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The Philadelphia Statement

September 5, 2020 (710 words)

There’s been a lot going on lately, so you may have missed the big, August 11 signing of the Philadelphia Statement. Named in recognition of the pivotal role that city played in the founding of the United States, it was endorsed by over forty academics, scholars, religious leaders, and legal experts, who we are told represent a broad spectrum of beliefs.

Affirming the necessity of free speech and civil discourse, while denouncing cancel culture, hate-speech labeling, and other forms of ideological blacklisting, this effort calls on all Americans “to preserve our freedom to disagree openly, while maintaining the possibility of a shared future alongside those with whom we disagree.”

In other words, the Philadelphia Statement is just another articulation of the Enlightenment pipe dream enshrined in our Constitution: a peculiarly modern version of “freedom” that allows everyone to pursue their own idea of “happiness.”

This ephemeral objective is to be accomplished by dialing down a sense of personal accountability to the larger society, and doing away with any objective sense of right and wrong. All while magically preserving civility and order.

Note the familiar, reassuring boiler-plate language being employed in the Philadelphia Statement to cloak what is at its core a truly radical concept in social organization:

Free speech marked by truly open discourse and debate is essential to a diverse and thriving society,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel and Senior Vice President of Communications, Jeremy Tedesco.

“Free speech helps us learn to think critically and defend our own ideas while also cultivating tolerance and respect for those with whom we disagree. But the rise in blacklisting and demonizing of those who hold opposing views is steadily eroding the willingness of Americans to express their sincere beliefs and breeds contempt for those with different views.

“That’s why a diverse group of leaders have drafted and signed the Philadelphia Statement. We’re committed to a better way forward that respects the timeless principles of freedom enshrined in the Constitution, and we invite our fellow Americans to join the growing movement to protect civil discourse and free speech.”

In addition to calling out “cancel culture,” the statement also identifies campus speech policing and corporate “hate speech” policies as symptoms of what if refers to as a crisis in free expression.

Well, that’s certainly one way of looking at it: A crisis in free expression, with “our fellow Americans” becoming increasingly unwilling to share their sincere beliefs.

I am inclined to view the problem a bit differently, though. I would say the lack of tolerance and respect for others the Philadelphia Statement admirably tries to spotlight is the direct result of too much free expression.

So to my mind the Philadelphia Statement once again demonstrates the right’s muddled understanding of the cultural forces at work this summer with, say, the Black Lives Matter movement.

As the statement explains:

“If we desire unity rather than division; if we want a political life that is productive and inspiring; if we aspire to be a society that is pluralistic and free; one in which we can forge our own paths and live according to our own consciences, then we must renounce ideological blacklisting and recommit ourselves to steadfastly defending freedom of speech and passionately promoting robust civil discourse.”

But isn’t all this is in the eye of the beholder? For instance, don’t this summer’s liberal activists see themselves as “forging their own paths and living according to their own consciences”?

Whether the academics and scholars and religious leaders and legal experts behind this well-intentioned pronouncement like it or not, there are many people in this country for whom the phrase “civil discourse” is simply code for “preserving the established order.”

It all boils down to this: There is a fundamental contradiction built into the Philadelphia Statement that its earnest signers do not see. It’s the same contradiction, by the way, that is enshrined in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Promoting pluralism as society’s highest ideal will naturally lead to division, and make unity all but impossible.

Look, I hate to be a grouch. But as any philosopher worth his or her salt will tell you, without a unified vision of reality, no agreement is possible, and society plunges into the darkness of chaos and violence.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
September 5, 2020

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