I want you to take a second to appreciate the great gift of speech and what a near miraculous ability it is. We are rational creatures which is to say we have thoughts which can bear some insight into reality or the way things are.
But it doesn’t end there. We then have the ability to incarnate those thoughts so that they can be shared with other rational human beings and compared to their related thoughts on the topic so that we might mutually benefit from that exchange.
Our speech allows us meet on a neutral ground where we might offer something of benefit to the other. This is what knowledge sharing is and it’s a mode of communication that we should all aspire to. Speech with its great power and potential should be used to benefit your neighbor.
But that same power also allows us to mislead and manipulate – to bear false witness. And this is what distinguishes sophistry from debate.
A debate is what happens when competing ideas are offered in the hopes that when we compare the competing ideas and judge them according to certain logical criteria, we will arrive at some greater understanding of the Truth.
Sophistry is what happens when someone uses their ability to communicate, not to help their hearers understand what is true, but to manipulate them in order to achieve their own exclusive ends.
So this could be through the use of lies and fallacies to “win” the argument so as to validate their position, or to get elected, or to sell you something you don’t need.
It could also be through measures designed to prevent meaningful debate and the potential exchange of ideas that can help us all discover what is true.
And it is this particular variety of sophistry that is widespread in today’s public discourse. It seems that most of us a are so incapable of mounting a reasonable reply to an argument that might contradict our own beliefs, that we would rather just silence the person making the argument rather than attempt to engage in meaningful debate.
We’d rather prevent any speech than speech that competes with our assumptions and prejudices. And if anything should be called hate speech, or hatred of speech, it is this.
For example, I was recently accused of spreading hatred for simply proposing the societal benefits of the family. I offered premises, supported by evidence, that lead to that conclusion.
And inevitably, as all ideas do, it disagrees with ideas that are fashionable today. And that’s the thing about ideas. There will always be alternative ones.
But just because an idea doesn’t agree with your own beliefs, doesn’t mean that you are being confronted with hatred. It means this is an opportunity for you to contribute to an exchange of ideas that could benefit you and those you disagree with.
But instead, what we see more and more of today, is people refusing to contribute their thoughts, instead, dissolving into accusations of hatred for anyone that disagrees with them.
And by doing so, they betray an obvious contempt for what would have otherwise been an opportunity to communicate and seek understanding. They betray a hatred for speech.
Recklessly accusing people of hate speech because they disagree with you is the actual hate speech because it is an attempt to oppress speech itself.
And where do we get off assuming that someone who has an opinion that competes with our own could only hold that opinion because they hate us?
There’s simply no grounds, on the face of that evidence, that hatred has anything to do with it. There are countless reasons why someone might disagree and disapprove of your conclusions and love, as one of those possible explanations is just as likely as hatred.
For example, I disagree with the behaviour of my children constantly and I express that disagreement through discipline and correction. I do this because I love them and want them to learn to live and behave in a way that aligns with what is true and good.
For me to simply endorse everything that they do would be a form of neglect and contempt for their wellbeing.
Even if someone claims that certain behaviours or inclinations are disordered, there’s still no grounds to claim that this motivated by hatred. Doctors diagnose disorders of health every day and not because they hate their patients, but in the interest of caring for their patients.
Nobody wants to get diagnosed with a mental or physiological disorder, but just because I wouldn’t want to hear that as a patient, it doesn’t help me to irrationally accuse my doctors of being motivated by hatred for me.
So when someone offers ideas that compete with your own you have two options. You can engage with those ideas and offer your own ideas back, assuming that you have some insight to share and this approach would demonstrate a love for speech and for the other person that might benefit from that exchange.
Or, you could assume the absolute worst motivation of the other person, which you have no conclusive evidence of, and accuse them in an attempt to prevent any further exchanging of ideas thus revealing your contempt for both the other person and for speech itself and if anything should be considered hate speech, it’s that.
And this should be of particular concern for the Church because the mission of the Church is to proclaim the truth of the gospel - to speak an idea. But if we’re finding more and more that competing ideas are not allowed and that the first to act offended is given the right to accuse the other of hatred, then the Church’s mission will become more and more marginalized.
So you might ask, how do we respond to this phenomenon. I’d say the first thing is to oppose it with every breath available to us. We should be fighting for the right to speak and communicate especially against the sophists.
Secondly, we shouldn’t be found guilty of this kind of contempt for speech. It isn’t rare to see prominent Catholic clergy and thinkers saying we should avoid talking about certain Catholic doctrines because they might hurt some people’s feelings.
Well, there’s no avoiding the fact that the gospel is offensive. It doesn’t congratulate us or endorse us in our current condition or behaviour. It tells us that we are headed towards a fate worse than any of us can imagine unless we repent.
Is that the kind of thing that might hurt some people’s feelings? Absolutely. But better to run the risk of hurt feelings if it could redirect them from something far worse.