Save for my early years as a student in Catholic school classrooms governed by nuns (grades 1 through 8) and Christian Brothers (high school), I really don’t know what it must be like to live under a totalitarian system that restricts speech and punishes unapproved expression severely. However, I can imagine that it’s not so much fun to have no liberty.
The L in REAL wellness, the lifestyle philosophy I promote, stands for liberty. In this essay, I seek to highlight why it seems important to not only protect, defend and promote free speech but also to recognize and practice certain prerequisites for enjoying it.
Let me begin with one of my favorite quotes from my very favorite REAL wellness pioneer, Robert Green Ingersoll: I am a believer in liberty. That is my religion — to give to every other human being every right that I claim for myself, and I grant to every other human being, not the right — because it is his right — but instead of granting I declare that it is his right, to attack every doctrine that I maintain, to answer every argument that I may urge — in other words, he must have absolute freedom of speech. (Spoken at the trial of C.B. Reynolds for blasphemy, May 1887.)
I have many times described to friends and even my own audiences when giving a speech a practice that my Australian colleague Grant Donovan pioneered decades ago. He would begin a lecture by asking the audience for a show of hands of those who believe in freedom of speech. I was present when he did this on numerous occasions. I don’t ever recall seeing unraised hands – everyone, it seems, favors free speech. More telling is the usual reaction to Donovan’s next question: Raise your hand if you support my freedom to insult your religion. Or make fun of your politics. Or to say whatever I like, including things you might find outrageous, out-of-bounds and/or offensive?
There’s always, without exception, a dramatic drop-off in the number of upraised hands to the second query.
At this point, Donovan would make a simple observation: So, it would appear that you favor freedom of speech as long as you agree with it.
Isn’t that the truth?
Freedom of speech sounds great and is usually accepted at face value or in theory, as an ideal in democratic states. All well and good. However, there are prerequisites. If neglected, freedom of speech can become more of a slogan than a reality. Absent certain conditions, most people do not enjoy or embrace the Ingersoll standard of liberty. Where do you stand? Ask yourself: Do you think Americans enjoy – and feel free to exercise the right to attack any doctrine and to answer every argument without fear of legal action? If so, is this liberty extant everywhere, or are there places where it does not apply? For instance, does such freedom of speech exist in universities, famous or infamous depending on your views with speech codes? How about in the varied communities (clubs, associations, groups) of which you are a part?
Among the prerequisites for the norm of speech freely communicated is an educated citizenry. It takes considerable reinforcement over time to appreciate and become accustomed to speech with which we don’t agree. That is a lesson Donovan illustrates with his opening questions. It is a bit of a paradox to agree in principle with liberty but to take offense when it is exercised in ways not quite to your liking. Theodore Roosevelt had wise words to offer on this point, even though doing so ran contrary to his own interests as president: To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.
I wonder how many Americans are even aware of such remarks and, more important, comfortable with such sentiments, once expressed even more strenuously by Thomas Jefferson: Dissent is the highest form of patriotism. Do you agree that dissent is even a high if not the highest form of patriotism? If not, why not? If you agree, then you will want to support a person like Donovan or anyone else to say things you might find disagreeable. You would certainly want a speaker at a public forum to give everyone his best counsel, to be comfortable and welcomed to hit you with his best shot, to fire away and thus provide the best lessons and insights he has on offer. What about this idea, by George Orwell? If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. Is that part of your idea of liberty? I suggest it ought to be.
Freedom of speech becomes a reality as well as a theory when people are guided by leaders, educators and others to tolerate, value and even welcome dissent from orthodoxy. How many dissenters can we readily identify whom we admire for doing so today? If you are a genuine enthusiast for free speech, you should have no trouble rattling off any number of such characters. One who quickly comes to my mind is the late, much lamented Christopher Hitchens: My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.
I would guess that even the Nazis, the Soviets, the mullahs in Iran and, going back a bit, the judges presiding over the Inquisition all favored free speech – provided it was consistent with the doctrines, dogmas, policies and preferences of state or church truths. Most people burdened by the misfortune to be oppressed under such governments learn to keep their inconsistencies with unchallengeable truths to themselves, a custom about which Euripides had this to say: This is slavery, not to speak one’s thought. (Source: The Phoenician Women.)
In addition to a democratic state, a well-educated citizenry and a culture of tolerance for diverse opinions, a sense of humor is helpful. In nearly half the world today, people are not inclined to find irreverent jokes or cartoons acceptable; in such dictatorships, people can be killed over a perceived insult to an imaginary being. Oscar Wilde’s sentiments about freedom of speech would not go over well in Saudi Arabia: I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.
Naturally, there are some limits on everything, including speech. There cannot be freedom to say that which brings actual harm or damages to others, or words that meet the libel test and so on. Freedom of speech requires a citizenry capable of knowing where lines are drawn by citizen consent. Few would agree with radical Abbie Hoffman who said, despite what the Supreme Court had ruled to the contrary, that free speech means the right to shout ‘theatre’ in a crowded fire. Well, at least not until they realized that Abbie had fooled them with crafty wordplay. Jim C. Hines was more to the point when he observed that freedom of speech does not protect you from the consequences of saying stupid shit.
Unfettered expression is important for another reason: It represents a mother lode goldmine of possibilities for exuberance. The art of creative expression uninhibited by constraints of censorship or limits (e.g., fear of giving offense, blaspheming or violating speech codes) enables WOs large and small, ephemeral and long-lasting. Such speech, whether in blogs like this, e-mails, letters, conversations, phone or Skype chats, are parts of a bountiful harvest from the fields of spontaneity.
Without free expression, art would be poorer. Consider the books banned, the films censored and the music suppressed. Fortunately, these anti-liberty impulses have been overcome in most Western nations, though retrograde efforts continue in backwoods regions (e.g., Alabama, Mississippi and well, pretty much everywhere in the South and beyond), at one time or another. So far, except perhaps at the Texas and Kansas School Board levels, reason prevails and liberty is restored. Personally, I’d be more than a little disappointed if I could not listen to John Lennon’s Imagine (…there’s no heaven, no hell below us, above us only sky) or enjoy shows that some consider blasphemous or offensive (The Book of Mormon) that delight millions who don’t.
So there you go – a few details and points for your consideration on a matter of great consequence to REAL wellness – liberty in general, freedom of speech in particular and prerequisites for both.
I’d like to I’d like to end with a takeaway message. For a life that’s a bit more fun in the grand scheme of a meaningless world with no scheme, grand or otherwise, consider this: Ask what you can do for your country – and answer somewhat along these lines: Encourage freedom of speech at every opportunity, even of the kind not particularly to your liking. No need to agree or disagree – just make it clear that you’re grateful you can express yourselve freely. It’s not something everyone gets to do.
So, if Donovan shows up at a conference near you and tries to set you up with his two-punch audience survey concerning freedom of speech, raise your hand the first time and when he asks the follow-up question, stand up and shout, you bet!
He will be shocked at first, momentary nonplussed but I assure you – he’ll recover quickly and go home happy and more optimistic about the human condition.