What are we allowed to say? by David Bromwich.
From the post:
Free speech is an aberration – it is best to begin by admitting that. In most societies throughout history and in all societies some of the time, censorship has been the means by which a ruling group or a visible majority cleanses the channels of communication to ensure that certain conventional practices will go on operating undisturbed. It is not only traditional cultures that see the point of taboos on speech and expressive action. Even in societies where faith in progress is part of a common creed, censorship is often taken to be a necessary means to effect improvements that will convey a better life to all. Violent threats like the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and violent acts like the assassinations at Charlie Hebdo remind us that a militant religion is a dangerous carrier of the demand for the purification of words and images. Meanwhile, since the fall of Soviet communism, liberal bureaucrats in the North Atlantic democracies have kept busy constructing speech codes and guidelines on civility to soften the impact of unpleasant ideas. Is there a connection between the two?
Probably an inbred trait of human nature renders the attraction of censorship perennial. Most people (the highly literate are among the worst) believe that what is good for them will be good for others. Besides, a regime of censorship must claim to derive its authority from settled knowledge and not opinion. Once enforcement and exclusion have done their work, this assumption becomes almost irresistible; and it is relied on to produce a fortunate and economical result: self-censorship. We stay out of trouble by gagging ourselves. Among the few motives that may strengthen the power of resistance is the consciousness of having been deeply wrong oneself, either regarding some abstract question or in personal or public life. Another motive of resistance occasionally pitches in: a radical, quasi-physical horror of seeing people coerce other people without having to supply reasons. For better or worse, this second motive is likely to be mixed with misanthropy.
As far back as one can trace the vicissitudes of public speech and its suppression, the case for censorship seems to have begun in the need for strictures against blasphemy. The introductory chapter of Blasphemy, by the great American legal scholar Leonard Levy, covers ‘the Jewish trial of Jesus’; it is followed in close succession, in Levy’s account, by the Christian invention of the concept of heresy and the persecution of the Socinian and Arminian heretics and later of the Ranters, Antinomians and early Quakers. After an uncertain interval of state prosecutions and compromises in the 19th century, Levy’s history closes at the threshold of a second Enlightenment in the mid-20th: the endorsement by the North Atlantic democracies of a regime of almost unrestricted freedom of speech and expression.
… (emphasis in original)
Bromwich’s essay runs some twenty pages in print so refresh your coffee before starting!
It is a “must” read but not without problems.
The focus on Charlie Hebdo and The Satanic Verses, gives readers a “safe context” in which to consider the issue of “free speech.”
The widespread censorship of “jihadist” speech, which for the most part passes unnoticed and without even a cursory node towards “free speech” is a more current and confrontational example.
Does Bromwich use safe examples to “stay out of trouble by gagging [himself]?”
Hundreds of thousands have been silenced by Western tech companies. Yet in an essay on freedom of speech, they don’t merit a single mention.
The failure to mention the largest current example of anti-freedom of speech in a freedom of speech essay, should disturb every attentive reader.
Disturb them to ask: What of freedom of speech today? Not as a dry and desiccated abstraction but freedom of speech in the streets.
Where is the freedom of speech to incite others to action? Freedom of speech to oppose corrupt governments? Freedom of speech to advocate harsh measures against criminal oppressors?
The invocation of Milton and Mill provides a groundwork for confrontation of government urged if not required censorship but the opportunity is wasted on the vagaries of academic politics.
Freedom of speech is important on college campuses but people are dying where freedom of speech is being denied. To showcase the former over the latter is a form of censorship itself.
If the question is censorship, as Milton and Mill would agree, the answer is no. (full stop)
PS: For those who raise the bugaboo of child pornography, there are laws against the sexual abuse of children, laws that raise no freedom of speech issues.
Possession of child pornography is attacked because it gives the appearance of meaningful action, while allowing the cash flow from its production and distribution to continue unimpeded.