Let’s hear it for the heretics and ranters
Free speech is not only for the polite seekers after ‘civil discourse’.
In my opinion, which hopefully I am still entitled to express, too much of the discussion about freedom of expression today focuses on such themes as ‘free speech and civil discourse’. Learned experts hold forth about the importance of free speech in civilly debating important issues facing society, as a tool for resolving our differences and coming to a rational, reasoned conclusion.
It follows that they are keen to defend freedom of expression for respectable academics, civil-society activists and BBC comedians, but less so for offensively opinionated online ranters or even for a loudmouth who happened to have been elected president of the United States.
It sometimes seems as if free speech is in danger of becoming a rather polite middle-class issue, another key part of our cultural life colonised and monopolised by the experts, the luvvies and the petit-bourgeois supper-party vanguard. No wonder some people, including such ardent defenders of free speech as Lionel Shriver, can now declare themselves bored stiff of the whole debate.
What the free-speech elite says about the importance of open discussion and civil discourse is true, of course, so far as it goes. But that isn’t nearly far enough. Free speech is not only important for conflict resolution or reaching the right conclusion. It is not all about outcomes. It is about the expression of freedom, not merely as a means, but as an end in itself.
Free speech is what marks us out in history as a society of independent, morally autonomous individuals. As the great Dutchman of the Enlightenment, Spinoza, put it some 350 years ago, ‘In a free state, every man may think what he likes and say what he thinks’. It is the ultimate expression of our liberty that we may think for ourselves, whatever direction that might take us in. And we need to defend that freedom for ‘every man’, woman, or gender-fluid individual, or for none at all.
That is why free speech is not just for the polite, the prosaic, the (self-)important or the politically correct. It is also why, whenever free speech is really practised, it will result in the expression of opinions and ideas not considered suitable for a university seminar room or the supper-party table. That’s life, in Spinoza’s ‘free state’.
To inject the fight for free speech with more life today, we should perhaps try to reclaim one of its roots, in the concept of heresy. Those branded as heretics and blasphemers have often been the heroes of the historic fight for free speech. What is considered heresy has varied through different societies and eras. One thing that history-making heretics have tended to have in common, however, is that they were not looking for a polite exchange of views or a quiet life.
Heresy is broadly defined as a belief contrary to the orthodox religious opinion; or in non-religious terms, as an opinion profoundly at odds with what is generally accepted. Heresy is not self-defined; the label ‘heretic’ has always been stuck on offenders by somebody else – usually those in authority – as a signal that their dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy is unacceptable and should be silenced.
The origins of the term heresy in ancient Greek are revealing. An early Christian leader defined his views as ‘orthodox’, from the Greek for ‘right belief’. The wrong views of his opponents he branded as heresy – from the Greek for ‘choice of belief’.
There we have it. The thing that has always got you branded a heretic is making an intellectual choice to think differently. Heresy is the desire to choose what you believe in and to dissent from the authoritative dogma of the day, in whatever way you see fit. What better case for freedom of speech could there be than that?
Those called heretics have been the whipping boys and causes célèbre through many of the big battles over freedom of speech. These have been about the right to go entirely against the grain of polite society, dissent from respectable opinion and question the unquestionable. What we might call the Right to be Offensive, a fundamental slogan of the free speech wars that some of us have been championing for more than 30 years.
One early proto-heretic was Socrates, arguably the greatest philosopher of ancient Athens, who was put to death in 399 BC. Socrates was the philosopher who questioned everything, often to the discomfort of his fellow privileged citizens, and refused to be bound by the sacred traditions of Athenian society. He was charged with ‘denying the gods recognised by the state’ – in other words, heresy – and ‘corrupting the youth’ by passing on his heretical views.
Socrates refused to submit, stripping naked before his accusers in the citizens’ court to show that everything must be out in the open. He also made clear to the court that, even if they voted to spare him, he would continue to say the unsayable and ask the forbidden questions. In response, the citizen jurors of democratic Athens voted by 280 to 221 for his conviction and execution. His death stands as a reminder that, even in a society committed to democracy and equality (at least, in the case of Athens, for its free male citizens), many who think they believe in the principle will recoil when confronted with free speech bare-arsed and red in tooth and claw. That is all the more reason to defend free speech for heretics in our supposedly free society.
After the Athenian experiment, the idea of free speech was not rediscovered in the modern world until the early Enlightenment era; the first recorded use of the phrase ‘freedom of speech’ was just under 400 years ago, in Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England, published in 1628. Those accused of heresy, blasphemy or ‘seditious libel’ were of course still being persecuted, imprisoned, maimed, branded and burned at the stake for using the wrong words about God or the crown.
Shortly after that, however, the demand for freedom of speech and of the press burst forth as a prime issue in the struggles between the King, Parliament and the people that led to the English Revolution and the execution of Charles I in 1649. In the war of words and crossfire pamphlets, new heretical voices came to the fore questioning every religious and political orthodoxy of the old order.
Most famous among those demanding freedom of expression was the poet, John Milton, who published his plea for unlicensed printing, the Areopagitica, in 1644, asking Parliament to ‘give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties’. Even Milton, however, did not wish the freedom ‘to utter and argue freely’ to be extended to those he considered heretics, the devilish Papists and non-believers. The principle of tolerance has always been a tricky thing to uphold in practice.
Yet as the demand for freedom of thought and speech exploded in the 17th century, there were other, less respectable, heretical voices coming to the fore whose views might disturb some of Milton’s high-minded defenders. spiked writers have often highlighted the history-making struggle of the Levellers, whose leaders such as John Lilburne were imprisoned and tortured for demanding an end to state licensing of the press as ‘expressly opposed and dangerous to the liberties of the people’. They insisted that freedom must come first, even faced with the charge of heresy and seditious libel.
But the heresies of that historic age were far from all about democratic principles. Once the genie was allowed out of the bottle, all manner of blasphemous and bloody-minded ideas burst forth. Christopher Hill’s brilliant account of radical ideas during the English Revolution, The World Turned Upside Down, details the notions popular among Levellers and more radically heretical groups such as the Diggers, Seekers and Ranters. They met in ale houses, where they agreed that eating meat and drinking ale together was as good as taking the holy sacrament in church. Some denied that smoking or adultery could be a sin, or even that sin existed, seeing the idea of hell as merely ‘a bugbear to keep men in awe’. And they spoke up for the overthrow of the church, the landed gentry and all social parasites.
These views were far too heretical even for those in high places who formally favoured greater liberty. But that is what happens when free speech is let loose – it runs, well, free. The last thing these disreputable revolutionary heretics wanted was civil discussion and conflict resolution. Yet defending their freedom to rant was a crucial part of the revolutionary struggle for greater freedom of speech – and the ranting radicals’ defeat marked an historic setback for that fight.
It was a similar story in the late 18th century with one of my heroes, John Wilkes, who led the struggle for the freedom of the press and the right to report what MPs and Lords got up to in Parliament. Wilkes was a hard-drinking adulterous rogue, convicted both by the Commons of ‘seditious libel’ for criticising His Majesty’s government, and by the Lords of ‘obscene libel’ for publishing pornographic poetry. He said of the journalistic methods he employed in his often-repressed newspapers, ‘Give me a grain of truth and I will mix it up with a great mass of falsehood so that no chemist will ever be able to separate them’.
Many of today’s defenders of free speech might be as unkeen to defend the wild heretic Wilkes as they are to stand up for the rights of tabloid journalists. Yet when Wilkes’ allies were brought to Westminster to be sent to the Tower in 1771, 50,000 Londoners rioted and almost strung up the prime minister, Lord North, while crying ‘Wilkes and Liberty!’. It was the scoundrel, pornographer and truth-twisting heretic Wilkes who won right for the respectable press to report on how the great and good govern the rest of us.
Even in the 19th century, as democracy advanced, British and American societies remained under a tyranny of conformism, where opinions that went too far against the mainstream could be outlawed or informally ‘cancelled’ as heretical. In 1859, John Stuart Mill published his classic On Liberty, arguing for freedom of speech, not only for respectable views, but for those deemed extreme or ‘eccentric’.
Mill wrote that,
‘Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric… [T]he amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.’
Mill’s message about freedom and daring to step outside the mainstream was far from universally accepted among British intellectuals. The same year that he published On Liberty, Charles Darwin finally published his masterwork, On the Origin of Species. It was banned as blasphemous from the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, the university where Darwin had studied.
At the end of the 19th century in America, during what became known as ‘the Golden Age of Free Thought’, the writer and orator Robert G Ingersoll – ‘the Great Agnostic’ – went further in calling on free thinkers to reclaim the idea of heresy, of challenging all orthodoxies, as a force for good. ‘Heresy’, he declared, ‘is the eternal dawn, the morning star, the glittering herald of the day. Heresy is the last and best thought. It is the perpetual New World, the unknown sea, toward which the brave all sail. It is the eternal horizon of progress. Heresy extends the hospitalities of the brain to a new thought. Heresy is a cradle; orthodoxy, a coffin.’
Of course, many of those heretics deemed beyond the pale of decency today are no JS Mills or Robert G Ingersolls. But that’s just the point. They may not have the wisdom of Piers Morgan or the intellect of Prince Harry either. But they still get the same access to free speech as the rest of us. Otherwise, free speech becomes a privilege rather than a right. And who will decide how to hand it out from on high?
A few years ago, in a debate about free speech at the Cheltenham literary festival, another author demanded to know whether I thought free speech was a means to a worthwhile end – in which case, surely it had served its purpose – or an inherent good? I replied that free speech for all is a virtuous end in itself, regardless of what is being said, because it is the living proof of our autonomy, equality and right to choose what we believe. That argument seems all the more important now.
In the end, free speech only needs defending for those deemed heretics and extremists. The mainstream and orthodox thought can look after itself. To breathe some life back into the case for free speech, perhaps it is time to take a stand for the right to be a heretic in all of its forms. Not only because, in a democratic society, divisive arguments are as important as compromise and conflict resolution. But also because real freedom can never be divisible.
It is a sign of dangerous times that, if Spinoza were somehow to appear today, proclaiming that anybody should be free to think whatever they like and say whatever they think, even many of those who claim to believe in free speech would be tutting and tweeting that, ‘You can’t say that!’
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