If I were forced to pick a word to summarise the nature of public discourse today, it would be hard to turn away from contention. The driving aim of most conversations is a desire to be right rather than to be effective. Inevitable, perhaps, in a society divided and categorised at every opportunity; placed on the left or right, red or blue, this or that. And it is this binary simplification that erodes away at different topics of discussion, important topics of discussion, to leave behind ruins that can neither show us their origins nor assist the progress of the conversation. One such issue is free speech.
of speech and its counterpart, censorship, have been at the heart of societies
since the sharing of ideas has been possible. From the classical public debates
of Greece, you can follow the thread throughout history, all the way up to
today. Using an example from one of the most tumultuous periods in British
history, our civil war, we can see John Milton defend free speech in his Aeropagitica,
rhetorically asking, ‘who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and
makes a good point. For progress to occur at the benefit of a whole society,
ideas must be allowed a platform for expression where they can be discussed
objectively and openly. Allowing for debate, conversation, compromise, change.
Given this, the ‘truth’, as Milton puts it, can be found from amongst the
haystack of opposition that is necessary to define it.
Milton existed in a different society. The arena for this debate was sealed to
parliament and circulated papers (like the pamphlets Milton wrote), not spread
out over a whole digital landscape. The number of people involved in this
discourse was insignificant against the millions we see today. But the main
difference is that Milton is talking about ideas, weare satiated
am aware that this will be classed as an opinion piece so perhaps we would be
assisted by some definition. By opinion I mean impulse, words ejected from the
mouth (or fingers) before thought has had a chance to shape them. Words which
malign, are filled with venom, but would never find their way into the world
given a morning cup of tea. Often words that can materialise online but would
never dare be spoken without anonymity. I think we all know what I’m talking
is not an attack on social media but an attempt to explain why, when talking about
freedom of speech, we rarely begin to touch on the subject. The debate usually
finishes with the defender of free speech struggling to find an answer to
questions on why homophobes, racists and criminals should be given a ‘platform’
for their opinions. Why are we giving voice to purveyors of hate? Well of
course we shouldn’t. I should hope that conclusion needs no supporting
argument. But those examples are not relevant to the question of freedom of
speech. And it is because of those examples that we remain ignorant to the
necessity for the freedom of ideas.
we were to try to put our fingers on the pulse of where free speech lies today,
between the poles of complete liberalism and complete censorship, it would be
hard to see anything other than a clear shift towards the latter. There is a
reason ‘cancel culture’ is already a clichéd term. In more ways than one, this
shift is driven by laudable aims. The events of the past few months have shown
us our need for tolerance, acceptance, reflection and above all, change. There
is no question about that. But for change to occur, as Milton attempted to
show, ideas must be given the freedom to interact, develop and emerge all the
more rounded for having done so.
reasons already explained, this is easier said than done. To part the red sea
of opinion, creating a path for ideas, is a task of truly biblical proportions.
Perhaps a task simply impossible given the scale and prevalence of social
media. But we can at least begin to recognise the need for this task to be
undertaken in the first place. For change to occur, the censor must fail in
their aims. And, as this intolerance is present on both sides of the political
spectrum, change will become unattainable.
want to let an aphorism of Kafka hover over this article: ‘The fact that the
only world is a constructed world takes away hope and gives us certainty.’ The
censor sees the world as calculated in advance, constructed and fixed in place.
But movement can’t occur when opinion is treated as final and any difference is
censored. That is why freedom of speech, or freedom of ideas, is needed in a
society in the process of progress.