Nowadays we take for granted that everybody can express their own views in the public arena, because freedom of speech is (almost) anywhere in the world a constitutional right. Anyway, has it always been so? Were people allowed to speak their own minds in the past? In this article, I will set out to analyse two competing views of freedom of speech, entertained by two different philosophers and intellectuals, John Milton and Raimund Karl Popper.
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties. (John Milton and Areopagitica, 1644)
Imagine being a Puritan, but not a hard-line one, an intellectual free spirit in a world where bigotry and tyranny have been taking the upper hand for years. You are in favour of divorce and resolve to pen a tract to have your voice heard. Heaven forbid! The others begin to indict you because you have dared to subvert God’s holy law. So what would you do if you were in John Milton’s situation? You would not back down and write a pamphlet where you accuse the Puritans of being worse than the Roman Catholic Inquisition. This is why Milton wrote Areopagitica, as a way to combat censorship and any impediment to voice one’s opinions.
Milton was a classicist and the very title is a homage to Ancient Greece: the Areopagus was the hill in Athens where cases were heard and where the famous orator Isocrates delivered an impassioned speech; therefore, Milton is the new Isocrates, wanting to defend his right to speak his own mind, above all liberties. The English writer lived at a time where freedom of speech was endangered anywhere: the Inquisition in Roman Catholic countries had set up the Index of the Prohibited Books and Protestant England made sure that everybody toed the line by enforcing the Star Chamber, a political body very similar to the Catholic Inquisition. So Milton was having a hard time to fight for a right we now take for granted.
His powerful words were larger in scope: its echo is to be recovered in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which grants ample opportunity for everybody to voice their own views, even to burn the American flag, because, though extreme, it counts as a way to speak one’s mind
We now leave Renaissance England to deal with the aftermath of World War II and Nazism: the philosopher Karl Raimund Popper has gone through Hitler, Jewish persecutions, and any kind of horror. Totalitarian governments demand that people should comply with what the dictator says and commands: no room for second thoughts or rebellion, unless you want to die.
The intolerant cannot be tolerated, otherwise we risk losing tolerance. (Popper, the tolerance paradox)
But Popper, like Milton, is an ardent Liberal and wants to establish a society where everybody is unimpeded and free; in other words, he envisages creating an open society. Oh, but the course of things never run smoothly! Popper cannot endure facing intolerance: thus, he devises his famous tolerance paradox. Since toleration is the most important thing on Earth, because it allows establishing an open society, we cannot tolerate the intolerant, as they will force us to lose tolerance.
Here we go! The Anglo-Austrian philosopher has just bid defiance to a long-established tradition of rights and liberty to assert the contrary. But is he really wrong? Let’s see how things are today: under the pretext of freedom of expression, far-right politicians have been able to spread ludicrous, racist, and xenophobic slogans. Furthermore, such chants let politicians win important referendums (Farage in England) or an election in the USA (Donald Trump, who has been rocking the boat since he won). In addition to that, we are all used to fake news on Facebook, with Mark Zuckenberg doing little or nothing to properly address the issue. So I ask a provocative question: should everybody be allowed to speak one’s mind? Was Popper right? Given the latest development around the world, I am afraid he damn was.
Featured image: Rebecca Barray