Every generation, and individual, has to rediscover the arguments for free speech for themselves. Some people learn from major incidents. Some when the censors come for someone close to them, or an opinion that they hold. Others come to believe in free speech because they realise that while being offended on occasion might be terrible, it is nowhere near as terrible as any system designed to make being offended impossible.
Fortunately there are short-cuts to finding the best defences of free speech. The English language provides an especially rich tradition on which to draw. From many centuries of literature allow me to list just four works: two classic, two modern.
The first – John Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ (1644) – is really an argument for the freedom of the printing press. Milton’s argument was unsuccessful at the time, but became one of the foundation arguments for free speech. Apart from the beauty of the language, Milton’s work is remarkable for conceding that those intent on censorship do have a legitimate fear. ‘For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them.’ Yet, ‘As good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good Book, kills reason itself.’
‘On Liberty’ by John Stuart Mill appeared two centuries later (in 1859) and yet the sentiments are remarkably close to Milton. Mill’s work remains the classic defence not just of the right of free speech but the necessity of it: the right from which every other right flows. Mill says:
‘If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had power, would be justified in silencing mankind.’
Mill goes on to outline four reasons why a society must allow itself to hear contrary opinions.
‘First, 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.
‘Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.
‘Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.
And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt convictions, from reason or personal experience.’
In every age there have been those who cannot cope with this: some who feel the temptation to silence what they don’t like; others who become lacklustre in their arguments.
Few people have done more in recent times to force people to relearn the fundamentals than the Ayatollah Khomeini did when he issued his fatwa in 1989 against the British author Salman Rushdie for the ‘crime’ of writing a novel. That episode – in which some members of the British government, among others, failed to rise to the challenge – sparked a number of re-runs and updates of the classic arguments. Most succinct and comprehensive is Jonathan Rauch’s ‘Kindly Inquisitors: the new attacks on free thought’ (1993) which began to think through the question of how an increasingly pluralistic society might navigate these waters. Rauch is admirably clear and unflinching: ‘No one who demands centrally enforced equal time or preferential treatment for his beliefs should be accommodated in the slightest, no matter how strong his political grievance. The fact that you’re oppressed doesn’t mean you know anything.’
A decade later and the liberal democracies had to go through the argument again, this time sparked by cartoons rather than a novel. The man who was at the centre of one of those controversies – the Danish journalist Flemming Rose – also wrote the best recent work on free speech ‘The Tyranny of Silence’. Rose’s book makes some historical points that should be a warning. Not least his survey of how post-World War One Germany’s ‘hate-speech’ laws helped rather than hindered the Nazi rise to power. But Rose makes another point which is even more sorely needed today. Which is that an increasingly diverse society basically only has two choices before it. Either we agree that increasing diversity of people means we need to restrict diversity of speech and thought in order to keep the peace. Or – and this is his recommendation – we realise that as a society grows more diverse so you have to get used to hearing more and more things – including things you might not want to hear.
We’ll have to grow up, in other words. Let’s see if we do.