The burden of free speech

Can we sustain this “terrible magnanimity and patience”?
Zac Alstin | Oct 6 2015 | comment  

(Jason Pier, October 30, 2010)

A transgender Australian Greens party candidate has complained to Tasmania’s anti-discrimination commissioner over a publication released by the Australian Catholic Bishop’s Conference opposing same-sex marriage. According to media reports:

“Ms Delaney, who has changed from male to female and lives in a same-sex relationship with a woman, said she felt humiliated by the marriage booklet.”

In a statement to the media, Delaney argued that the booklet Don’t Mess With Marriage which was distributed to 12,000 families in Tasmania whose children attend Catholic schools “says same-sex partners don’t deserve equal recognition, same-sex-attracted people are not ‘whole’ people and the children of same-sex partners are not ‘healthy’.”

Precisely four years ago I wrote an article titled “The end of tolerance” in which I argued that:

“some of those who once called for tolerance and individual freedom have adjusted to the success of their programme and decided to shift the boundaries. But their new goal cannot be achieved by appealing to tolerance, freedom, or even diversity because they now seek to impose their own implicit moral system upon the whole of society.”

We can hope that the Tasmanian complaint will be rejected by the anti-discrimination commissioner, but on our current trajectory of changing social mores the freedom to espouse controversial religious and philosophical teachings will eventually be curtailed. Freedom of speech does not extend to the incitement of racial vilification, and for many people divergence from the new orthodoxy of sexual orientation is seen in the same light as racism.  A decade ago, marriage was explicitly defined in Australia’s Marriage Act as "the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life,” yet in 2015 “marriage equality” has become the sine qua non of moral credibility.  As I wrote in 2011:

“What was once illicit became tolerable; now the merely tolerable has been normalised. But, as tolerance comes to an end, so will the illusion that moral diversity is truly a viable long-term strategy for a society.”

How much longer will the state permit influential religious institutions to offend against the new paradigm of sexual morality? 

In the context of internet surveillance laws, Australian Greens leader Scott Ludlam is happy to quote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

But when it comes to the new frontier of taking offence, even the right of a religious organisation to communicate its religious teachings to its religious followers can no longer be free of interference.

Remember when people used to proudly repeat "I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it"?

The quotation incorrectly attributed to Voltaire is not one of my favourites. For one thing, the misattribution of quotations is irritating. But more telling, I think, is the shortfall between the promise and the reality. We’ve been so accustomed to everyone nobly defending free speech with such hyperbolic rhetoric, we might have taken for granted the onerous task of actually defending it. Words are cheap: how many of us would be martyrs for our own convictions, let alone the right of others to express their misguided ones? 

Our supposed willingness to defend to the death others’ freedom of speech might sound very grand, but its scope is curtailed by two peculiarities of the famous quotation: firstly, our defense is made contingent on disapproval, saying, in effect “I am willing to defend to the death the freedom to say things of which I disapprove”; might we add “of which I merely disapprove”? How many of us would be willing to die for the freedom to say things of which we do more than disapprove – things we despise, things we detest and abhor. Has anyone ever said “I live in unspeakable, unfathomable abhorrence and visceral repudiation of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”? Can we, pace Delaney, defend the freedom of speech of those who offend and humiliate us?

Secondly, this defense is always particularised: I disapprove of what you say, and will defend your right. The implication is that we can pick and choose the particular instances that demand our vigorous defense: “I wasn’t talking about homophobes”; “I didn’t mean to defend idiotic Christians”. Aside from rhetorical flourish, perhaps the popularity of this quotation indicates our deeper ambivalence about the limitations of free speech? Perhaps that’s why we tend not to instantiate the sentiment in a more dogmatic form, with a quotation from someone more famous than pseudo-Voltaire?

Thomas Jefferson:

“Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

John Stuart Mill:

“Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free speech but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’, not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.”

The idea that freedom of speech might result in speech that offends and upsets us is not new. But the best defense of free speech may be the defense that recognises the profound challenge contained within this freedom, and does not too glibly promise to defend something that already comes at a high price. It’s easy to say I will defend to the death your right to disagree with me; it’s much harder to willingly tolerate and endure the most despicable and atrocious opinions of others. Yet this is what free speech demands. As the British journalist G.K. Chesterton observed in his biography of the Victorian poet Robert Browning:

“One of the most important steps ever taken in the history of the world is this step, with all its various aspects, literary, political, and social, which is represented by [Browning's epic verse novel] The Ring and the Book. It is the step of deciding, in the face of many serious dangers and disadvantages, to let everybody talk. The poet of the old epic is the poet who had learnt to speak; Browning in the new epic is the poet who has learnt to listen. This listening to truth and error, to heretics, to fools, to intellectual bullies, to desperate partisans, to mere chatterers, to systematic poisoners of the mind, is the hardest lesson that humanity has ever been set to learn. The Ring and the Book is the embodiment of this terrible magnanimity and patience. It is the epic of free speech.”

“I find what you say to be a systematic poisoning of the mind, but will defend to the death your right to say it” does not quite have the same ring to it.  Yet such is the price of free speech. Chesterton continues:

“It is not by any means self-evident upon the face of it that an institution like the liberty of speech is right or just. It is not natural or obvious to let a man utter follies and abominations which you believe to be bad for mankind any more than it is natural or obvious to let a man dig up a part of the public road, or infect half a town with typhoid fever. The theory of free speech, that truth is so much larger and stranger and more many-sided than we know of, that it is very much better at all costs to hear every one's account of it, is a theory which has been justified upon the whole by experiment, but which remains a very daring and even a very surprising theory. It is really one of the great discoveries of the modern time”.

We have taken free speech as a self-evident good, when really it is something quite terrible and forbidding, deemed worthwhile “upon the whole”. We are so limited and parochial in our outlook that we celebrate mindlessly the achievements of centuries as though they were the most obvious and enlightened fundamentals. We celebrate free speech when really it is something to be endured.

It is not surprising that Delaney found offence in the teachings of a religious tradition philosophically and morally opposed to the concepts of transgender and same-sex marriage. No doubt a Catholic Bishop would be offended by much of the pro-transgender and same-sex marriage material as well. But if we want to defend free speech we need to endure offences, not go looking for them.

Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at

This article is published by Zac Alstin and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

comments powered by Disqus
Follow MercatorNet
MercatorNet RSS feed
subscribe to newsletter
Sections and Blogs
Family Edge
Sheila Reports
Reading Matters
Demography Is Destiny
From the Editor
contact us
our ideals
our People
our contributors
Mercator who?
partner sites
audited accounts
advice for writers
privacy policy
New Media Foundation
Level 1, Unit 7,
11 Lord Street,
Botany Australia 2019
+61 2 8005 8605
skype: mercatornet

© New Media Foundation