Author: Roshwald, Mordecai
Date published: April 1, 2010
Editor's Note: Throughout recent months there has been a heated debate in Britain about free speech. The British National Party (BNP) attracted almost one million votes in the European Parliament elections last June resulting in the election of two Members including the party leader Nick Griffin. There is also increasing support in opinion polls and some local elections, motivated as much by disenchantment with the current government as by support for its anti-immigrant polices. The BBC felt its obligation to political impartiality meant it must invite the party to appear on some political programmes. On 22 October Griffin appeared on Question Time, a popular programme where various politicians joined by the odd celebrity answer questions from a sometimes truculent audience. Griffin was challenged repeatedly on his past racialist and Holocaust denial statements, some of which he has repudiated. Commentators generally considered that he failed on the programme which had attracted three times its normal audience. However opinion polls showed that about one fifth of Britons said they would perhaps consider voting for the party, some out of sympathy for Griffin who stood alone amidst a torrent of abuse from the audience and fellow panellists. This incident is the latest example of a debate about the limits of free speech which Professor Mordecai Roshwald considers from a philosophical point of view in the following article.
FREEDOM of speech is not anymore a debatable issue. It is one of the foundations of democracy, which is perceived not only as a regime in which the people are the ultimate source of political authority, but also as a form of government which secures the individual's rights - rights which must not be subjected to majority decisions. One of these rights is freedom of speech. Who will dare to abridge or curtail such freedom, which is assured in the first article of the US Bill of Rights of 1791?
Freedom of speech is not merely an article of faith. It has also been cogently explained and justified by political philosophers - foremost by John Stuart Mill in his famous essay On Liberty (1859). The arguments of Mill for unrestricted freedom of speech are well known. First, prevalent opinion on any matter may be wrong, and has no chance of being corrected, if people are not allowed to express their opinions. Thus, if the once universal opinion that the earth is flat could not have been challenged, the truth that the world is a sphere would have had no chance to be voiced and proved. Second, an opinion may be partially true and thus the freedom of challenging it may lead to the essential establishment of the whole truth.
Yet Mill is not satisfied with these arguments and adds a third reason for freedom of speech. Even if an opinion were patently wrong, it should be allowed the freedom of expression and argument. For a mistaken opinion performs a service for truth! It compels us to explain, prove, justify the truth, and thus keep it a living truth. The theorem of Pythagoras will not be accepted merely on the authority of the teacher of geometry. It will be provable by a logical argument.
The argument of Mill makes it clear that freedom of speech is not a goal in itself, a freedom comparable to the right to move around and not to be confined or imprisoned in a narrow space. The principal justification of the freedom of expression of opinion is that it serves an important goal: the attainment, or at least an advancement towards truth. Truth is the goal; freedom of speech is the means.
Yet the solid logic of J.S. Mill did not resolve the issue once and for all. For the experience of the twentieth century has shed a new lurid light on the problem. Mill had tacitly assumed that the conflict of opinion takes place between genuine seekers of truth, making their opposing argument in the comparatively civilized context of a parliament, a debating society, an academic forum. To be sure, such people could be over-confident in the lightness of their cause and solidity of their argument, but still remain ready to listen to a different opinion. He did not encounter cynical demagogues, ruthless seekers of power, the so-called charismatic leaders, capable of whipping up the emotions of a crowd and suppressing any cogent assessment of public issues and policies.
Nor did he take into consideration the techniques of conditioning people, brainwashing them, programming them to comply with the stance of the men in power. Mill lived before the age of Pavlov, Watson and B.F. Skinner and the behaviorist school of psychology, which asserted that man can be conditioned to respond to stimuli in accordance with the design of the conditioner. Truths and values are, according to this philosophy, what society, or an authority within this society, instil in people. There is no Truth or Right as such, but only what people are conditioned to believe in through the process of conditioning called education.
Thus freedom of speech as a means for the attainment of Truth looses its Millian justification. It becomes a principle which leading individuals like Mill chose as a useful rule of social conduct and which people at large were conditioned to believe in. People can, in the same way, be programmed to accept the assertions of other religious or political leaders, as indeed has often been the case.
The consequence of this argument is that there is no one Truth on virtually any issue disputed in society, but many truths jostle with each other for general acceptance and for power. There is my truth and here is your truth. There is the truth of one religion and truth of another faith. There is our morality and the morality of other ages, tribes, civilizations - each society or community conditioned to accept its peculiar belief and normative way of conduct. The idea that homo sapiens is endowed with reason and the capacity to distinguish between true and false, right and wrong, is an illusion. Adam and Eve never tasted the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge.
The idea that men and women do not control their own lives, that they need not, and perhaps must not, shape their lives according to their judgment, but are conditioned or formed to behave according to the dictates of an authority (notably a political authority) aroused a vigorous reaction. The assertion of individual freedom to think and to feel as people choose and to arrive at their own conclusion what is the right conduct, has not been given up. The reaction has manifested itself in various ways, perhaps the most effective of which was the literature of negative utopia, or dystopia, as it is often called. It turned against the authoritarian construction of designed societies, shaped by political authority according to some ideal plan, by presenting the terrifying picture of the fulfilment of such design.
Two works stand out in this literature. One is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, published in 1932, and the other George Orwell's 1984, published in 1949. In both the freedom of pursuit of what is true and right is suppressed and the rulers' formula forced on the people - not by rational argument, but by other, allegedly more effective, means.
Orwell depicts a regime which is ruthless and cruel and enforces conformity and obethence by intimidation, spying network, incessant propaganda and, if need be, cruel coercion and torture intended to break free spirit and personal emotions of recalcitrant individuals. Huxley's regime appears quite different. It abstains from crude coercion, it does not resort to physical cruelty. Indeed, it wants to make everybody happy. To achieve this goal, people are manipulated by bio-chemical means, by happy pills, by psychological conditioning from early childhood on. The free spirits are not punished; they are removed to an isolated region, where they meet others of their kind, but cannot affect the larger society.
What is lost in these societies is the freedom of individuals to think independently and reach their own conclusions about their way of life. There is no place for a free pursuit of ideas, for experiencing deep emotions, for questioning established ways, and thus (to put it in contemporary words) destabilizing society. The aim of a stable, ostensibly happy, predictable humanity is achieved by scientific means and social control. This, however, requires the restriction of free choice and the control of human emotions and ideas.
Thus, there is not and cannot be free speech either in Orwell's or Huxley's dystopia. Yet the essential problem which John Stuart Mill would have, and many a reader has had, with these dystopias is not merely or primarily the effective obstruction of free speech, but the destruction of free mind. The people who populate these imaginary societies are conditioned, manipulated, controlled by various means not to think for themselves, not to feel as they might, not to judge as they would, but to respond according to the design of the authority.
This is much more than the restriction of freedom of speech. A person forbidden to express his opinion in public, on one penalty or another, can at least cultivate a sense of grievance, can retain bitter feelings against the authority, can even hope for a change of political regime and eventual liberty of speech. A person whose spirit is controlled, whose mind has been shaped by conditioning, programming, by psychology or chemicals, is deprived of such satisfaction or hope. He thinks and feels the way he has been made to think and feel, and believes that he does it by his own decision or out of his natural inclination. His problem is not that he is deprived of free speech, but that he is not protected from the speech of others, that he is compelled to submit to their conditioning techniques to accept their opinions, that he has no defence against their tirades and influence. 'Grant me freedom not to listen', his soul cries out. 'Grant me free space where I can hear my own self and not be flooded by the stream of designed "truths".'
Alas, his soul had been remoulded and it forgot its cry.
The manipulation of human mind by psychological means, by drugs, by intimidation, by propaganda, has not been a technique used exclusively by political usurpers of power and vicious dictators. Nor must it be seen as an exaggerated picture of deeply concerned writers, like those mentioned above. Some of the techniques of the dystopias have been used by advertisers of commercial goods - from cars to toothpaste. They learned early the verity of Huxley, pronounced in Brave New World, that so many thousands of repetitions make one truth. Just keep repeating your statement again and again, and people will believe it. And so, this car or that, this toothpaste or that, are inserted into our minds incessantly - not for the sake of truth, but in order to promote the sales of a commodity. The newspapers, the radio, the television, the internet, are the media for conveying the message. The veracity of the message itself is assured mainly by the repeated assertion.
That, of course, is a far cry from the rational discussion of any issue by the people - in parliament, at home, at work - which Mill envisaged. The advertisement, in most cases, makes no attempt to prove or document the claim it makes. Repetition and psychological appeal are more effective, and the freedom of speech which the advertisers enjoy can go on a rampage, brainwashing countless viewers and listeners, who have no right of protection from the concerted intrusion.
Then there are the repellent messages on the internet, known as 'spam'. Television programmes, with the numerous channels, probably include pornography, which cannot be easily excluded from children to access. ('Probably', because this writer has not explored the diverse entertainment offered by his medium.) Journals of dubious nature may be exhibited in kiosks: a visual freedom of expression not welcomed by parents of school children. Cars are equipped with radio and the generous drivers often increase the volume to benefit the pedestrians with loud noises of hip-hop, which the drivers apparently consider to be music. A more recent phenomenon are people seeming to talk aloud to themselves on the street, in buses, in public places. Actually they speak to someone on their tiny cellular phone, but being in the physical company of passers-by, they cannot separate them from the intended listener. They may well intend to speak urbi, but their message, or at least the noise, spreads orbi. Orbis needs protection from this kind of intrusive speech, too.
Beside the problem of intrusive freedom of speech which requires protection of the exposed and unwilling listeners, there is the need to defend society from excesses, resulting from the permissive interpretations of the meaning of 'freedom of speech', assured by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. These interpretations, apparently endorsed by constitutional lawyers and judges, actually do not limit the protection of the First Amendment to speech; it is also deemed to cover other ways of expression of ideas and attitudes. Such expression may include symbolic action of individuals, as well as some collective acts demonstrating the opinion or sentiment of like-minded people.
Thus, burning a cross opposite a house of an African American family has been judicially justified by the principle of freedom of speech. Burning of the American flag as a protest against government policy has been permitted as a form of expression of opinion. In both cases, the fact that the demonstration is offensive to other people - reminding them of racial hatred and violence in the first case, and felt as offensive to the country and to its citizens at large in the second instance, is ignored in the name of freedom of speech.
Needless to say, this kind of speech does not lead to a dialogue which may be helpful in the quest of truth. It merely breeds silent resentment, or noisy uproar, which divides society into hostile camps.
Another famous case, which falls into this category, was the march of American Neo-Nazis, in uniforms and with their symbols of racist creed, through the streets of Skokie, Illinois, whose inhabitants included many Jewish holocaust survivors. The obvious provocation of such a demonstration led to a legal suit demanding its prevention, but the court decided to allow it on the principle of freedom of speech. That march is not speech, and certainly does not lead to a peaceful attainment of, or approximation to, truth, does not seem to have been realized by the judges. There was no protection of the people from this kind of speech.
Elections in the United States, especially for the President, involve a series of prolonged campaigns and an enormous expenditure of money for advertising the stance of the candidates for various offices. Money is solicited from the public by the opposing parties, and then spent sending brief messages, so-called sound-bites, on television. Such messages in no way amount to a serious dialogue, which possibly could clarify the issues.
The more numerous the inane messages, the better the chances of being elected. The more money is collected and spent, the greater the chances of winning. Money talks. The greater spender increases his chances of winning.
Such monetary dialogue becomes a substitute for argument. By increasing the number of repetitions of the speaker's stance, his opinion gains the support of more people, or so he believes. Clearly, the service to democracy of the system is doubtful. Indeed, a lot of money could be saved by shortening the duration of the campaign, as well as by limiting the amount of money allowed to be spent for advertisement - cutting it to half, or even ten per cent of the fortunes spent on the former occasion.
Alas, such an interference, even if passed as a law by Congress, would likely be deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court: it would interfere with the principle of free speech. But what about protecting people from repetitive speech? What about reducing the expenditure for talking money, and saving it for more substantive goals? O no, not when democracy is concerned.
Mordecai Roshwald is Professor Emeritus of Humanities at the University of Minnesota, and a visiting professor at many universities worldwide.