John Stuart Mill
Of his own free will
On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.

Monty Python

But there’s more. Mill formulated theories which today beat the heart of political liberalism – the rights of individuals to express dissenting opinions, the primacy of open discussion, the defence of personal lives free as far as possible from state intrusion and societal interference. To many, these ideas are familiar to the point of triviality. They shimmer the soft cultural furnace of ubiquity.

We shall spare some moments to notice them. First let us dabble our toes in the pellucid waters that moisten the shores of tautology: forgiveness means many things, depending on who is forgiving. When the strong forgive, it emphasises their strength. When the weak forgive, it emphasises their inconsequence.

This observation applies too in the international context of nation states; and also governs the internal power dynamics of each state. Yet, especially in the latter more local case, we can only support the stark declamation about forgiveness to a point. Any political or ideological system which continues to reign (or continues to appear to reign) cannot be so obviously weak that its subjects have already deserted it. So we must consider gradations of power; and faced with hard oblivion at one end the asymptote of messianic generosity at the other, we’d do well to remind ourselves that any political system, or any society, may only be tolerant in proportion to its power.

Free speech, therefore, and open dissent, and the protection of minorities, and even the protection of majorities (to the extent these things happen at all), are emblems of tolerance and therefore emblems of power. They are evidence that society is strong enough to withstand its internal agitations, that its belly is hardened to insult. They are evidence that the poultry coop (paltry co-op) of gabblers stamping and scratching in the public view, exerting their minds and exhorting ours, are not really that inconvenient. (Occasionally they’ll even lay an egg.)

So there must be something deeper going on – because how likely is it that the freedom we enjoy would be stable if it were freedom alone? How likely is it that a society which debases itself, which weakens itself with a million seeping cuts called popular liberties, can survive in the face of the alternative? Let’s not forget that our political-and economic systems were concocted and imposed by the merchants whose ships and gold and guns allowed them to gather more of the same. Were these geniuses of commerce and influence naive enough to seed their own destruction?

Current evidence would suggest maybe. And if you’ll permit me a brief digression it is both comforting and terrible to think that an institution such as mercantilism or free speech might be turned into the instrument of its own demise. Undeniably there’s a poetic justice there, and a centurion view on the vacillations of human societies. However, in this case what actually happened was the merchants seeded not their own destruction but their immortality. At least for the time being.

Because the humble institutions of which Mill and others have convinced us can gain traction only when broader systems of governance are sufficiently established as to be unquestionable. Or, better, invisible. The key ideas (wealth, transaction, labour rental, capitalist modes of production) run deeper than freedom: they are not merely rights to be defended and discussed, but the language of the discussion itself. They are the filter of reality, they comprise our social fabric, and hence dominate the way we as a society conceptualise ourselves. Only when a covert tyranny-of-paradigm is firmly enthroned can the literal thrones of existing tyrants be discarded. We call this conditioning of generations progress.

Of course there are limits. Society as an organism will cease to tolerate free speech once the underlying power structures are threatened. Once that line is crossed, the gloves come off. Liberal democracy as we know it is underwritten by the might of fascism, without which its institutions would crumble (replaced most probably by a more full-blooded and honest version of fascism). We see this happening all the time as activist groups dissatisfied with controlled and ineffectual mechanisms of dissent are terrorised on all fronts by supposedly benevolent governments that supposedly possess the legitimacy to determine which acts and which thoughts count as extremism.

Mill himself was an outspoken colonialist in nineteenth century England, advocating the repression and domination of the militarily (and hence racially and culturally) inferior. In his eyes, the fundamental liberties necessary for justice in human society were to be granted sparingly. Perhaps because free speech would be too dangerous in the hands of cultures which did not yet speak or think in the correct language – they had not attained the level of civilisation necessary to be blind.

Could it be that those who strained to free society from oppression were still operating within oppression’s deeper framework, disguising it as the landscape, fertilising it with the glorious clods of earth they hurled about as they rooted out the kings and lords? Could it be that they turned the oppressed into their own jailers?


Roc 20 March 2017

This piece reminds me of Nietzsche’s saying that it was Christianity which sacrificed itself, by stressing the moral, which meant people found themselves no longer able to lie about what they perceived as Christianity’s absurdity.

I have seen the Guardian's publication of George Monbiot’s journalism described as a trick of the propaganda model media to give the impression of freedom of speech. I believe (and perhaps read about it in your blog) there is an area of game theory which deals with how much truth you have to slip in with your disinformation to maximise the latter’s credibility.

However, a degree of free speech (e.g. scientific free speech) may represent a positive sum game, where most (including the centre of gravity of power as a whole, though not all of the powerful) benefit.

But I agree, there are incentives to self-censorship and not necessarily that big an audience for any free speech that bucks one of the two or three consensuses: the liberal, the conservative, the libertarian, etc. So free speech to which nobody listens may be redundant.

It may also be that power has difficulties in suppressing free speech once it was let out of the bottle -- even at the height of the purges, many people continued to speak freely before going to their deaths (e.g. Mandelstam and his poem about Stalin).

And it may be that power doesn’t need to suppress free speech, not because power is secure, but because the science of manipulation is so effective (e.g. cf Cialdini, Influence: advertising, manipulation of the threatening other, etc) that you can drown out the sound of anyone’s voice who is speaking freely, and convince your audience that they are wrong, and don’t need to silence them, however weak your position in other ways.

And above all, as you suggest, speech cannot be free if people no longer have the conceptual structure to describe reality and use free speech to say what needs to be said.