Religious extremists, these days, demand "respect" for their attitudes with growing stridency. Few people would object to the idea that people's rights to religious belief must be respected——after all, the First Amendment defends those rights as unequivocally as it defends free speech—but now we are asked to agree that to dissent from those beliefs, to hold that they are suspect or antiquated or wrong, that in fact they are arguable, is incompatible with the idea of respect. When criticism is placed off-limits as "disrespectful," and therefore offensive, something strange is happening to the concept of respect. Yet in recent times both the American N.E.A. and the very British BBC have announced that they will employ this new perversion of "respect" as a touchstone for their funding and programming decisions.
Other minority groups——racial, sexual, social——have also demanded that they be accorded this new form of respect. To "respect" Louis Farrakhan, we must understand, is simply to agree with him. To "dis" him is, equally simply, to disagree. But if dissent is also to be thought a form of "dissing," then we have indeed succumbed to the Thought Police.
I want to suggest that citizens of free societies do not preserve their freedom by pussyfooting around their fellow citizens' opinions, even their most cherished beliefs. In free societies, you must have the free play of ideas. There must be argument, and it must be impassioned and untrammeled. A free society is not a calm and eventless place—that is the kind of static, dead society dictators try to create. Free societies are dynamic, noisy, turbulent and full of radical disagreements. Skepticism and freedom are indissolubly linked, and it is the skepticism of journalists, their show-me, prove-it unwillingness to be impressed, that is perhaps their most important contribution to the freedom of the free world. It is the disrespect of journalists—for power, for orthodoxies, for ideologies, for vanity, for arrogance, for folly, for pretension, for corruption, for stupidity, maybe even for editors—and the disrespect of every citizen, in fact, that I would like to celebrate, and that I urge all, in freedom's name, to preserve.