6: What do we mean by ‘freedom of speech’? (2018)

There seems to be an extraordinary amount of confusion around these days regarding freedom of speech, both in our universities and more generally. But civil society and constitutional government require freedom of speech. And freedom of speech requires sound meta-rules regarding the way it is conducted. Suppress freedom of speech and you move towards authoritarian government. Without sound meta-rules you move towards anarchy and violence. Around the world right now we can see a disturbing drift in each of these directions.

What do I mean here by ‘meta-rules’? I mean the over-arching political and civil rules that govern the conditions under which debates are conducted and dissent or protest permitted. Ever since the Greek city states pioneered democratic government and freedom of speech 2500 years ago, there has been a long struggle over the nature of the rules and how to uphold them. Our current debates about freedom of speech, ‘hate speech’, censorship and ‘deplatforming’ belong squarely within this tradition. It was, after all, the Athenian democracy that condemned Socrates to death for ‘impiety’ and ‘corrupting the youth’; but we tend to admire him, rather than those who condemned him.

The meta-rules we need now, in the interests of science as well as democratic governance and civil peace are five in number:

  1. That there is such a thing as truth and that the whole point of civilized and patient discourse is to elicit the truth.

  2. That, since this may prove difficult and time-consuming, we agree to disagree while the inquiry and discourse are pursued, rather than simply insisting on our prior opinion being the truth.

  3. That the search for truth itself be conducted according to workable principles of reason and evidence, not dogma or vehement assertion.

  4. That we strive to see the distinction between opinion and truth and accept that truth, once grasped, will generally require that we alter our opinions.

  5. That we agree to open contentious subjects up to discussion under rules 1 to 4, not shut them down.

These are pretty basic ideas. One would have hoped that they would not be challenged in any 21st century liberal democracy. Yet, as Michiko Kakutani has written in The Death of Truth, even the first rule – accepting that there is such a thing as truth – is now under challenge from a bewildering variety of sources. Holding the scientific and philosophical line on this is made more difficult by the fact that human beings generally are prone to confirmation bias and other cognitive weaknesses, which obstruct the search for truth even in the best and most important cases. Anarchic social media exacerbate these problems, creating thought bubbles, viral ‘road rage’ and avenues for the rapid dissemination of confused, mendacious or inflammatory claims.

There are also deliberate attempts to sabotage the factual and philosophical foundations of truth-seeking. Michael Lewis’s latest book The Fifth Risk, in his gentle and lucid manner, exposes the institutional vandalism of the Trump administration in this regard. Contempt for or shameless denial of fact and truth is endemic in undemocratic governments around the world in our time – Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia. But our liberal democracies should be bastions of the meta-rules. This is especially so in our universities, which are supposed to be both the schools of reason and the havens of open exploration of ideas.

George Orwell famously wrote: ‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’ But that gets us only to the starting gate. All too often people insist on telling us things that we do not want to hear, for the good reason that it is abusive, ignorant, banal, degraded or otherwise objectionable. Are we obliged to listen; much less agree? And, if we are not disposed to do so, what happens next? That’s where the meta-rules have to come in. We must be prepared to uphold them and call our interlocutors on them when they are violated. That’s demanding work; but it is the indispensable work of democratic politics and a scientific culture.

It is for this reason and not because one has any sympathy for bigoted or hair-brained ideas, that many of us are dismayed by the rise of ‘grievance studies’, the insistence on ‘safe places’, ‘trigger warnings’ and the suppression of lines of ‘hate speech’ at all too many of our universities. There seem to be a growing number of things one cannot be allowed to say publicly or teach, or say within teaching, at universities. Is this what the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s has come to at universities? Is this the proving ground for well-informed and articulate practitioners of free speech and democratic principles?

I attended university between 1977 and 1987. My purpose was to learn enough to be able to participate intelligently in public discourse about the forces shaping our world. I didn’t go to university to agitate, but to inquire, though I was aware of the student radicalism of the 1960s. I encountered people, including teachers, of many different opinions and ideological or religious persuasions and read as widely and deeply as I could, concerning where these different beliefs had come from and why anyone would adhere to them. No ‘political correctness’ or ideological straight jacket was in evidence. That appears to have changed.

I did, however, encounter individuals with strong opinions. I recall a tutorial during the 1979 course Classical Social Theory (on Marx, Weber, Durkheim and other modern social theorists) in which a fellow student declared bluntly and humourlessly that ‘come the revolution’ people who thought as individualists like me ‘will all be shot’. He didn’t threaten to assault me on the spot, though, and it never occurred to me to insist that he be expelled from the class or the University for saying such a thing. The meta-rules were in place and I disagreed with his politics. I was bemused by what these days one might dub his ‘hate speech’, but not intimidated.

I knew perfectly well that my classmate’s attitude was not merely some strange fantasy on his part. Pol Pot had only very recently been overthrown in Cambodia, after having huge numbers of his country’s educated elite tortured and shot. Deng Xiaoping had just crushed the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing and had Wei Jingsheng imprisoned for – as the trial judge put it - ‘using so-called freedom of speech to stir up trouble’. The ruthless practice of Marxist-Leninist tyrannies throughout the 20th century was well-known to me. But being at a university in a liberal democracy, I felt safe enough absorb such violent language in the tutorial room.

This extended to public lectures. In 1980, I attended a forum in the famous Public Lecture Theatre at the University of Melbourne, at which a number of well-known speakers addressed an audience of hundreds on the subject of Malcolm Fraser’s economic policies and the problem of relatively high unemployment. David Kemp (Liberal), Tom Uren (ALP Left), Don Chipp (Australian Democrats) and Albert Langer (the Monash University Marxist radical) all spoke. None was shouted down. Langer, however, gave a decidedly inflammatory address.

The first three had all advocated various competing approaches to macro-economics and unemployment relief. Langer declared openly: ‘Those are all bourgeois solutions. If you want to do something useful, go and learn how to use a rifle. What this country needs is a revolution.’ There’s freedom of speech for you: used to advocate violence rather than the deepening of inquiry and debate. Langer was not so much a Proud Boy as a Proud Leninist. Afterwards, I approached him and asked would he care for a coffee. He cheerfully agreed and, as we strolled over to the Student Union, I conducted an exercise in freedom of speech.

‘Albert,’ I said to him, ‘let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that you were able to organize the revolution you’ve just called for and seize power in this country. What exactly would you then do?’ ‘That’s a good question,’ he responded. ‘Sure, it’s a good question,’ I replied, ‘so what’s your answer?’ He remained silent. ‘Okay’, I went on, ‘let’s assume you pursued a standard policy of nationalization, state planning and indoctrination, but things got gummed up and the economy hit the skids. What would do then?’ ‘Oh,’ he said airily, ‘we’d have to have another revolution…And why not? After all, if things worked out, it’d get boring. Revolutions are fun!’

We proceeded to the Student Union and ordered our coffees. He described himself as a ‘Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist’, which struck me as both absurd and objectionable, but not sufficiently so as to derail the conversation. I have never since, however, been able take Langer seriously. He remained at liberty, carrying on with his ratbaggery for years. Fortunately, though, he wasn’t able to organize an armed revolution and I was able to pursue my studies without being purged or shot.

The year after that public forum, curious about student radicals like Langer, I undertook an Honours thesis on the student rebellion and general strike in France in May of 1968. The soixante huitards (sixty eighters), as they have been dubbed, had quite anarchic ideas about freedom of speech and social change. ‘All power to the imagination!’ was one of their most fetching slogans. From a conservative point of view they were assorted retards, suffering from various Castroite or Maoist fantasies and Marcusean delusions. Charles De Gaulle derided them as ‘bed wetters’. I was interested in the wellsprings of their revolt and how it played out in advanced industrial society. My inquiry was unhindered and I drew my own conclusions, critically evaluating the full spectrum of ideological opinions about les événements de Mai. It was a valuable learning experience.

The Free Speech Movement (FSM) as such had arisen at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964-65 among restive students who had come to believe that learning at university was not enough. Agitation for social change was incumbent upon them and should be accommodated by the academic authorities. There was a struggle over this. The FSM was part of a groundswell of such activism in the early 1960s, not least through the nation-wide American movement called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). As the problems of war in Vietnam and racism heated up, elements of the SDS threw the meta-rules of democratic social order overboard and opted to attempt violent revolution.

They formed the Weather Underground Organization, inspired by the insurrectionism of Che Guevara and Carlos Marighella in Latin America. I studied all of this in the 1980s, when it was still a matter of very recent history; during doctoral studies on American counter-insurgency strategy throughout the Cold War. I identified to some considerable extent with Tom Hayden and the founders of the SDS and empathized with armed rebels in countries such as El Salvador and the Philippines. I was wary of the Marxist-Leninist brand of violent revolution, given its appalling history in the 20th century, but appalled by the death squads that plagued Central and South America in those years. My investigation itself, after all, required the meta-rules of liberal democracy.

Robert Redford’s 2012 film The Company You Keep, starring Redford himself, as well as Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Sam Elliott, Chris Cooper and Shia LeBeouf, romanticizes the Weather Underground and its radical politics. The film’s worth seeing, but it’s not a good introduction to what happened back then. Brian Burrough did a vastly better job in Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence (2015). Crucially, for our present purposes, he shows how the FSM and SDS struggled with the meta-rules regarding freedom of speech and civil society and how the impatient and ‘radical’ wing threw those rules away and opted for violence of the kind Albert Langer extolled.

Such would-be revolutionaries, like Neo-Nazis or violent anarchists or religious fanatics, pose a direct threat to the meta-rules. It’s all very well, after all, to seek truth in congenial, intelligent, well-informed and professional company. But what do we do when we confront venom, ignorance, hostility, entrenched resistance – when we confront one kind or another of what Churchill called ‘the fanatic’: someone who cannot change his mind and will not change the subject?

Well, that’s exactly when defence of the meta-rules, including by police protection if necessary, is most important. Nadine Strossen, the first woman national president of the American Civil Liberties Union and professor of constitutional law at New York University, has just given us a fine reflection on this challenge: Hate: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship. She makes a powerful case that when we find ideas objectionable, we need to have the courage to stand up and challenge them, not merely shout them down or try to ban them.

An unimpeachable ‘liberal’ on race, class and gender, she states forthrightly:

On many campuses…students complain that they have been ‘assaulted’ when they are exposed to ideas that offend them, or even if they learn that a provocative speaker has been invited to campus. This false equation between controversial ideas and physical violence fuels unwarranted calls for outlawing and punishing ideas, along with violence.

For reasoned debate and fruitful inquiry to take place, it is necessary that violence be outlawed, but it is counter-productive for ideas to be outlawed. What’s required is to foster the opportunity for strenuous debate and what may often be painful and difficult learning. If we cannot agree on that, our political and intellectual culture is in trouble.

Unfashionable as it is to state this these days, the ideas of freedom (eleutheria), political equality (isonomia), equality of speech (isegoria), freedom of speech (parrhesia) and democracy (demokratia) derive from classical Greece. They were imperfectly realized in the ancient world and the Greek and Roman republics gave way to autocratic rule. But we derive our key modern ideas about freedom and responsible government from those beginnings.

As Josiah Ober wrote, in The Athenian Revolution:

Some 2500 years after the revolution that made it possible, democracy is widely regarded as the most attractive form of practical (as opposed to utopian) political organization yet devised. Among democracy’s virtues is its revisability – the potential of the political regime to rethink and to reform itself, while remaining committed to its core values of justice, equality, dignity and freedom.

At the very root of all this is freedom of speech. If we wish to preserve and extend our liberties or maintain our democracies, we need to understand this. We must equip ourselves to practice it well, educate our young to understand how unusual such liberty has been in human history and how difficult it is to maintain. Doing these things itself demands that we adhere to the meta-rules that make it possible. And here’s the kicker: so will building any realizable ‘utopia’ worth striving after. Martin Luther King Jr knew that and spoke faithfully to it, calling for the American republic to live up to its founding meta-rules.