There is a rabid and reactionary conglomerate gathering these days on the ideological fringes of our society, vociferously calling for the silencing of particular individuals and ideas in the name of tolerance. In South Carolina for example, conservative politicians have recently fought to stifle free expression and diversity at the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate, which had the audacity to issue books with gay themes. While in California, Brendan Eich, former CEO of Mozilla, was forced to resign in March after liberals protested the fact that in 2008 he donated $1,000 of his own money to Proposition 8, the California constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The impulse to dissuade institutions from tolerating people and perspectives that are different is a misguided one, and it sends an ominous message: conform or else.
Over the last few months South Carolina’s state legislature has wrongly used their influence to censor artistic expression in state colleges. Setting aside the urge to ridicule the politicians who insisted that a satirical one-woman play was a propagandistic homosexual indoctrination seminar, and the fact that public officials such as Sen. Kevin Bryant used prejudicial language in describing their thoughts on the LGBT community, the tenuous rationale emanating from our legislators is that the books and performances in question are promoting a deleterious agenda without the presence of an opposing perspective. The assumption here is that college students are incapable of being exposed to disparate viewpoints and experiences without being assimilated by them. Rather than engage the issues with dialogue, our politicians decided the adult way to handle them was to shut them down, like a parent who says “I said so” when their rationale is weak.
Equally unsettling is the story of what happened to Eich. Shortly after the press got wind of Eich’s donation, the liberal majority began an incessant campaign — in the name of tolerance — to make intolerable Eich’s continuance as CEO. Eventually Mozilla’s board acquiesced and pushed Eich out. There was no evidence that he ever discriminated against employees or customers, or that he ever used his position and influence to further a personal ideological agenda. He was a free citizen acting in accordance with his conscience, who — like many of us who work side by side with those we may share political, personal, or religious differences — astutely kept his personal beliefs and professional responsibilities independent of one another.
Mozilla’s public statement about Eich’s resignation reeked of unintended irony: “Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality.” I can’t think of a way to square this circle, but the message is clear enough: in observance of equality, free speech, and tolerance, we find differing perspectives intolerable; therefore, one must conform to our ideals or risk being ostracized. Call this what you will, but it certainly isn’t a win for liberty. It smacks of mob rule.
Conscientiously objecting to Eich’s appointment, and choosing to protest by speaking out or boycotting Mozilla’s product, is a perfectly acceptable response in cases like this. The dangerous precedent in my mind, is when those of us who think differently stand to lose our livelihoods (and sometimes much worse) for adhering to our privately held beliefs and convictions. I couldn’t disagree with someone like Brendan Eich more on the issue of gay marriage. But I’ve learned that the only reasonable expectation I can hope to have for a platform to express my opinion that gay equality should be universal is if those of us who believe the opposite also have unfettered access to that platform.
Freedom of speech and freedom of conscience are intrinsic rights that must remain irreproachable if true liberty is to thrive. As uncomfortable as it sometimes feels, the barometer on how healthy these rights are in our country is how we handle the speech and thought we find most repellent. This is the price we pay for the liberty we enjoy. But if the concept of tolerance is transformed into an orthodoxy to punish so-called heretics, then it betrays the efforts of gay rights activists who have furthered the cause through their appeals to reason and civil discourse.
To put it another way, I’m dismayed by those who invoke religion, and what 2,000-year-old morally dubious texts say about marriage and sexuality, as a means to justify their opposition to gay equality. But I’d never assert that they should be forced to recant and coerced into accepting a doctrine of equality at odds with their conscience.
The way to combat ideas we disagree with is more speech, not less. Embracing that principle is the fount of a free society.