“I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” As cliché as Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s saying may be (that’s right, it wasn’t actually Voltaire who said it but Hall, summarising Voltaire’s views on freedom of speech in her 1906 book titled The Friends of Voltaire), these are some extraordinarily important and inspiring words. The sentiment of this quote has enabled a great number of ground-breaking advancements throughout human history and will hopefully continue to do so.
Whilst the Athenian democratic principle of free speech is believed to have emerged in the sixth century BCE, most legal protections of freedom of speech were formulated in the modern period during and after the Enlightenment. Freedom of speech is therefore a relative novelty in the history of humanity yet has come to mean so much in a very short space of time. This is mainly thanks to the advent and spread of humanism (the non-theist religion rather than the academic and cultural movement prevalent in Early Modern Europe), particularly liberal humanism (or liberalism1), which encourages us to believe that our individual experiences, needs and views give meaning to our lives and the universe.
This preoccupation with the individual teaches us that every human’s opinion is just as valid as the next and has every right to be heard. This right is even upheld in the 19th article of liberalism’s most revered manifesto – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and in the very first line of the constitution of the world’s most powerful country. Numerous other texts of national and international legislation protect freedom of speech in approximately 150 nations worldwide. How successfully or fairly they are implemented is another issue but the sheer commonplace nature of such texts is surely an indication of how much liberalism has captivated the hearts and minds of almost all human societies, as well as the reach and influence of its basic philosophical tenet.
Problematically, with its novelty comes always the reminder of the contingency of free speech. As with all political philosophies, religious creeds or even national identities, liberal humanism, and its inherent belief in the right to freedom of speech and expression, is a notion fabricated only in our imaginations. The existence of an international, national or even regional commitment to protect our right to express ourselves “without interference” exists only so long as we believe in it. Freedom of speech is in the same boat as God, Scotland and communism; they each require a significant number of homines spientes to believe in them in order to stay relevant and ‘existential’ not only in our minds but also in our daily lives.
Ironically, it is thanks to every other member of The Liberty Club believeing in the same ‘religion’ rights as I do that I am able to deliver a somewhat undermining view of the very right we seek to enjoy and encourage others to exercise. Today we accept that Poseidon and Zeus are mythical beings who did not really exist, nor did they rule the seas and sky respectively. Back in the 4th century BCE, however, they were hugely relevant as brands because so many people believed in them. Liberalism is such a brand, meaning that freedom of speech is not an unalienable right as much as it is a part of the Apostles’ Creed of liberal humanism – if there were such a thing.
If humanism, liberalism and freedom of speech are merely the artificially conjured conceptual apparatus to which we choose to subscribe, why bother believing in them? I would argue that it is for the same reason that anyone believes in (or accords value and importance to) anything. From theist religions to corporations, from the status of the University of St Andrews’s existence to the value of degrees obtained thence: it is in our interest to do so. In 14th century Europe and the Middle East, where there was a great deal of fear, anxiety and superstition about what happens after death, it was in most people’s interest to believe in an eternal afterlife which gave meaning to their comparatively short life on earth. In the increasingly secular 21st century (at least in western so-called ‘developed’ societies), by contrast many people feel fairly certain that there isn’t too much to look forward to after death. Nevertheless, it is also in our interest to believe our terrestrial experiences give meaning to our lives and we ought therefore to undertake fulfilling acts. This includes expressing ourselves and our views through art, writing, deeds and speech.
More importantly, however, away from the rights of or benefits to the individual, freedom of speech has largely been a force for good in the world. As with everything, it can be distorted and used to negative effect, for example, if used as an excuse to be deliberately hurtful and inflammatory. Nonetheless, reasoned differing opinions ought to be celebrated and championed. After all, almost all progressive changes throughout history are the fruit of ideas that are perceived as rogue at the time. It is difficult to imagine the feminist and civil rights movements (which might generally be considered as among the greatest advances in the progress of human societies), would have prospered to the degree they have done in a world where people did not believe in humanism. Without humanism and its commitment to freedom of speech, people would be far less likely to believe their individual experiences on earth might give meaning to their lives and that they should be free to express themselves to improve their own or others’ lives and accordingly gain satisfaction.
Ultimately, free speech, as an essential element of liberal humanism, has been a tremendously positive force in its relatively young life. Most people want to feel good; this is unattainable if one cannot openly express oneself through any medium without facing subsequent persecution. Of course, one should be prepared to face the consequences of one’s deeds, words and actions, for others also have the right to express their discontent or disagreement with any of these. However, that is the beauty of the freedom to hold and express one’s own opinions: diversity is celebrated; creativity of thought is sustained; ideas are challenged and evolve. That is what I believe will help humanity in our quest for the continuation of progress.
Hugo Gallagher Boyden
1 Liberalism in this context has nothing to do with the term ‘liberal’ often associated with left-wing politics in the US (nor ‘libtard’ as the more enlightened members of the populace like to call those with differing world views to theirs), but concerns the beliefs emerging from the Enlightenment that our individual experiences are what give meaning to the world rather than a God’s great cosmic plan.
The views in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The Liberty Club.
Freedom of Speech – Amnesty International UK
Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – UN
‘Why Is Freedom of Speech an Important Right? When, if Ever, Can It Be Limited?’ – The New York Times
‘Why it’s time for a British First Amendment to protect free speech’ – Prospect