This book should be required reading for everyone in the “free” world.
Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media by Jacob Mchangama should have a byline. I propose “And Why We Should Want it Even Though Humans are Stupid.”
The format of the book is just what you see on the tin. It’s a history of free speech from Ancient Athens to modern Social Media, and it is very engaging. All of the time periods are equally interesting, but I listened to this book after reading an article by Mr. Mchangama about the Weimar Fallacy: the belief that if the Weimar Republic had just censored the Nazis the Third Reich never would have happened.
The trouble with that argument is that the Weimar Republic did censor the Nazis. Goebbels, the Third Reich’s minister of propaganda cited it as one of the reasons for Hitler’s rise. All the busting of Nazi events was fantastic publicity. Every time there was an arrest or imprisonment, it would be all over the newspapers. “Ah,” some might say, “but the Third Reich also censored speech and it took the Allies to overthrow it.” Yes, but the Nazis killed those who said things they didn’t like, vs. the Weimar Republic which just threw them in jail.
Some people online who want to “Kill all the libtards” or the “Rethuglicans” might see that as an acceptable solution to speech they don’t like. But for sane people, there has to be a recognition that the Nazis ultimately weren’t very good for Germany or Germans. Humans and societies are much better when we receive honest feedback. Feedback like, “Don’t start a war with Russia.”
As I read, I felt like the book’s general thesis is where free speech thrives, so does human society … at least when it reaches an equilibrium.
The chapters on the Islamic world are especially poignant after the attempt to assassinate Salman Rushdie. At one time, the Islamic World was more advanced technologically than Europe. This book talks about that Golden Age of Islam that happened at the same time Europe experienced its Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were not as dark as sometimes portrayed, but it wasn’t a time/place I’d want to accidentally wind up in a Tardis. If forced to choose, I’d want to land in the Islamic World … and I say that as a woman. I’d be much less likely to be murdered or to die from the plague. (They had it, but took more baths and deaths weren’t as dramatic there.) At that time, Islamic rulers permitted freedom of speech much more than their European counterparts, and the sciences flourished.
Unfortunately, the Islamic world’s leaders gradually started to crack down on free speech. Free speech is troublesome for absolute rulers.
With the Catholic church’s heavy influence on affairs in Europe, free speech wouldn’t have taken hold there if not for the Gutenberg Press. With movable type, the press made printing faster, cheaper, easier to disseminate, and harder to stamp out. It was revolutionary, and in the beginning, it created revolutions in science, religion, and politics. These revolutions were often not just destabilizing; they were also violent. On the flip side, where there were printing presses there was economic expansion, scientific enlightenment, and religious reform–much like we are experiencing today with the internet and social media. (Also, the press was used to create a lot of porn. We haven’t changed that much.)
Seeing the upheaval after the invention of the printing press, the Catholic church and the Islamic world either outlawed presses outright, or controlled and strictly limited them. Their economies stagnated. Scientific advancement stalled. Literacy rates lagged behind the Protestant worlds.
The kings and queens of Protestant Europe benefited from the economic and scientific gains brought by the press, but the free press endangered their regimes. From the time the press was created, there has been a continual tug-of-war between those in power, and those who want free speech.
Allowing free speech to exist is dangerous, but it might be more dangerous not to allow it.
As someone who is a centrist and is frequently called a “libtard” and “Rethuglican”, sometimes in the same conversation, I find hate speech exhausting and sometimes frightening. The question we haven’t figured out is where does “hate” become a threat and who gets to decide that line? Also, who gets to decide what hate is? The book delves into new hate laws that are being written in Europe … it is interesting to see what becomes acceptable and what isn’t acceptable. Listening to this section of the book, I couldn’t help thinking that “hate” is determined by those with more power, not less. (Saying slavery was bad was once hateful to Southern white folk.)
Although the U.S. has strong support for free speech in law, and allows for more “hate,” its record in custom isn’t always exemplary. Just because speech isn’t illegal, it doesn’t mean people haven’t been hurt economically during the Red Scare, the Lavender Scare, or now when we have political correctness on one side and patriotic correctness on the other. (Bill Maher and Dave Chappelle are fine, but ordinary people are often hurt.)
Free speech also means constantly combatting nonsense. It requires continual explanations that seem pointless. i.e, “No, the world isn’t flat.”
It is tempting to want to halt what is obviously wrong. But it is extremely dangerous. Our knowledge of science is constantly evolving, and even if we try to censor things we know to be false, such as the flat Earth conspiracy theory, we put ourselves in danger.
I think some people might think that “spherical universe” scientists would never be so petty as to have “flat universe” scientists arrested and put in jail for wrong think. I worked at a university in a science department, and after witnessing the infighting, I don’t doubt that at least some members of team spherical would use any means in their power to silence their opponents (and visa versa!)
If big corporations were to compete for government grant money for development of FTL travel there would be blood. (It wouldn’t matter who was right, you don’t have to be right to get the grant, especially if you are well connected, beautiful, and/or charming.)
The flat earth example is mine, not Mr. Mchangama’s. So all blame should be directed at me if you find it over-the-top. But I urge everyone to consider how so much of what we’ve been told by scientists and the media these past two years has turned out to be false–often after contradictory theories were censored by social media. (Social media has definitely disrupted the precarious equilibrium we’d achieved since Gutenberg.)
I also encourage everyone to buy or borrow this book, and to read or listen to it.