these cartoons on the grounds that news value can sometimes be trumped by good taste and sensitivity.” Is he not setting up the debate for mutual censorship: if Arabs censor vile lies, we’ll censor the honest-to-goodness truth! That’s being “fair to both sides” in the post-Modern world.
“What is the truth?” postmodernists skeptically ask but quickly answer: “There is no such thing as truth, only perceptions dependent on one’s demographic group. You have your perceptions and they have theirs. The very notion of ‘truth’ is a tool of the powerful to oppress the powerless.” Even those who wouldn’t agree with these statements have adopted an “our prejudice vs. their prejudice” posture. This denies the possibility that the cartoons might be true before they’ve even been debated. And that’s a major concession in this war.
There are those who mistakenly base their whole argument for liberty on skepticism. It is only the inability to know the truth that permits all views, according to this line of argument. “You can’t be sure who’s right so let them talk.” But if freedom of speech is only to express subjective unverifiable sentiment, why is it so important? If ideas can’t make a difference in reality why not limit them if others perceive them as insulting? Indeed, freedom of speech, opponents will argue, is just another prejudice that has no more right to prevail than multi-cultural sensitivity.
Imagine for example, if we discussed the authoritarian suppression of Galileo’s scientific work by the 17th century Catholic Church in a matter that regarded his truth as ancillary to the discussion. Here’s how a post-modernist would discuss 17th century Church policy: “Let’s remember that Galileo wasn’t the only person persecuted by the church. Science suffered but so did astrology and sorcery. Indeed, the vast majority who suffered weren’t scientists but alternative thinkers outside the scientific tradition. It’s time we correct the historical imbalance by featuring, first and foremost, the vast majority of those persecuted.”
Don’t laugh! While that’s not how you and I remember learning about Galileo’s plight, don’t be surprised if books aren’t being rewritten to embody just such a “narrative.” Of course, it is important that other people also suffered persecution! But the fact that a scientist of the stature of Galileo was persecuted dramatizes that policy. And it shows the harm to the truth! What could more elegantly illustrate that liberty is a potent requirement for understanding reality?
Historically, liberty didn’t arise as a superfluous fringe benefit of civilization. Liberty is the crucial element; it is a prerequisite for the establishment of the truth and maintaining the ongoing health of a flourishing society. The fact that it doesn’t guarantee the truth in a case by case basis, and the fact that we must endure the expression of falsehood, doesn’t change the core of the rationale for maintaining liberty as a right.
If we are to win this battle, let’s remember that we are fighting for the truth and the process (liberty) required for the growth and maintenance of a society where the truth can ultimately prevail; and by so doing we may flourish in a society where dignity, mutual respect, material progress, and self-fulfillment are possible. The threat to liberty is both internal and external to our culture; and only the truth will "set us free" and keep us free.
Update: I have an expanded version here.