Traditional Moral Positions and the Public Square

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Freedom of Speech (painting)

Freedom of Speech (painting) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Canada, it is a crime to publicly assert that practicing homosexuality is a sin. In my ethics class, students regularly write on their essays that being a virgin until marriage is “prudish,” and they do not take seriously the traditional view that couples should refrain from sexual intercourse until marriage. In many academic settings, those who believe abortion to be morally wrong are silenced, to the point that the University Faculty for Life presents an option to its members to hide their membership in the organization so that their colleagues do not find out. The notion that there is objective right and wrong is excluded from most public schools, and moral relativism is taught as the gospel truth (and teaching it as such is, of course a contradiction).

It is true that freedom of speech does not, as the old saw goes, give anyone the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Surely being morally opposed to abortion or to practicing homosexuality or to premarital sex is not the equivalent to shouting “Fire!” Yet such opinions are being increasingly excluded from the public square, in academic institutions first, and then in the wider society.

I believe in academic freedom. If a student or faculty member wishes to defend the moral rightness of premarital sex, of practicing homosexuality, or of abortion, that student or faculty member should be allowed to have a say in the university square. But academic freedom also implies that those with the opposite views on these issues should be allowed to make their case. I am a conservative, but if a liberal student makes a strong case for his position, he will get a good grade on his test and will not be punished for his views. The situation should be the same for a conservative student who makes a good defense of his position in a class with a liberal professor. To give them credit, some liberal professors do give their students such academic freedom and believe in such for their colleagues. There is a subset of professors, however, who want to silence conservative voices, especially on controversial moral issues. Such violation of freedom of speech has taken place in some institutions of higher education, to the point that a professor in one school who presented a natural law argument against homosexual practice (and did not even claim to agree with the argument) was fired–until a court awarded him his job back. The problem is that he should not have lost his job in the first place. What is going on is that hostile rhetoric against moral conservatives is repeated so much that people begin to believe it (“they are haters,” “these people are filled with anger,” etc.). I have never understood why holding moral action A to be wrong implies hating the person who performs moral action A. I wish I could say that such an ignorant position prevails only in academia, but it is present in broader society. More and more the elites in academia, the media, and in Hollywood, are attempting to exclude traditional moral discourse from legitimate discussion and to push their views onto society as a whole. It may be just a matter of time before the United States goes the direction that Canada has gone (depending on election results, court appointees, etc.) and makes illegal conservative moral discourse on abortion and on sexual ethics. I wonder who the real narrow minded people are, the real bigots, the real haters. I would venture a guess that most of them are not moral conservatives.

Censoring Huck Finn

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Recently a new edition of Huckleberry Finn was published that omitted all uses of the “n word” and “injun.” The arguments in favor of censorship were that it would avoid offending many people and that the book itself would be allowed into the hands of more children. Although I suppose there could be a watered down “children’s edition” of Huck Finn placed on the market just as there are “Children’s Bibles,” for the original novel to be censored is a bad idea.

The n-word is offensive and should not be used by decent human beings. However, it was used routinely in the past by people in many parts of the country. Mark Twain‘s novel would not be reflecting the speech of the characters of his time period without using that word. It is silliness to impose today’s standards of morality on an older work of literature. Even the Bible has offensive stories–of Israelites slaughtering men, women, and children, including babies, in the name of God–should the Bible be censored because there are passages that offend today’s moral sensibilities? Should the last verse of Psalm 137, in which the writer desires to smash Babylonian babies against a rock, be censored? What about the works of Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner? Should the “n-word” be eliminated from their novels because they were writing about characters in the Old South who used that word? I pity the contemporary Southern novelist who is starting out–if he wishes to write a novel about the South of the 1950s, I wonder how many editors would eliminate his novel from consideration because some of his characters used the “n-word.” What if the writer is writing about openly racist characters? Perhaps politically correct editors and the radicalized “literary police” want to eliminate certain topics entirely from fiction. But in that case, fiction loses its power to tell us the truth about the human condition, both its good aspects and its bad aspects.

Political correctness is a continuation of the Puritan tradition in American life. Once religious Puritanism died, a secular Puritanism arose to “cleanse” language from all racist, sexist, and “homophobic” terms. Of course these Puritans allow the minority groups they claim to defend to continue to use insulting terminology such as the “n word.” In doing this, they insult the very minorities they claim to support, since they do not hold them to as high a standard of behavior as “European Americans.” When such Puritianism is extended to Huckleberry Finn, how much further will it go? Will there be any stopping the “purification” of all literature to fit the Purtians’ image? Will more publishers of Huckleberry Finn join in the censorship of offensive terms? If so, which books will be next? Which authors will be denied publication because of offending the thought police who infect the literary and academic worlds? When did authors have to write about perfect characters who never use offensive terms?

In the past the main danger of censorship has been from the right. Today the danger is from the radical left, the post-Marcusian Marxists who desire to change the culture by force of law if necessary. The problem is that by hiding the truth of the bad aspects of human nature, these censors may only allow these bad traits to smolder underneath the surface of society until they explode in unhealthy ways. This effort of censorship of Huck Finn should be nipped in the bud now before it spreads to other literature.