Free speech is pointless for its own sake

Paul Moon

28 Jun 2019

Paul Moon

How did we get to this point? How did two of our most outspoken politicians on the issue of free speech – the Greens' Golriz Ghahraman, and Act's David Seymour – end up seemingly diametrically opposed to each other, and battling over what types of speech should be permitted?

The question is all the more important because both of these MPs are highly intelligent individuals who are passionate about the welfare of the country, and both are completely sincere in the stances they hold.

So why do we repeatedly manage the free speech issue so poorly, and how is it that debates on the issue usually culminate in a point where advocates on the extremities of both sides forsake substance and resort to ever richer rhetoric to make their case?

One of the reasons is that free speech is too often (and mistakenly) depicted as an end in itself. "It is our right," is a common claim, as though that alone clinches the argument. What is missed in the ensuing sound and fury of people demanding either their free speech rights, or protection from unrestrained speech is the fact that for centuries, free speech was advanced not as a right to be attained for its own sake, but as a means of achieving something immeasurably more important: the truth.

Perhaps the most insightful observation on this aspect of free speech is attributed to the Czech theologian Jan Hus (1369-1415). He urged humanity to "love the truth, let others have their truth, and the truth will prevail." This succinct adage specifies the truth as the basis for free speech, the importance of allowing others to have divergent opinions, and the possibility that a consensus will ultimately be achieved. Is it idealistic? Of course it is. But the alternative, in which there is no tolerance for diverse views, and no greater purpose for speech, other than its own uttering, is an immeasurably worse approach.

In the course of pursuing the truth, free speech also serves a vital democratising function. When the scholar William Tyndale undertook a translation of the Bible into English in the early 16th century (a criminal offence punishable by death at the time), he was extending the rights of the English to access information that was still locked in Latin. "I will cause a boy who drives a plough", he proclaimed, "to know more of the scriptures than the pope."

A century later, one of the greatest advocates of free speech – the politician, poet, revolutionary and republican, John Milton – pushed for the freedom to criticise as a vital aspect of free speech. He described this as the liberty "above all liberties." The truth, he believed, could only be discovered through "free and open encounter," and not by relying simply on the authority of the person or institution asserting it.

The idea of debating truths – especially religious truths – was seen as profane by many in this period. However, Milton's response, which applies to our era just as much as it did to his, demolished the notion that some ideas should be shielded from scrutiny: "Whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?" he asked.

Milton was prompted to defend free speech in response to the Government introducing measures to censor published material which was judged to be not in the public's interests. In contrast to the restrictions that the authorities imposed, Milton argued that people should be trusted to reach their own conclusions about the important issues of the day.

It's this issue of encounter and challenge that is critical for free speech. In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill concluded that "the collision of adverse opinions" was the only means of discovering the truth. The Soviet dissident writer Yevgeny Zamyatin took this further, suggesting that the truth is created "not by diligent and trustworthy functionaries, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and sceptics." His message was that those who challenge society's ideas are crucial to define what our beliefs are.

The freedom to try to discover the truth was a burning issue (sometimes literally) in previous centuries, and yet in our more enlightened age, the emphasis on seeking truth seems to have been nearly extinguished. Promoting free speech as a right to insult, or conversely, censoring it for some perceived protective purpose, misses the point.

If free speech is to be defended, it ought to be primarily because it is the best means we have of attaining the truth, and those truths may indeed eventually make us free.

First appearance

This opinion piece was first published in the New Zealand Herald.