William Coupon for Reader's Digest
Editor’s Note: Reader’s Digest is partnering with WeThePurple.org to republish articles from our archives that dramatize and revive patriotic enthusiasm about democracy and its core values. This essay written by English author and social critic Christopher Hitchens shortly before his death in December 2011 contends freedom of speech is the freedom from which all others flow. In the video, the author speaks candidly about his personal experience with censorship.
We belong to a species that loves to make lists and award rankings and then argue about which or who should be all-time No. 1. I am sure I would admire the United States Bill of Rights just as much in principle in whatever order the amendments came, but I take a special pleasure in the fact that the first of them all is the one that guarantees freedom of speech. Granted, this is in no small part due to a point of pride in that it makes my own profession seem especially significant and regards it as requiring particular protection. But it is also because I could make the case that it is the essential liberty, without which all the other freedoms are either impossible to imagine or impossible to put into practice.
Those of us who take the amendment’s wording at face value—“Congress shall make no law … abridging …”—take it to mean no law. No special circumstances, no emergency, no unforeseen contingency can dilute the plain and straightforward meaning of those words or that phrasing. We get ourselves called (and we proudly accept) a name that has a nice double meaning for me: First Amendment absolutists. Here’s why I like this quasi-ironic term. It commits us to an unshakable principle while it obliquely reminds us that absolutism is what the freedom of speech actually makes impossible.
From the predawn of human history, despots have relied on the idea that, quite literally, their word is law, or absolute. Pre-Roman and Roman emperors sought to cloak this in the idea that they themselves were supra-human and had themselves deified in their own lifetimes. Later tyrants claimed to rule by “the divine right of kings,” an assertion that didn’t end until the 18th century. All modern successors, from Hitler to Khomeini to Kim Jong-il, have insisted that only one man or one party or one book represents the absolute truth, and to challenge it is folly or worse. But all it takes is one little boy to blurt out the inconvenient truth that the emperor is as naked as the day he was born, and with that, the entire edifice of absolutism begins to crumble.
Grown-ups, of course, are more “sophisticated,” or the story wouldn’t be as potent as it is. Hardened by adulthood, they can always think of reasons to keep quiet and to keep others quiet as well. Should we, say, be able to discuss sex in print? Or publicly disagree with the government in time of war? Or offend the cherished ideas of others? The unfettered tongue and pen do not always produce results that make our lives easier or more comfortable. Mark Twain once observed sardonically that Americans were careful to make very sparing use of their precious and much-boasted liberty. But even he, the most popular figure in the country at the time, took care to conceal some of his more scornful views on religion and expansionist foreign policy.
My own opinion is a very simple one. The right of others to free expression is part of my own. If someone’s voice is silenced, then I am deprived of the right to hear. Moreover, I have never met nor heard of anybody I would trust with the job of deciding in advance what it might be permissible for me or anyone else to say or read. That freedom of expression consists of being able to tell people what they may not wish to hear, and that it must extend, above all, to those who think differently is, to me, self-evident.
Of all the things I have ever written, the one that has gotten me the most unwelcome attention from people I respect is a series of essays defending the right of Holocaust deniers and other Nazi sympathizers to publish their views. I did this because I think a right is a right and also because if this right is denied to one faction, it will not stop there. (Laws originally passed in Europe to criminalize Holocaust denial are already being extended to suppress criticism of Islam, as a case in point.) But I could also argue it pragmatically. Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a book that is banned in some countries and very hard to get in others. But the rare translated edition I possess was published by a group of German exiles at the New School in New York in 1938. It is complete and unexpurgated, with many pages of footnotes and cross-references. The Fuhrer’s enemies considered it of urgent importance that everybody study the book and understand the threat it contained. Alas, not enough people read it in time.
Almost all the celebrated free speech cases in the human record involve the strange concept of blasphemy, which is actually the simple concept that certain things just cannot be said or heard. The trial of Socrates involved the charge that his way of thinking caused young people to disrespect the gods. During the trial of Galileo, his findings about astronomy were held to subvert the religious dogma that our earth was the center and object of creation. The Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, involved the charge that Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was profane and immoral as well as untrue. We look back on these moments when the authorities, and often the mob as well, decided to blind and deafen themselves and others, and we shake our heads. But with what right? There are many contemporary threats to the principle and the practice of free expression. I would nominate the theocratic one as the most immediately dangerous.
Ever since the religious dictator of Iran sponsored a murder campaign against a British-Indian novelist named Salman Rushdie, this time for authoring a work of fiction, there has been a perceptible constraint on the way people discuss the Islamic faith in public. For instance, when a newspaper in Denmark published some caricatures of the prophet Mohammed a few years ago, there was such an atmosphere of violence and intimidation that not a single mainstream media outlet in the United States felt able to reproduce the images so that people could form their own view. Some of this was simple fear. But some of it took a “softer” form of censorship. It was argued that tender sensibilities were involved—things like good community relations were at stake, and a diverse society requires that certain people not be offended.
Democracy and pluralism do indeed demand a certain commitment to good manners, but Islam is a religion that makes very large claims for itself and can hardly demand that such claims be immune from criticism. Besides, it’s much too easy to see how open-ended such a self-censorship would have to be. If I, for example, were to declare myself terribly wounded and upset by any dilution of the First Amendment (as indeed I am), I hope nobody would concede that this conferred any special privileges on me, especially if my claim of privilege were to be implicitly backed by a credible threat of violence.
Other attempts at abridging free expression also come dressed up in superficially attractive packaging. As an example, surely we should forbid child pornography? In a sense this is a red herring: Anybody involved in any way in using children for sex is already prosecutable for a multitude of extremely grave crimes. Free expression doesn’t really come into it. The censor is more likely to prosecute a book like Nabokov’s Lolita and yet have no power to challenge porn czars. And surely the spending of money isn’t a form of free speech, as our Supreme Court has more than once held it is, most recently, as pertaining to political campaign contributions. I’m not so sure: The most impressive grassroots campaign of my lifetime—Senator Eugene McCarthy’s primary challenge to President Johnson in 1968—was made possible by a few rich individuals who told him to go ahead and not worry about a slender war chest. And who is entitled to make the call about who may spend how much? Again, I haven’t been able to discover anybody to whom I would entrust that job.
The same objection applies to what is called hate speech. Here, again, there is no known way of gauging the influence of rhetoric on action. Try a thought experiment. Go back in time and force Sarah Palin, by law, to remove the “target” or “crosshair” symbols from certain electoral districts. Now are you confident that you will have soothed the churning mind of a youthful schizophrenic in Tucson, Arizona? I didn’t think so. Sane people can take a lot of militant rhetoric about politics. Insane people can be motivated by believing themselves to be characters in The Catcher in the Rye, a book I am glad is not banned.
“National security” is one of the oldest arguments here, for the good reason that it is always disputable. The purloining and dissemination of private documents written by other people, for example, is not always necessarily free expression, let alone free speech. It can also involve the exposure of third parties to danger, as appears to have been the case in the downloading of classified documents by Army private [Chelsea] Manning and their use by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. We are all hypocrites here: I have myself written several articles based on Assange’s disclosures, while publicly disapproving of his tactics in acquiring the material in the first place. (And I didn’t need to read the list of terrorist-vulnerable facilities, including vaccine factories, that he dumped before me and who knows who else.) But in this age of ultrahacking, no law would have prevented these leaks, nor do such laws have much effect, and they never have. In a more slow-moving epoch, President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and subjected certain editors to military censorship, though I have never seen it argued that he helped the war effort much by doing so.
The claim to possess exclusive truth is a vain one. And, as with other markets, the ones in ideas and information are damaged by distortion and don’t respond well to clumsy ad hoc manipulation. And speaking of markets, consider the work of the Indian economist Amartya Sen, who demonstrated that no substantial famine has ever occurred in a country that has uncensored information. Famines are almost invariably caused not by shortage of food but by stupid hoarding in times of crisis, practiced by governments that can disregard public opinion. Bear this in mind whenever you hear free expression described as a luxury.
In my career, I have visited dozens of countries undergoing crises of war or hardship or sectarian strife. I can say with as much certainty as is possible that, wherever the light of free debate and expression is extinguished, the darkness is very much deeper, more palpable, and more protracted. But the urge to shut out bad news or unwelcome opinions will always be a very strong one, which is why the battle to reaffirm freedom of speech needs to be refought in every generation.