On free speech

Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.

Benjamin Franklin, On Freedom of Speech and the Press (1737)

Let me begin by stating frankly that I am not, personally, at all bothered about Twitter. I do not have, and have never had, a Twitter account. (Or Facebook Meta, Instagram, Pinterest, or [insert name of social media thing here].) If Twitter disappeared in a puff of smoke tomorrow, it would have essentially zero impact on my life. Indeed, if Twitter had never existed in the first place, it would also have had essentially zero impact on my life.

I speak, therefore, as a non-Twitting member of the general populace. What interests me about it – far more than the not especially interesting face that a billionaire has been bought out by another billionaire; plus ça change and all that – is that a poll was recently conducted to determine whether to re-admit Donald Trump to its hallowed virtual turf. Apparently, 52% of those who expressed a preference said that he should be so re-admitted, which presumably means 48% said he shouldn’t.

Now I am not especially keen to hear more from Mr Trump, although (1) as a non-Twit I won’t have to and (2) as a non-US citizen I don’t suppose he cares what I think. What is interesting here is that it is such a controversial proposition that someone so prominent in American public life – after all, in case anyone has forgotten, he used to be the gosh-darned President – should be denied a platform from which to express his views. After all, isn’t the First Amendment to the US Constitution supposed to guarantee free speech?

Well, apparently free speech is like democracy. You can say whatever you like, so long as we agree with it, just as you can elect whichever government you choose, so long as we approve of it. (Hard luck, Salvador Allende; no mandate for you!) It is, of course, so different for those unfortunate people groaning under the heel of, say, the Chinese Communist Party, who can only say things approved of by some different value of “we”.

But who exactly is this “we” that determines what can be said, or who can be voted in? How did they get to be in such a position of authority? Is there, indeed, only One Truth that everyone must accept, One True Answer to every question that can be asked? I don’t think it’s just me and Ben Franklin that would answer that with a resounding No.

I hear things all the time that I find deeply offensive. People in positions of authority routinely say things that I consider wrong, stupid, and frankly dangerous. (Very few of them, of course, would care much even if they knew about that (see above, under “democracy”).) There are certainly times when I wish that chorus of idiots would just shut the hell up. Then again, it’s entirely in my gift what measure of my attention I choose to give to them. There are plenty of other people, both alive and dead, who deserve it a whole lot more.

It’s not often that I find myself in agreement with the late Mao Zedong, but: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” After all, isn’t that what liberalism is meant to be about? Although, having said that, I may have missed the news that John Stuart Mill has now been cancelled, possibly due to having been the wrong sort of feminist. But I digress.

Free speech is necessary for free thought, and free thought is necessary for intelligent thought. It’s hardly controversial to suggest that we need as much intelligent thought as we can get to deal with all the stuff that’s in store for is in the near term, not to mention the medium and long term. I dare say even Mr Musk would agree with that proposition, although his notion of intelligent thought is perhaps not quite the same as mine.

Whether or not Einstein said so, we really can’t solve our problems using the same thinking by which we created them. If, however, the only thinking allowed is the One True Way, then surely we never will. And we see this everywhere. The One True Way, for example, is endless growth and endless consumption of more stuff, regardless of how much stuff there is. The One True way is endless growth of the human population, regardless of the impacts on the non-human population or how grim the lives of most of the human population will be. The One True Way is happy motoring, in EVs if necessary, even if we can’t generate the electricity, let alone manufacture all the necessary batteries and electronics, to make that happen. And so on.

It is a still rarer occurrence for me to find myself in agreement with David Icke than with Chairman Mao, but really, it doesn’t have to be like this. For the vast majority of the time that human beings have existed on this planet, after all, it has not been like this. Indeed, it hasn’t been remotely like this, and there’s a decent case to argue that human societies have often chosen otherwise. From where I’m sitting, that looks like a smart call. Why wouldn’t you choose to live in a way that gives you personal autonomy and your community every prospect of future prosperity?

An obvious answer to that question would be that the question could never be asked. That, after all, would be wrongthink. A really well-educated population – that is to say, one that had been trained never to think critically – would never even be able to form such an idea. (Why yes, I am considering a post on the education system, now that you mention it.) If you have been taught to drive a car on the assumption that the steering-wheel is merely decorative and that the accelerator pedal must always be flat to the metal, you are going to crash hard at some point. Right now, we are all driving in that car, and most of us are passengers.

It’s time to start thinking freely, and that means speaking freely. Some people are going to find some of those things hard to hear, and that’s okay. Shouting “Fire” in a crowded theatre if the theatre is in fact on fire has some merit, after all. But we can’t go on as we are. You don’t want to be in that car when it hits the wall, whichever wall that turns out to be.

Of course, that’s just my two penn’orth. You’re free to disagree.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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