Violence tests us in unexpected ways. Among them is the strain on identity when the time comes to defend all those fancy principles we think we hold.
Then I heard the author and Danish lawyer Jacob Mchangama interviewed sometime last spring and immediately bought his 2022 book, Free Speech: a History from Socrates to Social Media. Events in Israel and the reaction in this country made me start over to read it straight through.
The public expressions of loathing for Hamas, for Israel, and that Americans espoused for each other from college campuses to cable news over the conflict is proof of how poorly so many of us fare when tested. Our nation is strengthened by the five freedoms codified in the First Amendment but perhaps they can be fairly summarized by a popular slogan: Words are tools, not weapons.
Mchangama takes the reader on an eye-opening tour of the relentless demands on conscience of free speech. He traces the birth of the concept in ancient Greece, where Pericles “extolled the democratic values of open debate and tolerance of social dissent” in 431 B.C.E. This was the same society that executed Socrates, revered in his time as a war hero and unwashed philosopher, for practicing free speech.
I was pleased to learn that as Muslim caliphates expanded from the Indus to the Atlantic, a writer named Ibn al-Rawandi, born in Persia around 815 C.E., produced more than 100 books attacking Islam, calling the Qur’an an “unpersuasive book full of inconsistencies.” Expressing such a sentiment, even in private, could bring a death sentence now.
Al-Rawandi’s dissent wasn’t tolerated — it was welcomed. As the Islamic world developed the scientific method pioneered by the Greeks, it was understood that challenges honed ideas. That world saved much of ancient literature and thinking at enormous expense. The work of apostates and minorities — what we moderns would call “diversity” — was valued because it tested and thereby expanded practical knowledge that would have been impossible under a system of political or religious censorship.
But censorship is exactly what came next. Al-Rawandi’s books were eventually burned as succeeding governments concluded that any challenge to orthodoxy was a threat to their political power, a pattern repeated throughout history.
The protests of an obscure German monk named Martin Luther attracted attention at the highest levels in the 16th century. The pope wanted him dead. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V summoned Luther to an audience in 1521 and ordered him to stop his attacks on the one true faith. Luther’s reply: “I cannot and will not recant anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” He was saved from burning at the stake by Frederick III, a powerful Saxon prince, who hid him in his castle for a year. Luther spent the time translating the New Testament into vernacular German and printed it in 1522.
Ordinary people could now read (or more often hear) the Biblical Word for the first time themselves without the filters of authority. There they found the letter of James to oppressors: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
Mchangama writes, “Taking a leaf out of Luther’s playbook, peasants staged a massive revolt in 1524-25, demanding the abolition of serfdom and razing castles and monasteries in the name of the Gospel.” Luther was horrified and immediately began publishing pamphlets supporting the establishment and encouraging retribution. One hundred thousand people are believed to have been killed.
Mchangama spends 50 thoughtful pages on the conundrum of the internet, demonstrating how a single thread of information can be spun into a dangerous web for us simple flies. I note that by 1530, over 2 million copies of Luther’s work were produced for a population with a literacy rate of just 9%. In other words, even then there was no putting the genie back in the bottle.
Federal officials in the former and current administrations urged social media companies to remove content, especially when it came to criminal activity or harmful political or medical disinformation. Meanwhile, state governors and legislatures in Texas and Florida passed laws prohibiting the removal of posts based on political opinion, even as they and 19 other states passed other laws to remove books and curricula they don’t like from public schools.
Maybe we need more genies?
Because there remains the necessity of defending the rights of Nazis to parade in Skokie, Illinois (a famous ACLU case); of Black Lives Matter to assemble in overwhelmingly peaceful marches; and of Scholastic, the world’s largest publisher of children’s books, now segregating titles about race and LGBTQ issues into their own packaged “bookcase” when visiting school book fairs so they can open or leave closed the bookcase to comply with new state laws restricting the nature of what children can choose to read for themselves.
The idea that unfettered speech short of explicit calls for violence should be restricted is misguided, ineffective, and ultimately self-defeating, according to Mchangama, a civil rights activist. “The fact that groups whose religious or ideological differences were once thought to be irreconcilable matters of life and death now flourish side by side in open democracies is a testament to the true power of a vibrant culture of freedom of speech,” he writes.
In other words, democracy cannot endure without freedom of speech, and that right does not survive without the obligation to listen, however unsavory you find the content. What matters most is how you confront the speech that tests you and the values you hold.
Reprinted with permission from Key Peninsula News, November 2023.