I wonder that we’ve ever really had true free speech. George Orwell’s experience in Spain (1936) was such that he portrayed both left and right as having stifled free speech in his novel, Animal Farm. Every form of totalitarian government has stifled free speech, but in recent times even liberal democracies have resorted to enacting laws that limit free speech.
In an interview in 2012 (The Telelgraph, October 18, 2012), Rowan Atkinson (aka Blackadder, Mr. Bean) tilted at the law in England – The Public Order Act. Atkinson criticised the “Creeping culture of censoriousness” and went on to point out that we have entered a time when it has become dangerous to protest. In other words we are losing our basic rights to speak out. He was not speaking in favour (as some tend to confuse free speech with the right to vilify and slander) of the right to say anything, especialy hate speech, but that we have gone too far, curtailing even basic free speech.
Atkinson claims that in trying to outlaw insult, because insult is difficult to define, we end up prosecuting one the basis of insult, ridicule, sarcasm, criticism, or even stating an alternative view to the status quo (the subversive, Orwell speaks directly to this in his novel 1984). In reality, in stifling free speech we end up with repression.
Many have paid for speaking out, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who criticised Joseph Stalin, was sent to labour camps by Stalin. Umberto Eco wrote in the ‘Name of the Rose’ (later a movie starring Sean Connery) how the Vatican maintained a list of books to be destroyed, how the church didn’t like criticism of the institution. The leaders of the French Revolution brutally repressed criticism. Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Castro, Pinochet, Mao, Idi Armin, Robert Mugabe, all loathed and tried to regulate criticism. In recent times Donald Trump has complained about free speech (which is ironic). Kim Jong-un carries on a tradition of repressing poitical criticism in North korea.
The English philosopher John Stuart Mill commented (‘On Liberty’ 1859, Penguin, pp 83 -84) that we should not employ censorship because this would prevent people from making up their own minds (horror of horrors). Interesting thought, Mill clearly wasn’t frightened of public free speech, and he believed free speech wouldn’t cause the collapse of society nor descend to harm or hate. But there are worrying signs that liberal democracies are moving towards control of free speech by creating laws where criticism of government becomes an offence!
No one likes criticism, but surely that is no reason to be petulant and defensive and hide behind laws? Sometimes we need to push back, sometimes others need to push back against us. Criticism can sharpen us, it can energise us, help us to refine our view, and help us to grow. Let’s not fear each other, but instead let’s embrace the idea that society, and in particular, people’s views, are not homogenous, and we won’t all agree, and we won’t like all that we hear and read about ourselves. Instead, let’s embrace the difference, let’s hold to the value of free speech.