Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Christian Artist: Does the Spirit = the thought police?

To hear some tell it, the answer to this question is an unequivocal "yes." To many secular writers in the US and other nations with similar legal precedents, and to some Christian writers in these nations as well, any restraint in one's speech or art is an abridgment of one's natural and inalienable rights. Conceding to the demands of conscience, or others pointing out that you have done something immoral or unethical is in effect an act of social cowardice and the question of how one's actions affect others is beside the point. To a Christian writer in particular, writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (obviously we should not expect to do so as the authors of Scripture did, but if we write in the name of our faith, then the Spirit should be with us in some fashion), this raises a rather frightening question: is the Holy Spirit the thought police?

Obviously in this world we have seen the terrible consequences of governments or non-governmental groups restraining the freedom of speech. One can even point to the Crucifixion as the ultimate affront to free speech--the authorities in power didn't like what Jesus was saying, and acted thinking they could shut Him up forever. But if you look at the words Jesus chose to speak, you'll see that He did not speak with thoughtless abandon.

Some would apply to this the term "self-censorship." Let's look at the connotations of that...in our society, the word "censorship" is a highly charged word, and not in a good light. Applying the word "censorship" is thus an instant ticket to shutting down a debate and in some cases can even border upon an
ad hominem attack. Anyone who engages in "censorship," whether by coercion of others or in the restraint of one's own speech becomes the Thought Police.

We are rightly revolted by Orwellian images. And I would also say that we are rightly revolted by the other main form of coercion in our society--that is, political correctness, which is enforced by character assassination. For fellow sci-fi buffs out there, I would hold up for you two images of such repression: on one side, Orwell's iconic
1984, and Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed specifically her portrayal of the collectivist "utopia" of Anares, which in fact has all the makings of a dystopia if you don't simply ride along with the "consensus"-determined status quo.

Free speech as defined in the First Amendment refers
strictly to the government's imposition upon a person's ability to speak, except when such speech is truly injurious (the classic "fire in a crowded theater" example, or other examples like putting out a contract on someone's life, or otherwise inciting to violence, or even committing fraud or libel). The government has no right to deny people to speak of their belief or unbelief or to require people to practice or not to practice, for instance, nor can it restrain political speech, including dissent as long as no violence is advocated.

So that's the first misconception. The First Amendment does
not cover the actions of a private individual or other non-governmental entity, or the administrators of an Internet forum. I imagine many of my readers participate in forums and other private websites, and just like if you mouth off at work, the admin of a site has every right to censure, delete, or ban...you are in their "house," on their property, and if they want to control what goes on on their property, that is their absolute right and you can either obey the rules or leave. The First Amendment does not force them to amend their ways to suit yours. I use comment moderation. And since this is my blog, if I see spam or attacking remarks, I won't permit it. I am under absolutely no legal OR moral obligation to allow a free-for-all.

The First Amendment also does not protect a private individual from
private blowback from their remarks. If I am rude to someone, or if I lie or otherwise speak falsehood, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from being rude in return, or otherwise being called on it. Unless something crosses that very hard, defined line of illegality as described earlier, the government cannot touch it. And should never be called on to do so.

Remember this. Legality and morality are two entirely separate constructs. Since government can only be trusted with an absolute minimum of power in order for society to function, given the corrupting influence of such power on our fallen natures (remember God's warnings against the establishment of a king in Israel, anybody?), by necessity what is acceptable under the law is going to be much greater in breadth than what is acceptable morally. The government cannot capably enforce anything else but this bare minimum, and should not. Overstepping in this manner is what creates the 1984 scenario...the thought police.

Now that we have covered what is
legal, let's cover what is right, and the ways in which that can be abused--the Dispossessed scenario.

The society in
The Dispossessed was one in which any speech the group did not agree on was punished by shunning or by demonization. This is what we know as political correctness, and most Christians will have had a run-in with it on at least one occasion. To speak too strongly on certain topics results in social censure, usually by attaching a label with "-ist" on the end of it (ex.: "elitist," "racist," "sexist," "ableist" and on and on ad nauseum). Now, if someone is speaking in hatred, to injure others or to abuse power against those individuals, such as refusing a person service because of their bigotry, then the label is deserved. But what about the individual who simply makes the mistake of disagreeing with the wrong person, however politely, and then has their character assassinated, or who speaks an unpopular opinion and the majority then paints them as a deviant?

This is in effect social blackmail, and is often used against Christians who speak too strongly--both by those who do not wish to hear any religious speech outside the confines of a church or a private home, AND by Christians who cannot tolerate a lovingly dissenting viewpoint by someone in the faith. To destroy someone because you disagree with them is wrong...to put so much fear into that person that they will not speak on a perfectly legitimate subject is wrong, too. Even the terms "censor" and "thought police" have come to be used as bludgeons in this manner--say them and the person they are said to is just as dead in the water as the person accused falsely of racism.

Which brings us to Christian speech, and by extension, a Christian's art.

James makes it very clear in his epistle just how destructive an "unbridled tongue" is--and as soon as you evoke the image of a bridle, you have brought
restraint into the picture.

In essence,
the Christian surrenders free speech.

He or she
legally retains that right, and should, because the government is incapable of doing anything else properly (and barely manages what it has) and social groups should not be trusted with that power, either. Even congregations can fall under that rule and get out of hand, without much constant, prayerful self-examinations, and history is riddled with examples of that getting horribly out of hand. Ignoring that would be revisionist history.

But to forgo the right to speak something because it is unconscionable, because it is a crime against the Holy Spirit, is an entirely different matter from being frightened by one's peers from speaking, or by one's government. It is nothing less than a matter of love for God, for our neighbors, and even for ourselves. A true relationship with God is not about being battered into submission until we are too frightened to do anything else. It is about recognizing that without Him, we are deathly prone to abusing our freedoms. And to truly take Him into us, it must be done utterly uncoerced, for such is inherently against the nature of love. So if I choose not to speak words that I know will be hurtful to others, if I respect their feelings as I would want to be respected myself, then
I am not a coward. I am not surrendering to bullying or force. I am expressing love.

And no matter how much mockery or mischaracterization as "thought police" or "PC Nazis" we might endure for speaking this view, and more importantly, for
living it...know that before our God, there is no shame in letting the Holy Spirit be the one true and capable arbiter of our expression as no human can be.

No comments:

Post a Comment