Freedom of Speech out of the intellectual environment of the Enlightenment. In the salons of 18th century France the likes of Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu exchanged ideas of human nature and society whilst being spoilt with lavish cakes and flirtatious women. It was here that Voltaire exclaimed through a mouthful of gateaux, “I may hate what you have to say [old chap] but I would defend to the death your right to say it”. Free speech flourished in this unique context as its proponents were working within the same cultural framework and towards the same ideological goal: a society based on reason and liberty. However, today, in an ever globalised society we are forced to confront ideologies which are alien to our own. Different worldviews arising from different cultural milieus clash on our doorstep. Would Voltaire have defended the right of Abu Hamza to threaten everything he held dear? Given the current situation, we must question whether free
speech is an absolute to be upheld unreservedly. Free speech demands an equal platform for all ideas: a courtroom where truth is on trial. Here each person propounds their ideas without interruption or rhetoric. With the theories broken down to their bare facts the objective jury, through the use of cool reason, extract pure truth. The theory of free speech does not adequately take into account the role of rhetoric or socio-economic context in the realm of persuasion. Fanaticism does not depend on reason, it depends on faith. It is due to the ineffectiveness of free speech to deal with fanaticism that our society is descending into an ever deeper state of hypocrisy. On the surface we continue to flaunt free speech, scrapping blasphemy laws, igniting international uproar at the arrest of the “teddy bear” woman, and turning out in our thousands to wave Free-Tibet banners as the great torch marches
on. Yet in the realm of legislature the government through the UK Terrorism Act enforces ever stricter restrictions on our rights of expression in order to protect our society. We are finding it increasingly necessary to sacrifice our principles in order to protect ourselves. This is not a maintainable stance and the extremes to which this inconsistency can go are clearly displayed by the horrors of Guantanamo Bay. This hypocrisy cannot continue. We have, therefore, two options ahead of us. We either maintain unconditionally the right to free speech, embracing a Ghandian commitment to principle, willing to defend to the death the rights of those who attack us. Or, we must strive to form stronger, more defendable ideals, which we can stand behind unshakeably in the continuing physical and ideological battle. What we cannot do is continue to sacrifice our principles for our own “protection”. History will condemn V us if we do.
VIVID 3rd Edition May 2008