Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Prehistory of Freedom of Speech

There is a part of human existence that necessarily remains individual and independent, and by right beyond all political jurisdiction. Sovereignty exists only in a limited and relative way.

This quote from the writings of Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) has been on my mind the past few days. I have been diverted from my work on 18th-century aesthetics to tackle another 18th-century issue, namely, the historical background that gave rise to the legalization of freedom of speech in the West. A few years back, at the time of the controversy concerning the Mohammed caricatures, I sponsored a series of talks in connection with the Columbia University Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture. It struck me at that time -- this was back in 2006 -- that people in the West who spoke in terms of the "universal" right of freedom of speech were constantly being battered by the multiculturalists in the name of relative values. Clearly, for its defenders freedom of speech had become "naturalized," become such a part of their self-understanding, regarded as inalienable, along with other democratic rights, that they were at a loss when confronted with the contention that Islam had an equal right not to be discussed, much less insulted, even in the heart of Europe itself.

What seemed required -- since even legal scholars, including First Amendment specialists were ignoring it -- was a renewed understanding of the historical background that preceded the institutionalization of the right of freedom of speech. In other words, the right emerged from specific historical, national, and even traditional sources, and it was the purpose of the talks I sponsored to portray the 18th-century discussion in various lands of Europe.

These papers will now be published in a volume that I have edited and for which I also wrote the introduction. One reason Benjamin Constant is on my mind (and what is currently diverting me from 18th-century aesthetics) is that I also have to write a conclusion to the volume, in which I try to bring together the historical portion with what is going on in the world today. The issue remains not whether rights, like that of freedom of speech, are "universal." The explicit attitude of the volume is that civil rights are a specific cultural product, namely, that of western Europe and its offshoots, and that the idea of human rights became "universalized" because of the great reach of Europe since the 18th century. In a sense I accept the argument of the multiculturalists. The question I pose in the conclusion, however, is whether this "cultural product" can grow in other soils and climates.

For, you see, I really do think the Western "cultural product" is a superior one, based on the very simple observation that people across the world would like to have our freedoms and rights. Multiculturalists play into the hands of the dictators of the world. Thus, my quote from Constant at the top of the post. (The portrait of him here is from the period when he was squiring Madame de Staël around Europe, including to Weimar, where he met with Goethe.) While Constant's arguments for freedom of speech largely advanced Enlightenment arguments for this freedom -- instruction, progress, transparency of government -- his distinctive contribution to political thought lay in the connection he posited between freedom of the press and opinion and the protection of individuals from the overreach of government. He crucially argued -- unlike most of the philosophes -- that it was not the role of government to regulate morals or to mold public virtue through education or to "improve" or "enlighten" citizens. Constant's major writings appeared after our Founding documents were written, but clearly they had the same opinion. And thus, the Bill of Rights was written in order to protect citizens from the power of government.

There remains a big difference between the Right and the Left on this issue. The Left, of course, is in favor of the rights of individuals, but it believes the government has an important role in securing these rights. The Right, reflecting the historical origins of our freedoms, understands that rights that are given by the government can also be taken away by the government. In other words, the desire for freedom may be a universal one, as it were planted in the hearts of humans, but the legal right is something that has to be fought for by citizens and vigilantly maintained. More to come, especially on the differences between the contemporary Right and the Left.

Picture credits: Caroline Fourest (May 25, 2010); Civitas 99;

1 comment:

Cathie said...

Very interesting post! I look forward to reading your further thoughts on this subject.

Do you know when the book you are editing is expected to be in print?

Cathie Grimm