If we must disagree on all else, let us agree on the one proposition that our disagreements are hinged upon, free speech.
Stephen Fry is being investigated by Irish police following accusations of blasphemy. An anonymous source reported Mr Fry to Irish police following comments made on RTE One, Ireland’s public broadcaster. In the clip, first aired in February of 2015, Mr Fry calls god an, “utter maniac,” and questions why he should respect a capricious and mean god. If found guilty, Fry may be forced to pay a fine of 25,000 Euros. Through examining this and other events of the past couple of months, we find some trends that suggest, maybe, just maybe: a lot of people don’t understand what free speech is. And these piddling blasphemy laws prove just that.
Given Mr Fry’s current predicament, I thought now would be an appropriate time for a refresher on what exactly free speech is.
John Stuart Mill is perhaps the most well-known free speech advocate. In his 1859 classic, On Liberty, Mill lays out his defence for free speech in a footnote. He requests that no matter how immoral something may appear, it should still be granted the right of public eye. He goes on to say, if all of humanity were in agreement on a proposition and only one person to the contrary, then that person deserves a right to speak. As Christopher Hitchens put it, “that person’s right to speak must be given extra protection. Because what he has to say must have taken him some effort to come up with, might contain a grain of historical truth, might in any case give people to think about why do they know what they already think they know.”
Many thinkers have espoused this ideal. I gave an example here, in which Constantijin Huygen, the 17th century Dutch polymath, recognised the right of Rene Descartes to read a book for himself. Huygen thought the book was a waste of time (and he was right), but he sent it anyway. This notion is expressed in an often wrongly attributed quote, “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to death your right to say it.” Voltaire is normally given the credit but by matter of fact this was the work of Evelyn Beatrice Hall. Hall was attempting to paraphrase Voltaire’s thoughts on the matter, which Voltaire himself summed up acutely, “Think for yourselves, and allow others the privilege to do so, too.”
Next, we move on to the work and writings of Thomas Paine, one of the founding fathers of the United States. We can find a sound defence of free speech in Paine’s introduction to The Age of Reason. Paine bestows his work to the citizens of the United States, entrusting them with its protection, before saying, “You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”
In other words, it is also the right of the listener to hear. This to me is the crux of free speech and the very reason why we should avoid silencing others. Paine saw that when another idea or opinion is refused audience, more damage is done to those who restricted the speaker’s right in the first place. If, in the pursuit of silencing unwelcome thoughts, you are turned upon, who then – what then – do you turn to in your own defence? Having now dismantled the right of the listener to hear your argument, you become a prisoner of your own actions.
The importance of these principles cannot be overstated. The right to speak and to listen is the argument that comes before all arguments; it is the sheet in a well-made bed; it is the elementary necessity for all conversation. How do we know which ideas to throw out and which to keep if the bad ones are never discussed? An example that comes to mind is the idea of the caesarean. At some point, someone had to convince others that it was a clever idea, and safer for both mother and child, to cut the stomach in order to aid birth. Dwell on the absurdity of that proposition for a moment, then think about the sheer number of lives that have been saved because of it. We must welcome unwelcome thoughts, no matter how counter-intuitive they seem at first.
Here comes the question – and it always comes – regarding harm. At what point should speech that incites harm be restricted? How far should we let free speech go? Mill grappled with this problem too. Mill regarded the restriction of speech as a restriction of liberty, a concept he did not take lightly. To restrict harmful speech is to exercise the power of the state (or group) over an individual, and in Mill’s mind, this required substantial reasoning. The mere charge of offence does not fit this criterion. It’s absurd to think that there are people discussing the merit of Mr Fry’s remarks as if they are even comparable to the very atrocities he was denouncing.
Given recent events, Milo Yiannopoulos simply cannot be overlooked. Calls to restrict his speech, as far as I’m aware, were bound up in the charge of offensiveness or – I rather daringly put it – incitement. My using this example does not denote my endorsement of Mr Yiannopoulos, but I would, however, like to highlight an irony. The same people who wanted Mr Yiannopoulos silenced, were the same people who celebrated his downfall. A precarious fall from grace that was wholly facilitated by Mr Yiannopoulos’ right to express his ideas publicly. If he was denied this right in the first place, we might still be tolerating his spiels. It’s beautiful moments of irony like this that colour my world.
If we must disagree on all else, let us agree on the one proposition that our disagreements depend upon, free speech. For without it, we are all the same, all nothing and all servile. Our integrity and solidarity as a species depends on this. And it’s the very reason why I refuse to be told what I can and cannot be exposed to. Thanks. I’ll decide for myself.
A journalist and writer based out of Brisbane, Australia.