Free speech is important because it is the only way we can share who we are with one another. It is how we seek, receive and impart information about
ourselves and about the world. It is the only method through which we can criticize or compliment the structures of power. Speech reduced to a
whisper, or vetoed in some way or other, silences not only the voice but also the life and perspective it speaks from. If speech is not free,
absolutely, neither are we.
I also say this because the only consequence of hearing speech we do not like or do not approve of is we do not like it or we do not approve of it.
The consequence of suppressing speech we do not like, however, is a thousand fold.
The evil of censorship is that it robs us the opportunity to exchange dogma for doubt, fallacy for validity, and “the clearer perception and
livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error” (Mill). When the speaker loses his right to speak, we also lose our right to hear
A patron saint of free speech once succinctly put it in a metaphor:
“And though all the windes of doctrin were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licencing and
prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falshood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the wors, in a free and open encounter.”
– John Milton
Speaking, writing and articulating thoughts is a victimless act. There is no consequence to speech. How could there be when the most hateful prose
couldn't move the finest of feathers? Indeed, if words had a fraction of the causal power often attributed to them, they would have enough power,
however subtle, to have some effect on any other phase of matter. They don't.
If we were to scour the annals of medicine and search through the hospitals, we would be hard-pressed to find a single instance of anyone being
injured by words. Yet, if we were to look through the same annals and the same hospitals for the broken, burned and eviscerated bodies of those who
were injured for speaking or writing their thoughts, it would take a life-time to analyze every case. The history of censorship is a long and bloody
Rather, it is evident that this fantastical endowment of such ludicrous power upon forces and objects that amount to no more than the expelling of
breath, a vibration of the vocal cords, or combinations of scribbles on paper, is the worst kind of dogmatic superstition and custom, one that has
worked its ways into our laws, our culture, and which now permeate the very structures of society.
With this in mind, and with the images of the burnt and hanged corpses of those murdered for thought-crimes still present in our imagination,
injustice arises when we blame the speaker for the dangerous crime of articulating certain sounds, or otherwise positioning, one after another,
certain combinations of symbols, than to place blame where it rightly belongs—on the listener.
To give an idea of how long we've been inundated by this superstition, we could go as far back the pre-Socratic rhetorician Gorgias. This sophist
believed words had a certain effect on the body, as if the body was led by a “master’s order”, like a “powerful drug”, but one administrated
by a sophistical wizardry and warlock’s brew of pleading, poetry and playacting. To him this power was god like.
In his defence of Helen of Troy, Gorgias sought to absolve her of her adultery:
“For discourse was the persuader of the soul, which it persuaded and compelled to believe the things that were said and to agree to the things
that were done. He who persuaded (as constrainer) did wrong; while she who was persuaded (as one constrained by means of the discourse) is wrongly
-The Encomium of Helen
In other words, Helen’s adultery was the result of someone else’s words and not her own volition, like she was programmed to do so. Even today we
can see this piffle peddled about with charges of "incitement", and other concepts resting on this very same assumption. The notion that people,
usually of some minority or other, are pushed around by verbiage and conversation is a soft form of bigotry.
To a fellow rhetorician, Socrates, the sophistry of Gorgias was parlour tricks and sleight of hand instead of power. According to Plato, the
difference between a sophist and a philosopher was the “eros” guiding his wisdom. If he had an erotic self-interest in crowd adulation and
self-advancement, he was a sophist. If he had an erotic self-interest in knowledge, he was a philosopher. But the most interesting argument of Plato's
against the sophists was that the sophist overestimated the power of words. Plato didn't, and was immune to Gorgias' powers.
Like the sophists in our own day, Gorgias’ belief that rhetoric endowed him or others with powers was founded on an assumption, a false cause, that
because there is a correlation between speech and certain actions, the words were therefor the cause of them. But any number of reductio ad absurdem
suffices to reduce this notion to nonsense.
Rather than appeal to some mystical causation, it seems clear that Gorgias possessed and acquired power directly from the folly and ignorance of his
audience; that is, to the extent and ease through which they were willing to give power to him—to concede here, decide there, and to act according
to their own volition and choices, never his.
We can find the legacy of Gorgias in every censorship law ever written. I hate hate-speech laws because they assume one thing and one thing only: that
people can be sent into raptures once in contact with certain combinations of articulated sounds or scribbles on paper—words. Doublespeak such as
“incite discrimination” or “stir up hatred” or “excite hostility”, as ill-defined as they are in various hate speech laws throughout the
world, imply that the speaker is some sort of wizard, that through magical spells and verbal incantation he can bend the will of the listener to his
own. Anything that occurs afterwards, no matter how far removed from the events that take place, he is partly responsible for. Speech has
Before you wonder what they mean by “speech has consequences”, look no further than the magical thinking in this suggestion. Speech, apparently,
causes things to happen. It can manipulate matter and events.
Clearly, there is a much simpler explanation. Humans are often dupes, indoctrinated in such a way as to be weak, petty, and self-concerned when it
comes to the thoughts of others, and we have been superstitious in this way for a very long time. What else can we expect from a solipsistic mammal
whom would rather her own thoughts reign supreme, much like the puritanical priests of the Inquisition or anyone who has burned books, and often, the
people who write them?
It will take a great deal of criticism, learning, and free speech to shine any light on these superstitions, so let’s just hope we haven’t banned
all expression by that point.
What I wanted to argue was this: Though a speaker is to blame for uttering fallacy and falsity, the listener is always to blame for believing him. As
soon as words leave a person’s mouth, they are no longer in the speakers dominion, no longer under his control or power. As a corollary, whatever
comes of speech after it is heard is the consequence of the agent of any subsequent action: the listener. Or you fellow reader?
edit on 3-7-2016 by LesMisanthrope because: (no reason given)