Thursday, December 2, 2010

Freedom of Speech

The volume on freedom of speech is about ready to be submitted to the publisher. There has been tons of work, in getting the manuscript ready for submission, so I have not been able to post. The image above, by the Austrian painter Maulbertsch, will probably be on the cover of the published volume. It exemplifies the rowdiness of the Viennese stage in the 18th century, which was a forum for social and political commentary. Thus, the threat posed by free speech to the powers that be. Of course, the powers that be in the 21st century are also alarmed by the speech of the masses. A recent episode concerns the protests over the proposed Islamic cultural center at Ground Zero. The American protesters have been routinely characterized as "intolerant," "divisive," "xenophobic," and so on, words that likewise reflect 18th-century debates and anxieties concerning speech. Rousseau, for instance, in his novel Julie, thought that true communication was best achieved through silence! Herder worried about the harm that could result from unconstrained speech. Men like Voltaire were certain that unlimited freedom of expression could harm the masses.

As much as we owe to 18th-century thinkers, we should not forget that they were indebted to intellectual traditions that valorized the pursuit of truth and, ultimately, agreement. Truth, however, is not the standard of liberal democracies, which function not by imposing a few grand ideas handed down from on high, but by encouraging a marketplace of diverse, competing, unrestrained opinions -- as portrayed in the Maulbertsch painting. Lest we forget it, the pursuit of truth in the past also involved the assiduous refutation of error. It has been trial and error, however, not dogma, in whatever form, that created the West. Freedom of speech, if we are serious about it, must also allow for unpopular, even "wrong," opinions.

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