Today, National Catholic Reporter has published a powerful statement by Colman McCarthy noting that, in its very inception some 50 years ago,
At its core, the upstart NCR was itself an effort at free speech -- against the controlled speech found in the pages of diocesan newspapers overseen by local prelates and assorted ecclesiastics who had little understanding, much less regard, for independent journalism.
McCarthy says that the free speech he has most cherished in NCR's pages has been the letters to the editor, which "create a forum for diversity that can't fail to energize readers to take their antiphonal turn," and which allow those contributing to this forum to see themselves "as valued members of a team where if we don't always see eye to eye we can always speak heart to heart."
As I read Colman McCarthy's paean to NCR's dedication to free speech, how can I possibly avoid thinking (as Alexandra does as well in a comment she has just left in response to the article) of NCR's choice some weeks ago to ban Jerry Slevin from commenting (and here, here, here, here, and here) in its discussion forum? As Alexandra's comment notes, while Jerry Slevin reports that he found himself inexplicably shut out from leaving any comments at all at the NCR site — with no explanation on the part of NCR until he and others made a fuss about this — NCR has continued to permit some posters whose comments are repeatedly flagged by others as abusive attacks to keep on commenting at the NCR site.
The disparity between the treatment some people posting at NCR receive, and the treatment handed out to Jerry Slevin and others, is deeply troubling. As I've repeatedly noted, the system of censorship at the NCR site is simply not transparent, and there is very little accountability about it to the NCR constituency. How censorship appears to be taking place in the NCR comboxes undercuts NCR's claim to make a valuable contribution to American Catholic discourse by offering an alternative to the "controlled speech fround in the pages of diocsean newspapers."
I am not a free speech absolutist. I recognize that NCR has a right to moderate its discussion threads, a right I claim for myself on this blog. Just today, I warned a contributor here to stop trolling this site and leaving comments that are clearly not intended to be any kind of constructive contribution to dialogue, but which are attacks on constructive conversation. I have no problem with banning people from blog threads when they have been warned not to attack others or to spread malicious disinformation, and they refuse to heed such warnings.
I have never understood the absolutization of terms like "freedom" or "liberty" by some of my fellow Catholics who are of a libertarian persuasion. In my view, the Catholic emphasis on the common good militates against absolutization of the term "freedom," including the phrase "freedom of speech." I am unapologetic about calling for curbs on free speech when freedom of speech is abused to attack others, especially vulnerable others, and to fray the common good.
As someone with deep family roots running back to the American Revolution, and with ancestors who died as soldiers of that revolution, I am critically aware that the "freedom" for which many of my ancestors fought and some died was a carefully restricted liberty. It was freedom that many of these men imagined only for white, property-owning males like themselves. The extension of the concept of liberty to non-white, non-property owning men and to women has come at a great price in the U.S., and that price has often been the price paid by minority groups willing to stand up and challenge the abuse of the term "liberty" by white males of consequence.
It's clear to me that Jerry Slevin was not at all about abusing others in his comments at NCR, and that it would be an extreme distortion of his contributions to discussions at NCR to construe his contributions as attacks on others or as a threat to the common good. I continue to find his banning by NCR troubling because, to my way of thinking, the non-transparent choice of NCR's managers to ban Jerry Slevin is part and parcel of a wider movement in Catholic journalism under the current pope to claim that we are living through a new moment in the Catholic tradition . . .
while the same old voices, the same tired old voices, are allowed to make that claim about a new moment in the church ad nauseam. Demonstrating by the very fact that they're the same people who functioned as cheerleaders for the previous papal regimes that there has been no break with the past, with the dysfunctional past, as we're being told that we're being offered something novel! While many voices that represent new, much-needed critical perspectives continue to be shoved roughly to the margins by the same movers and shakers of the Catholic academy and journalistic elites as they claim, in their tired old voices, that they are speaking on behalf of the new.
This is not how we'll build a better, more vibrant, newer church. It's quite precisely how we'll assure the continuation of the dysfunctional old in the name of what purports to be the suprising new, while Catholic media outlets offer us, with glitzy fanfare, warmed-over leftovers as they try to convince us that we're downing astonishingly tasty new dishes.