Thursday, September 9, 2010

Freedom of Speech

I am encountering trouble with my conclusion to the free speech volume. I write a couple of what seems to be pretty good pages; then, there is a wall. Let me put down a few things, which may help me move forward.

I start out by making the claim that freedom of speech, before it was a legal right, was an essential part of the West's material progress. It was in the 17th and 18th centuries that the philosophes sought to crack the monopoly on "the word" held by church and crown by demanding the right to discuss the findings of the new "natural science."

The prohibitions were strongest in the outlying parts of Europe. For instance, Peter the Great forbade everyone in the Russian realm, excluding religious teachers, from writing behind locked doors. In Spain, the Inquisition was still in effect. The French crown also presided over a variety of prohibitions and regulations. Nevertheless, the tide of scientific and technical knowledge that began to sweep Europe could not be held back. Even Peter the Great wanted to "modernize."

The new knowledge, however, also freed people from their ties to authority and tradition and eroded the power of kings. Thus, there arose a body of doctrine concerning the rights of individuals, which now finds expression in the liberal constitutions of the West.

It is the combination of the two -- a body of shared values embodied in legal instruments and a standard of living that is historically unprecedented -- that has created what can be called a "cultural product."

It seems to me that this cultural product, including freedom of speech, is in crisis today. A defense of freedom of speech and indeed of other civil rights -- is challenged in the non-Western world and even within the West itself. The West now stands accused, like European monarchs of old, of monopolistic behavior in the matter of rights.

In presiding over this volume on the history of freedom of speech in the 18th century, I have made the argument that, in a "multicultural world," the West's rights, as stated above, are a specific cultural product. Thus, the volume does not take a position on the rightness or wrongness of freedom of speech as it currently exists in the West, nor does it plead for limiting or expanding the right in the interest of social comity or truth, respectively. Instead, I readily acknowledge the postmodernist view of cultural relativism.

The problem seems to be that the West has considered its rights "universal," i.e., applicable to all people at all times and in all places. But, as Jeremy Benthem said of natural rights, the doctrine was "from beginning to end so much flat assertion." It is this presumption of universality that has drawn the animus of critics. Islam, after all, also claims universality for its doctrines, and many of its adherents believe these are self-evident. But Islam, like other "world" religions, are also powerful traditional, institutional entities.

Since the 17th century the West's "thinking class" has had a problematic relationship to religion. The image to the left expresses what many philosophes thought in the 17th and 18th centuries and also reveals how their thinking has filtered down to popular culture. This rejection is also part of the "cultural product" I am describing. Thus, Europe and America increasingly seek to expunge the presence of religion from the public square. For instance, schools in traditional Catholic regions -- Poland, Bavaria -- are now being forced to remove religious symbols from the classrooms. But religion is part of the cultural inheritance of the West, and if Europe will not take its religious inheritance seriously, why would the new populations, be they Muslim or otherwise, be respectful of Europe's secular values?

More later.


Zentrist said...

The issue is incredibly relevant today in light of several Koran burnings and desecrations noted today in the Drudge Report: near the White House and near Nashville, TN to mention just two instances. I personally have a problem with our Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment! My inner Oriental worries about such wide-open, potentially destructive freedom. One worries about the harmful effects of the epidemic of porn. NIetzsche certainly benefitted from universal rights while questioning them. True freedom, as the Benedictines understand well, involves obedience. But Shariah Laws seem to overdo this oftentimes cruel obedience--in its insistence on order, in itself a good thing. The words of Saint Paul may also be relevant here: "Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel." I believe Nietzsche admires the Old Testament prophets who overcome their stage fright in order to obey the will of God. Indeed they are empowered or emboldened by their perception of this Will.

Goethe Girl said...

I share your concern and will address it in a future posting. For the moment, however, I would distinguish between the original intent of the First Amendment -- allowing people to protest against government -- and the interpretation of the Amendment, especially in the last half-century, which has allowed numerous attacks on people's cherished pieties.