Background: Start by reading Ben Smith’s profile of Andrew Sullivan for the New York Times. Then read my friend Rod Dreher’s defense of Sullivan.
One of the smartest responses back when everyone was debating Rod’s Benedict Option came from Andy Crouch, who noted that the book itself was basically an argument for the value of catechesis, spiritual formation, and the creation of thick Christian communities while much of the coverage of the book painted it as a counter cultural fundamentalist screed.
I’ve always agreed with Crouch’s read of the situation and noted as much at the time. When you got right down to practical matters with Rod’s book—and other similar books published at the same time—the arguments were fairly modest and overlapped a great deal with historic Christian critiques of 20th century liberalism.
Yet it’s precisely because of the argument Rod is making in the Benedict Option that I’ve found myself surprised by some of the recent arguments he has made. Take the argument defending Sullivan as an example. Rod’s defense of Sullivan, so far as I can tell, is basically an application of the quote often attributed to Voltaire—I may disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it. This is a kind of arch-liberal take on freedom of speech, one which does not merely argue that blasphemy laws shouldn’t be defined according to the dogma of any one religion, but that blasphemy laws simply should not exist in any form.
Obviously this approach to public speech is now under a sustained assault from many quarters. The de facto blasphemy laws of contemporary progressivism concern equality, particularly equality as it concerns race and sexuality. The response to this movement from a mishmash of writers and pundits has been a renewed commitment to the older conception of free speech, which attempts to absolutize the right and to apply it not merely to questions of civil punishment, but also to questions of workplace safety and professional life more generally. And, in his defense of Sullivan, Rod places himself firmly in that camp.
Yet when we back up a bit and try to survey the larger picture, I find Rod’s response both unsatisfying and more than a little puzzling. A number of thinkers have observed that one of the defining characteristics of our era’s liberalism is that it forces us to talk about questions of common life at one remove. Adrian Vermeule has perhaps made the point most clearly:
Instead of pursuing substantive excellence and justice, we have circuitous conversations about statistical properties like “diversity”; instead of deciding what ought to be permitted, what condemned, we debate “civility”; instead of discerning truth, we quarrel over “religious liberty”; instead of protecting the most vulnerable, we conceal our vices and crimes under the rubric of “choice,” in both market and non-market spheres (although to be fair there are almost no non-market spheres left any more). When we ask about Truth, liberalism answers “What is ‘Truth’? Your truth is not someone else’s truth, and it is no more legitimate to make your truth into public policy than it would be to force your taste in ice cream upon everyone else. All this is solely of private concern.”
This gets to the core of my concern with Rod’s defense of Sullivan. Rod’s defense focuses around the question of ‘free speech’ in a way that is almost entirely divorced from the content of our speech and, in particular, the content of Sullivan’s speech.
Tellingly, Rod does not address several of the points raised by Smith in his profile of Sullivan. Rod mentions Sullivan’s controversial record on race. He does not mention the story that Smith told in which Sullivan was late-night drunk emailing editors at the New York Times inquiring as to whether any studies have been done comparing penis size across racial groups in order to establish whether or not people of African descent have larger genitalia. Nor, for that matter, does Rod mention Sullivan’s deplorable treatment of Sarah Palin.1
My point in saying all of this is not necessarily to impugn Sullivan, although I think he has done a number of odious things in his career. Rather, my point is to question the way that the debate about Sullivan has been framed by the free speech proponents.
Sullivan’s side of this debate seems committed to the idea that each individual person has an almost limitless right to say what they want and that not only should their legal freedom be protected, but their professional life should also be broadly secure from any threats that might arise in response to their use of their free speech rights. In this telling, the other side seems to be committed to a vision of political equality that makes criticism of LGBTQ+ rights or any form of criticism of Black Lives Matter grounds for extensive online shaming as well as the removal of opportunities to be employed in certain roles within certain organizations. (I do not have time to address it here, but Osita Nwanevu’s piece on reactionary liberalism complicates this framing in some helpful and important ways.)
Rod looks at this debate, at least as it implicates his friend Sullivan, and picks a team. I think that is a mistake. Fr. Urban Hannon’s recent essay in The Lamp explains why:
Before we Catholics start fighting over answers in the deadlocked stand-offs all around us today, we first need to step back and try to discern whatever the question is that is implicitly being asked in each case. Next, in the light of our luminous tradition, we need to evaluate that question as it had been posed, and most likely critique it and even reformulate it completely. Then we can set about answering that better question. And finally we can use that new and probably radical sounding answer to understand why the original, poorly formulated version of the question had to lead to such a bitter and irresolvable stalemate in the first place. Our part as Catholics, I am arguing, is not to answer the world’s questions; it’s to attack them.
How do we go about attacking this particular dichotomy? On the one hand, the progressives are correct when they claim that public speech has consequences in public life and that a just society will seek to promote public speech that promotes the life of the commonwealth. To deny this point is, tacitly, to endorse a kind of value-neutral government that cannot actually be maintained long-term and that, ironically given Rod’s earlier work, has played no small role in bringing us to where we are today.
On the other, conservatives are correct on another important point: In most cases of socially corrosive public speech, the best thing we can do to confront is to meet it with more speech, specifically speech meant to inform, explain, and persuade. This principle is not absolute. There are forms of speech so corrosive to common life that they should not be tolerated. But the forms of speech we regard in this way ought to be few in number. Even so, the point of preserving free speech rights is not to preserve some sort of ‘value-neutral’ public space, but rather to recognize that it is caritas, not coercion, that forms and sustains political bodies. In protecting a social order that is broadly supportive of free speech we are trying to protect a social order in which it is possible for individuals to grow in their love for one another and for the common objects of love that bind a polity together—and love, we must remember, cannot be coerced.