“Freedom is the fundamental requirement of man’s mind. … A gun is not an argument.”—Ayn Rand
What a feeding frenzy the smelly Saddamites have had with my “Death to Islamo-Fascism!” articles! How characteristic, their clamour for censorship! How intellectually and morally bankrupt, their attacks on my sexuality, weight, hair loss, etc.—anything but the argument!
At these verminous grotesqueries I alternated between seething disgust, oxygen-threatening hilarity, and curiosity as to whether any of them might be given pause by a moment’s reflection on free speech’s long, tortuous history—of which history they are such unworthy, ungrateful, uncomprehending beneficiaries.
Those magnificent Greeks had more than an inkling of the value of an open contest of ideas—yet they infamously put Socrates to death.
The Enlightenment resurrected it after centuries of heresy-hunts and burnings at the stake. John Milton’s celebrated speech to the English Parliament, later published as the Aeropagitica (in deference to the Greeks), was an attack on Imprimatur, the literal stamp of approval one had to obtain from state censors on documents one wished to publish (One could not obtain Imprimatur on anything attacking the Church of England or the Government). Censorship of ideas, Milton said, was “the greatest discouragement and affront that can be offered to learning and to learned men.” Unfortunately, Milton made an exception of Catholics, since they were supposedly in thrall to a foreign power (the Pope).
Then came John Locke, who did brilliant, original work in developing the concept of rights, including freedom of expression—except for atheists! Freedom of religion, it seems, did not extend to freedom from religion!
Locke did tumble to a vital distinction underpinning the case for free speech—the distinction between force and persuasion. Force he equated with governments; persuasion he equated with books.
Persuasion cannot force, he argued; coercion cannot persuade. “Such is the nature of the understanding that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force.” The use of government force as an instrument of persuasion, he believed, was wrong; for the Government to censor the content of books (except atheist ones) was improper.
One hundred years later, the United States’ first Congress sent off to the states, for ratification, the following Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …” What an achievement! From primordial slime through countless millennia of grunting evolution and brute force to such magnificent words as those!
Of course, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the French playwright and anti-Catholic Church polemicist Voltaire, who in 1770 had penned the following in a letter to a priest: “Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” This later became popularised as the classic affirmation, “I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.”
But what of John Stuart Mill, widely regarded as one of free speech’s foremost advocates? “If any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.” Note, though, Mill’s over-arching view of when government force is justified: “… the only purpose for which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will is to prevent harm to others.”
“Harm to others”? What does that cover? Well, there’s the rub. It could subsume hurting the feelings of others. Would the exercise of governmental power then be warranted to protect people’s feelings by banning certain types of speech? The contemporary incarnation of primordial slime—university lecturers and students—gleefully answer “Yes!” … as they applaud politically correct “speech codes,” demand “hate crime” legislation, and so forth, heedless of the shining truth proclaimed by Flemming Rose, publisher of the Danish Cartoons: “There is no such right as the right not to be offended.” And there is nothing in Mill to justify one’s saying “No!” to such censorship.
It’s a short, barely discernible step from “harm to others” to “injurious to the public good”—the indefinable notion that in one form or another underlies censorship legislation around the world.
The imprecision of Mill’s argument has contributed to the dead-end of post-modernism whose pin-up boys like Stanley Fish write books with titles such as “There Is No such Thing as Free Speech—and It’s a Good Thing Too.” Free speech, says Fish, is a contradiction in terms; all speech is coercive. This is what, 300 years after Locke, 200 years after the First Amendment, we have been reduced to—as though Locke’s crucial insight distinguishing force from persuasion, so admirably crystallised in the Ayn Rand quotation above, had never happened.
But it did happen—and the pomo-wankers and the femi-nazis and the conservatives and the “liberals” and all the other wannabe censors know it. They also know that if they can sell persuasion as force, they can justify force as persuasion. That is exactly what they want to do. Unfortunately, they are succeeding.