In President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address, he spoke of a “world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.” It was no accident that he placed free speech first. After all, how can you secure—let alone retain—any other liberties or rights unless you have the right to argue in defence of them? Free speech is the foundation of all other rights: that is why it is the first freedom. And that is also why it is the first freedom to be taken away whenever authoritarians seek to control others.
Free speech goes against our tribal instincts, forcing us to sharpen our words rather than our blades, allow the expression of bile and lies, and live peaceably alongside people whose views we may find disagreeable—even disgusting. Yet it is worth the cost because free speech is necessary to all human progress—scientific, political, moral and otherwise. Thus it is worrying that in recent decades—and especially in the last few years—free speech rights have been put under great pressure, not only from aspiring or actual autocrats like Viktor Orbán, Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin, but also from many quarters in the western world—for example from advocates of cancel culture and from proponents of what Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have called critical social justice.
Fortunately, many people are recognizing and resisting the current threats to free speech. Jacob Mchangama is one of the most eloquent and persuasive of them. His new book, Free Speech: A Global History from Socrates to Social Media (2022), is not only a broad and deep global history of free speech—from antiquity to the Reformation to our current social-media era—but an argument for its enduring power and necessity. The book shows just how old the current arguments over free speech are—and how often they have been made over the centuries. Mchangama provides many lessons, drawn from the history of the first freedom, that can be used to understand the present challenges to it.
For example, he notes the relationship between the current push for censorship of hate speech and fake news and the age-old tension between egalitarian and elitist free speech (focused on whether every individual has the right to think and speak freely versus only the upper classes), which dates back at least to the time of ancient Athens and Rome. For example, the fourth century BCE Athenian orator Demosthenes was proud that his city allowed its citizens to critique their own constitution while lauding Sparta’s, whereas Spartans were allowed only to applaud their own. In ancient Rome, meanwhile, a distinction was made between libertas and licentia, that is, rightful liberty versus licentiousness. Mchangama quotes Tacitus’ contrasting description of Greece, where “not the freedom only, but even the licentiousness of speech, is unpunished.” And Cicero thought that the “artisans, shopkeepers and that scum” were unfitted to enjoy the free speech their social superiors did.
Taking a long historical view is challenging for any scholar: how much depth should one provide at the expense of breadth (or vice versa)? To Mchangama’s credit, he mostly succeeds in achieving a balance: the passages in which he skates over important events or issues are admirably few. Producing a mammoth work that is also readable is also challenging. But though Free Speech is over 500 pages, Mchangama’s writing is clear and accessible—which, in such a rigorous and erudite work, is the mark of a true expert.
In Our Nature
As Mchangama notes, two human desires—to dominate others and to be free from domination—are recurring themes in history. In antiquity, there existed not only a vibrant, though far from perfectly free, Athenian democracy but also a repressive imperial China, albeit one capable of producing great art and philosophy. And even if the flourishing of enquiry and debate in medieval universities shows that the Dark Ages were not quite as dark as we often imagine them to have been, oppressive practices abounded in the Middle Ages—and left their mark. Mchangama observes,
The machinery of persecution put in place by the Medieval Inquisition has been updated and recycled many times over the centuries, by both religious and secular regimes. Its underlying impulses may well be hardwired into human nature, lying in wait for the right moment to establish new orthodoxies and seek out fresh heretics.
The two desires—for freedom and for domination—have battled each other throughout history. Until relatively recently, the desire for domination tended to prevail. Even today, although many freedoms have been won in the west, there is no guarantee that this is a permanent state of affairs. This is why the search for utopia is doomed to failure: freedom must be continually fought for. It will always be vulnerable to the darker and more seductive impulses in our nature. When others annoy us with what we see as their stubborn wrongheadedness, it is generally easier to give in to a desire to overpower them—or suppress their ideas—than it is to tolerate them.
The right to free speech is a bulwark against the temptation to dominate—we therefore erode it at our peril. And when we take the long view, as Mchangama does, we see that limiting free speech for short-term advantage is a fool’s game. This is particularly clear when we consider the history of attempts to ban so-called hate speech.
The Weimar Fallacy, Hate Speech and Free Speech Entropy
Mchangama draws on the mistakes of the past to refute the most superficially persuasive argument against free speech, which is that we should not tolerate intolerant speech. The argument goes something like this: if only the Nazis’ propaganda had been suppressed, perhaps the Holocaust would have been avoided—therefore we should outlaw hate speech today, for who knows what horrors it could lead to!
Mchangama acknowledges that speech generally does play a significant role in creating conditions that enable atrocities. For example, the Rwandan genocide was preceded by a vile media campaign against the Tutsi minority. But he also shows that, although speech can be used to incite genocide, the suppression of speech does not necessarily reduce the likelihood of genocide—and may even facilitate it.
He provides several historical examples to support this point, focusing particularly on the Weimar Republic’s strenuous efforts to suppress the free speech of the Nazis. This backfired in several ways: first, because the censorship also affected the left-wing and liberal press and second, because it allowed the Nazis to claim the moral high ground as the victims of censorship. Attempts to stem the flow of their propaganda only increased their popularity: when Julius Streicher was sentenced to a spell in prison in 1929 for printing antisemitic lies, he was greeted by 400 cheering supporters outside the court, and in the following year the Nazis doubled their share of the vote in the federal elections in Streicher’s hometown of Nuremberg. When the Nazis took power, they inherited a ready-made apparatus and culture of censorship, which they gleefully used to suppress the democratic impulses that the Weimar Republic had sought to protect. This should be a cautionary tale to those who advocate banning the expression of intolerant views—in other words, those who advocate intolerance towards intolerance. Mchangama calls that viewpoint the Weimar fallacy, and it shows both that the link between free speech and atrocity is tenuous and that the limiting of free speech in the name of the greater good does not necessarily prevent genocide.
Another problem with hate speech laws is that the definition of hate speech is subjective: whoever is in power can define it however they want. For example, Mchangama notes that, in the 1840s, when John Calhoun was a US senator from South Carolina, he introduced a bill in Congress calling for a ban on petitions to abolish slavery, on the ground that they “contained reflections injurious to the feelings” of southerners. Ironically, to proponents of slavery, abolitionist opinions counted as hate speech.
In addition, hate speech laws are often justified on the speculative ground that they may cause harm. For example, other pre-Civil War politicians in the US warned against the “bad tendency” of anti-slavery speech. And as Mchangama says, for them, “the mere possibility [that abolitionist speech could produce] … adverse effects at some future point … was sufficient reason to punish and prevent abolitionist ideas from spreading.”
Such vague “bad tendency” arguments against free speech are also made today. As an example, Mchangama points to what happened at the New York Times in June 2020, when the paper published an op-ed by US Senator Tom Cotton, arguing that the military should be deployed to suppress the violence and looting that had broken out alongside the peaceful anti-racism protests in the US that summer:
Some elites have excused this orgy of violence in the spirit of radical chic, calling it an understandable response to the wrongful death of George Floyd. Those excuses are built on a revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters. A majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants.
Some of the paper’s workers expressed outrage, claiming that the article could “endanger our staff—especially those on the ground and our Black colleagues broadly.” Mchangama notes that these staffers
seemed unaware of the fact that they were essentially advocating a ‘bad tendency’ test, judging speech by its potential future harm, rather than any incitement to immediate harm. This test was the first line of defence of Southern states against the dissent of abolitionists and the civil rights movement. The danger of adopting this logic is that, if an incendiary op-ed could be said to threaten journalists’ safety, so Donald Trump could use this reasoning to argue that a provocative op-ed, banner, placard, tweet, or slogan constitutes ‘sedition and insurrection.’
In other words, banning speech on the ground that it may harm people leads to a kind of free-speech death spiral: The staffers on the left reason, If publishing this opinion might do some harm in the future, surely we are justified in suppressing it. And the wannabe dictator on the right responds, Indeed! How about we start by suppressing your dangerous, destabilising criticisms of my plan to make this country great again?
Thus, without an absolute right to free speech, all we have is endless tribal conflict between competing ideologues over what counts as valid speech. And whichever tribe happens to be stronger at any given point will get to determine what counts as valid speech. This is obviously not a good way to conduct human affairs.
Mchangama also points out a phenomenon that he calls free speech entropy:
Almost invariably the introduction of free speech sets in motion a process of entropy. The leaders of any political system—no matter how enlightened—inevitably convince themselves that now freedom of speech has gone too far …
Free speech entropy is not merely political, but deeply rooted in human psychology. The drive to please others, the fear of outgroups, the desire to avoid conflict, and everyday norms of kindness pull us in the direction of wanting to silence uncomfortable speakers, whether on digital platforms, at college campuses, or in cultural institutions. Like a massive body in outer space pulling in all the matter close to it, censorship draws us all in.
As a consequence of this free speech entropy, some of the greatest champions of free speech in history have become suppressors of free speech in other contexts. For example, in the seventeenth century, John Milton wrote a brilliant defence of free speech, Areopagitica (from which Areo Magazine takes its name) in response to the 1643 Licensing Act, which the English parliament used to wield blanket pre-publication censorship powers—and yet he was against free speech for atheists and Catholics, and later became an official censor himself. (The ideas expressed in Areopagitica are no less compelling for that, as Iona Italia insists in her interview with Mchangama for this magazine’s accompanying podcast.)
Throughout history, efforts to suppress speech, whether as an instrument of dominance or with the best of intentions, have ended up harming more people than otherwise—and have often harmed the very people they were meant to help. Among other examples, Mchangama cites the British Empire’s enactment of hate speech laws in colonial India and Hong Kong: those laws remain on the books and are now used to persecute people who dissent from the ideologies of Hindu nationalism and Chinese communism. Those who want to limit free speech to protect minorities from hate also forget that free speech was historically the most powerful weapon of the marginalised: hence, Frederick Douglass’ commitment to unfettered free speech in the era of American slavery and John Lewis’ statement that “the Civil Rights movement would have been a bird without wings” without the right to freedom of expression. Free speech has been the most radical, transformative, emancipatory principle in history: both the ideal and the practice of absolute free speech have, for all their downsides, an astonishingly impressive track record when it comes to human liberation.
So, even if some of the great free speech champions of history have proved imperfect, we are in no position to judge them, for we share the same biases and instincts that led them astray. Indeed, their examples show us that it is only too easy to fall prey to the censor’s temptation. That is why it is important to know the history of free speech—and to know ourselves. The only way to avoid the same fate is to learn from their mistakes, take heart from their achievements and support absolute free speech.
First Amendment Feedback Loops
Mchangama compares free speech to the human body’s immune system. And he warns that “once [that] immune system … is compromised, more encroachments are sure to follow.” But how, exactly, do we develop the antibodies necessary to protect free speech?
Although legal and constitutional protections for free speech, along the lines of the First Amendment, are important, one of the lessons Mchangama draws from history is that it’s even more important to have a strong free speech culture. This, he suggests, is why the American Revolution succeeded where the French Revolution failed. It’s true that the First Amendment offered a more robust protection of free speech than the French Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen did. But when, in the 1790s, free speech was threatened in both nations, what made the difference was that France had just emerged from a long period of absolutism and had little experience of a society based on free speech, while the young United States had, as Mchangama puts it, “become accustomed to a much more vibrant public sphere, where different views clashed openly in taverns and on the pages of pamphlets and newspapers.”
Legal protections of free speech are necessary. (James Madison, who initially derided such protections—calling them easily violated “parchment barriers”—changed his mind on further reflection and became the architect of the US Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment.) But they are insufficient. Legal protections help people resist censorship and authoritarianism, but only when they are rooted in a strong cultural tradition of free speech.
I’d add that legal protections also help create a positive feedback loop in their interaction with cultural norms: if a society that is free speech friendly erects a “parchment barrier” against censorship, that barrier is likely to be strong, and this, in turn, will encourage the society to remain free speech friendly—and even to radically expand its conception of free speech over time. Since the US is arguably the best example of this phenomenon, we might call it the First Amendment feedback loop.
However, positive feedback loops are vulnerable to disruption. Free speech rights are fragile and ever in need of principled and consistent defence—including a defence against our own impulses. This lesson should always be front and centre in the mind of every free speech advocate.
There are many more lessons to be gleaned from Mchangama’s book. His analysis of free speech in the context of the internet—and particularly social media—is one of the most impressive treatments of the subject that I have come across. And his book is not western-centric: for example, he discusses the relative freedom of the Abbasid Caliphate and of Akbar’s India. Nor is it Anglocentric: he discusses some of the unsung champions of free speech outside the Anglosphere, such as—my favourite—the Dutch publisher Elie Luzac, who published one of the most controversial books of the eighteenth century, Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s blasphemous Man a Machine. Mchangama writes that, though Luzac was a devout Christian, he believed that even ideas that he found abhorrent had a right to be heard—and thus he helped “pave the way for the idea and practice that social peace, harmony, and truth could all be furthered, despite deep and fundamental philosophical and religious differences, if settled or accommodated through open debate rather than policed through force.”
As Mchangama notes, Luzac anticipates John Stuart Mill “by more than a century” when he writes, in 1749, that
I am convinced that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles. As evident as this proposition is to me, if someone claimed to me to have arguments which demolished this truth, I wonder if in conscience I could say that I was fully convinced, as long as I had not seen the falseness of these arguments. It follows from this that we cannot take pride in the power of persuasion of the most important truths, as long as we prevent atheists, free-thinkers, and others of that ilk from brandishing their pen.
Luzac’s truly radical view is still hard for many to assimilate. In his willingness to countenance—and even facilitate—the publication of ideas that were personally distasteful to him, he was a noble exception to most of his fellow Christians, who preferred to burn and ban La Mettrie’s book and to hound its author. Luzac is also an admirable example to follow in today’s digital world, where the temptation to censor and harass—rather than tolerate and debate—seems to have lost none of its appeal.
All in all, Mchangama provides us with much-needed perspective on the nature and history of free speech. And his final—perhaps his most important—lesson is this: don’t panic. He reminds us that, even though free speech rights are currently being challenged, such challenges have arisen repeatedly throughout history, and yet we live today in what is still, relatively speaking, a golden age for free speech. We have the power to keep free speech alive and vibrant. All we need do is choose to defend it—absolutely and unswervingly. In his new book, Mchangama has given all those who wish to do this a great gift.