The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism.—George Orwell, 1946
Let’s start with a pop quiz: when he wrote his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in 1963, what had Martin Luther King Jr. been locked up for? If you are an educated liberal, you have probably read the letter, or at least part of it, believe that it expresses a moral truth and intuit that the charge against him was unjust, pretextual and racist. Well, yes, it was—but not in the way you probably think. King had been locked up for championing the right to free speech. The city and local court had denied King and his followers the right to assemble and protest, purportedly on the grounds that it was the wrong place and time. King regarded the court’s decision as illegitimate—partly because he suspected that the real reason was that they knew what the protest would be about: the legal treatment of black Americans in Alabama and nearby states. But he went ahead with the protest anyway, because he knew that citizens had the right to hold a peaceable public protest, regardless of its subject matter. King even invokes Thomas Jefferson as the sort of human rights “extremist” who would support his cause, as opposed to the “white moderates” he diagnoses as the problem. Today, it may be hard to imagine pulling the slaver Jefferson in approvingly, even for merely rhetorical purposes, but for King this was a matter of principle. King saw free speech as necessary to the achievement of universal civil rights and believed that freedom should be not only protected but championed, regardless of the contents of the speech. He was what some on the left today would call a free speech absolutist, a speech bro.
In the America of King’s day, the cultural consensus in support of free expression and assembly was robust. Self-described progressives agreed with King’s stance on free speech. They thought First Amendment rights weren’t being applied broadly enough, and not only saw the right to free speech as a tool of progress, but as one that was their special province. Pushing for legal protections for free expression and free assembly was often a focus of their successful social justice activism. They recognised that, historically, free speech has played a key role in social change at crucial moments, and has hardly been a tool of repression.
Yet today, many on the left who see themselves as wholeheartedly on Martin Luther King’s team have come to oppose his position on speech issues. They not only think of First Amendment rights as irrelevant to their political goals, they even deride free speech and set it up in opposition to social justice. Ironically, even though the right is not necessarily sincere about defending free speech either, this shift on the left put the right at a political advantage: many of their opponents are now booing and hissing a widely popular human value that all liberal societies have traditionally upheld.
Those who are cancelled are usually free to go on talking, despite the large body of opinion set against them. But others are less free to go on listening to them. And no one—neither the talkers, nor the listeners nor the cancellers—has a chance to learn whether listening might have been a good idea in any given case.
Although individuals today rarely face persecution or official consequences for expressing heresies or rebellious ideas, some face the subtler response of being illegitimately considered outré. This lowers the level of social trust, and writers and artists need a certain level of social trust to be able to express themselves independently and confidently. The word culture in the phrase cancel culture is important. When nobody knows what the social norms are, but the cost for transgressing some unspecified norm is high, the entire purpose of a pluralistic liberal society—relating to other human beings, sharing words with them and participating in intellectual and literary and political life—is menaced.
The confusion that characterises the current public discussion of the misbegotten term cancel culture partly stems from unacknowledged differences as to what people mean by free speech and how they feel about the idea. For some, free speech is a life preserver protecting them against social death, while, for others, it is an impediment to their practical aims—for example, their desire to prevail in some office politics squabble. These two different sets of people should not be confused: one is firmly opposed to censorship, while the other is reluctantly willing to accept some limitations on censorship.
Right now, for frankly dumb and ephemeral reasons of reaction and misunderstanding, a great many of those on the left, especially if they are young, are learning that the socially correct mindset is to be against free speech and to try to make sure there is less of it. Rhetoric that speaks lovingly in defence of free speech is now more common among writers, academics and intellectuals on the right, while the lettered and journalistic left deploys more of its energy trying to argue against than for it. Some of this is a result of acculturation. The old passion for free speech has gone out of the left, partly for the simple reason that it has been a while since official (as opposed to cultural) censorship has been brought to bear for an extended period on leftist thought—perhaps not since the iconic free speech movement at Berkeley.
It’s downright creepy, as well as factually wrong, to claim that a particular speech act isn’t protected because you can’t yell fire! in a crowded theatre. It’s creepier still that this fraudulent and misleading claim is now met with applause by the media and in Congress. Everyone should know better. The catchphrase is a reference to a passage from a 1919 US Supreme Court opinion, holding that the government could prohibit the distribution of socialist anti-war pamphlets during World War I. The court reasoned that, during wartime, such speech is a direct incitement to violence, and compared it to “falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic” (a speech act that has always been prohibited in the US). The 1919 holding was overturned in 1969, when the Supreme Court ruled that, even in wartime, speech can be prohibited as likely to incite violence only if the danger of violent reaction is imminent. Citizens have the right to say what they want even—perhaps especially—if it is offensive to society, disfavoured by reigning social norms or critical of a warmongering government that is sending kids to die and kill against their will.
Yet I am supposed to trust that the old left-wing instinct against censorship will reassert itself on its own. Well, I don’t. Today’s English-speaking liberal left is simply not terribly attached to free speech values or well versed in free speech issues. And it’s not right wing to say so. It’s just a sad fact.
The shudder-worthy coinage freeze peach, a term of derision in arguments on social media, is one example of just how scornful leftist public discourse has become towards any invocation of free speech. Freeze peach is a phrase some use to mock those who talk about the importance of free speech—and who are willing to say that even disfavoured, offensive, idiotic or grossly incendiary views should get heard out and dispassionately refuted as far as possible, rather than simply banned or ignored.
As support for free speech has become less and less fashionable, the institutions dedicated to hosting free inquiry have become more monocultural and suspicious of adversarial dispute—you can see it around dinner tables and in newsrooms, magazines, academic journals, philosophy departments, universities, parliamentary bodies and public spaces—like the plazas of Birmingham, Alabama where King led his protest. The people who control these spaces seem dedicated to enforcing ideas, rather than questioning ideas with a view to refining them.
So, what changed between 1963 and 2021? If much of the left has just lost that lovin’ feeling for free speech, it may be primarily because the term has been politicized, which has caused people to treat it as a talisman of partisan affiliation rather than consider what it actually means. Perhaps if we could come to a clear, shared conception of free speech, we would all commit to it as a value that improves society and makes intellectual and social progress possible.
Free speech is shorthand for a cluster of rights that may be more precisely called free expression. It encompasses two ideas. The first involves protection: authorities should not be permitted to prevent you from speaking or writing, censor you, stop the printing or sale of books, or punish you for expressing an unpopular thought. The second is about the intrinsic value of speech: it is beneficial to exercise the freedom to speak your mind—and hear what is in others’ minds. While it is a truism that, just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should—when that truism becomes a go-to response to much of what is said, written and joked about, it morphs into an easy device for shutting down intellectual discussion.
Orwell’s essay “The Prevention of Literature” persuasively argues that we should think of free expression as more than the absence of censorship. Orwell wrote that essay in a mood of anger and dismay, after attending a celebration of the three-hundredth anniversary of the publication of John Milton’s anti-censorship pamphlet, Areopagitica (after which this magazine is named). There, instead of lovers of free discourse, Orwell found only a reluctant, mumbled minimum level of support for it:
In its net effect the meeting was a demonstration in favour of censorship. There was nothing particularly surprising in this. In our age, the idea of intellectual liberty is under attack from two directions. On the one side are its theoretical enemies, the apologists of totalitarianism, and on the other its immediate, practical enemies, monopoly and bureaucracy. Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than by active persecution … Everything in our age conspires to turn the writer, and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official, working on themes handed down from above and never telling what seems to him the whole of the truth. But in struggling against this fate he gets no help from his own side; that is, there is no large body of opinion which will assure him that he’s in the right. In the past, at any rate throughout the Protestant centuries, the idea of rebellion and the idea of intellectual integrity were mixed up. A heretic—political, moral, religious, or aesthetic—was one who refused to outrage his own conscience. His outlook was summed up in the words of the Revivalist hymn:
Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone
Dare to have a purpose firm
Dare to make it known
To bring this hymn up to date one would have to add a ‘Don’t’ at the beginning of each line. For it is the peculiarity of our age that the rebels against the existing order, at any rate the most numerous and characteristic of them, are also rebelling against the idea of individual integrity. ‘Daring to stand alone’ is ideologically criminal as well as practically dangerous.
As it turns out, 1946 was not such an unusual time after all.
Free speech is a universal and eternal human value, and belongs neither to the left nor to the right. It is not a political matter, but a matter of human freedom. This has been the case since well before there was a First Amendment or even any English common law. Historically, every faction and every society that has jettisoned its commitment to free speech has become recriminatory, unreflective and nasty, and has eventually broken down.
It is thanks to ancient Greek thinkers that we even have a word for the concept now known as free speech, as John Milton points out in 1644’s Areopagitica, which enshrined the idea of free speech in English-speaking literary and political culture. As suggested by its subtitle, “A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parliament of England,” the essay was a response to the government’s practice of prepublication censorship, based on a growing list of criteria; it was getting more dangerous to be a printer—especially because many printers were producing officially banned books on the side. In the essay, Milton explains what free speech meant in Greek classical antiquity, and describes the Areopagus, an outcropping beside the Acropolis, next to a temple to Ares, god of war, where the official censors of the ancient Athenian democracy did their work. As Milton vividly argues, the seventeenth-century censors placed far broader restrictions on speech than these ancients had:
In Athens where Books and Wits were ever busier then in any other part of Greece, I finde but only two sorts of writings which the Magistrate car’d to take notice of; those either blasphemous and Atheisticall, or Libellous. Thus the Books of Protagoras were by the judges of Areopagus commanded to be burnt, and himselfe banisht the territory for a discourse begun with his confessing not to know whether there were gods, or whether not: And against defaming, it was decreed that none should be traduc’d by name, as was the manner of Vetus Comœdia whereby we may guesse how they censur’d libelling: And this course was quick enough, as Cicero writes, to quell both the desperate wits of other Atheists, and the open way of defaming, as the event shew’d. Of other sects and opinions, though tending to voluptuousnesse, and the denying of divine providence, they tooke no heed. Therefore we do not read that either Epicurus, or that libertine school of Cyrene, or what the Cynick impudence utter’d, was ever question’d by the Laws.
Thus the concept of free speech was named in Athens beneath the Areopagus. The impudent “Cynicks” to whom Milton refers were a school of philosophers who met in the garden of a temple to Heracles, the cynosarges. It was a place for bastards, slaves, exiles and other undesirables and outsiders to hang out, and they were the sorts of people who tended to be attracted to the Cynics’ philosophical teachings and lifestyle.
The original meaning of the word cynical is quite different from its meaning today. Greek Cynicism was a sincere and morally high-minded philosophy, whose practitioners were dedicated to living at a remove from society and cultivating independence in all things, including independence of mind. They were inspired by the freedom and self-directedness of animals, such as dogs. (The word cynic comes from the word for dog, like canine.) The most famous Cynic was the itinerant wise fool Diogenes, who lived in a tub. It was probably the Cynics who coined the term parrhesia to indicate complete liberty of expression, encompassing all (pan) things that are uttered (rhema, a word related to rhyme). The Cynics believed not simply that they should be allowed to speak their minds, but that they had a duty to do so. Far from agreeing with today’s bromide just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should, they were inclined to believe something closer to the inverse: the fact that you can say something, means that you should. The ancient stories of Diogenes the Cynic portray him as admirable for speaking honestly no matter the consequences, whether he is mocking someone who is selling him into slavery, or insulting Alexander the Great. The Cynics didn’t just think it was better to be frank than to be politically correct. They thought it was important enough to suffer and die for.
Michel Foucault dedicated his 1983 final lecture series to Diogenes and the Greek free speech tradition. In one of the lectures—which, unusually for Foucault, are written in clear and direct language—he points out that free speech (parrhesia) is less about the relationship between a speaker and his potential persecutor than it is “a type of relationship between the speaker and what he says. For in parrhesia, the speaker makes it manifestly clear and obvious that what he says is his own opinion.” Parrhesia is not about persuasion—that’s the province of rhetoric. It is about honesty: the right to provide an unbiased and objective report of what is in one’s own mind, thereby countering what George Orwell calls “the most serious symptom of all” that indicates that free speech is endangered: “The weakening of the desire for liberty among the intellectuals themselves.”
The critical virtue at stake in free speech is honesty. When expression is unfree, honesty is unlikely or impossible. The reason to resent and oppose censors is that they enforce dishonesty. This is why censorship is incompatible with both the scientific process and the liberal political project: grand, interpersonal, social enterprises that rest on the ideas that people are not only allowed to question one another freely, but should do so. Science and pluralist liberal politics require the expression of dissent and disagreement, which can make people uncomfortable, but which produce a never-ending process of refinement and discovery: everybody gets to frankly assert what they believe to be true, no matter who might disagree; nobody gets to claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth; and the important thing is never to become arrogant enough to think you hold the final answer.
Those who censor, or otherwise restrict free expression, are trying to skip to the end of this never-ending process, to undercut the liberal project of eternal inquiry, to pull rank where rank has no place, to assert finality where in reality there cannot and should not be any such thing. They are the enemies of science and liberal democracy.
For these reasons, intellectuals, writers, artists and politicians of all factions must cease their foolish and pedantic arguments over the merits or legality of particular instances of censorship, stop trying to justify censorship on the grounds that someone somewhere has said something unpopular, foolish or supposedly hurtful, in a book or article or online. The censors were wrong in Diogenes’ day, in Milton’s day, in Orwell’s day and in Martin Luther King’s day. They’re wrong now. We all need to strengthen in ourselves the healthy desire for self-expression, and recognize that we can only express ourselves if we value and affirm everyone else’s right to say what they please. Only then can we resume the pluralistic process of figuring out what to actually do, which is— frustratingly but beautifully—a perpetual challenge. Ready?