Monday, December 21, 2015

The Cost of Doing Business

Aids to a very effective
ancient form of censorship.
Internet censorship is coming, and it’s coming fast. Thanks, Mark Zuckerberg.

Numerous media sources reported last week that Facebook, Twitter and Google have all agreed to cooperate with the German government in removing hate speech from the internet. Special teams in each company will determine whether content violates German laws and remove it within 24 hours.

Under German law, “hate speech” is speech that “incites or instigates harmful action”. So a mechanism is now in place where quite literally anything may be censored provided it can be said to potentially cause “harm”, as defined by German lawmakers.

Today, that means anti-immigration sentiment. Tomorrow, it could mean anything perceived as homophobic, misogynist or religious. Effectively for Germans it means an end to whatever level of free speech they may have previously enjoyed.

The Free Speech Myth

Mind you, even in democratic countries “free speech” has never been completely free. While the idea is protected by documents like the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, limitations have always existed on public expression including libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, sedition, incitement, copyright violation, classified information, trade secrets, public security and nuisance, among others.

And of course in many countries and cultures the notion of a right to free speech is not acknowledged at all; nor, for that matter, is free speech viewed as desirable by every citizen of Western nations.

Free speech is also not a specifically Christian value; it’s more like a luxury some of us have taken for granted.

Costs and Consequences

Now of course the expression of the truth is very much a Christian value. One might argue that it is very difficult to imagine how one can be genuinely Christian without constantly expressing truth. The Christian life begins with the expression of truth: the confession that Jesus is Lord is one of the conditions of salvation. It continues with constant expression of the truth in love on our road to Christian maturity. Further, the right to limit such expression is not vested in any human authority. The apostles declared, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard”.

But is Christian speech free? Not necessarily.

Certainly the apostles had no expectation of preaching the gospel without cost or consequences. From the time Stephen’s free speech was censored by a hail of rocks, it must have been quite clear to the early church that getting the message out might be a very painful process indeed.

We’ve Had a Good Run

In the grand scheme of things, it’s hard to complain. Personally, I prefer a situation in which all speech is uniformly protected, including genuine hate speech. If an imam wants to rant about murdering Jews, I’d rather he get his feelings off his chest in public than feel compelled to restrict his propagandizing to the confines of his mosque: at least that way his inclinations can be observed, his arguments made part of the public debate and effectively rebutted, and measures taken to make it tougher for him or others to act on their rhetoric. If you’ve ever been bullied, mugged or even punched hard, you know that in the real world sticks and stones are considerably more hurtful than names. It’s only the pampered and protected who think otherwise.

Even now for the most part in Western societies, most of the limitations on free speech at worst involve scissors, silence or hitting the delete key rather than stones, sticks, bullets and bombs. But we have no guarantee either from history or scripture that the censorious segment of society — the folks who would prefer to deny Christianity a public voice — will stop with the delete key, do we?

The reality is that nobody can stop us speaking, but speech will not always be free.

We’ve had a good run. I’m no more thrilled at the possibility of paying the ultimate price for what I believe than anyone else, but if we are entering an era in which we have to walk the same path and bear the same reproach as the Old Testament prophets and the apostles and martyrs of the faith, then we follow in a grand tradition of faithfulness and obedience that has its eternal reward.

The Lord Jesus taught that whoever would save his life will lose it, but “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”.

For the Christian, that has always been the cost of doing business.


  1. Here is a somewhat different viewpoint, Tom.
    I see the free speech argument often misapplied in unfortunate ways and if I had a chance to correct or influence it would apply some needed modifications to it. For example, an imam preaching as you suggest would obviously not fit in with my criteria which simply draw their lesson from common sense. We do not allow our children to talk in derogatory, profane and unkind ways at dinner or simply when we raise them. Neither is that helpful in business meetings, socializing, etc.. There is no obligation for anyone to abdicate or ignore good manners and common sense just because part of the population was (frequently beyond their control, because bad parenting perpetuates itself) raised improperly even to the point of having been allowed to develop warped character and near evil tendencies. Rather, as always, society is forced to make up for the deficiency in character and action of a minority often at great personal and public expense because we know that will make for a better society. Think heaven where, I think, our idea of earthly free speech and tolerance of it would be inconceivable not because of enforcement but as the only way because of character. So that's simply what we must strive for also on earth.

    Note that the initiative you mention originates in Germany and we all know why. WW 2 could probably have been avoided if there would have been sensible societal constraints on free speech conveying the fact that society will not tolerate for a few characters that turn out evil to bring down everyone else.

    So, how does one guard and protect a genuine and beneficial right to free speech. Very simple, you look at the actionable content of speech and its effect on, and the expense to, society. Your imam had disastrous actionable content by suggesting that Jews should be killed or discriminated against. So content that could encourage or promote unjust and immoral harmful action and behavior would simply not be justified. The challenge is of course the definition of unjust and immoral and that's where free speech constraints could be applied improperly. Your concern, which I share, should therefore be directed towards the willful misrepresentation of the actionable content of a free speech argument for political, fraudulent and discriminatory reasons. That dishonesty is what threatens free speech and not society's desire, and even need, to simply want to apply common sense rules of civility, good manners and economic benefit to public (and private) speech.

    1. Actually, you’ve got German history precisely backwards, Q. As Wikipedia notes, the Nazis were censoring heavily for six years prior to initiating WWII: “All media — literature, music, newspapers, and public events — were censored. Attempts were also made to censor private communications, such as mail and even private conversation.”

      The far more compelling argument is that allowing public dissent in Germany from 1933-1939 might have prevented WWII.

  2. Obviously a system can still fail and that is because of the character deficit that has been accumulated over time and ingrained in a population (all of Europe actually). My comment suggests that that should be a natural focus of society. In Germany there was clear failure of that because of the lack of character so that industrialist and politicians, e.g., started to side with the brownshirts and eventually the population was seduced. So the effectiveness of insisting on and training in common sense decency starting with the family was not there. That can be prevented as I described in my comment and should also be a long range (forever) goal and not be of the form of censorship that you are describing. I want to stress once more that a significant impetus should be the economic impact on the tax payer when they have to pay for the omissions and sins of others, which in Europe led to the costs of a war. As the haphazard implementation of basic decency clearly demonstrates even now that economic impetus alone makes it worthwhile to teach it and insist on it.