I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it
12th November 2020
‘I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. (Voltaire 1694-78)
While lovers of liberty in all lands have urged the necessity of freedom of speech, none put the case more pointedly than the French philosopher Voltaire when he said: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Freedom of speech is enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and it is something that most, except those in more authoritarian societies, would see as a common good. Yet arguably within our own society it is currently under threat as individuals are ‘no-platformed’ and prevented from expressing views deemed offensive or counter to the current climate of opinion. While we would all want to ‘draw the line’ at the expression of for example, racist, homophobic or sexist views, is it right to do so? Should we like Voltaire, defend the right of those to say what may be the ‘indefensible’ and instead encourage people to use their freedom of speech to counter such views, or are there times when it should be legitimately restricted?
On the Amnesty International website it says ‘Freedom of speech and the right to freedom of expression applies to ideas of all kinds including those that may be deeply offensive. But it comes with responsibilities and we believe it can be legitimately restricted.’
It goes on to say , ‘Governments have an obligation to prohibit hate speech and incitement to violence’. And that is largely what is enshrined in British law because to legislate against speech for any other reasons would threaten the freedom of speech for us all. However, with our right to speech comes the accompanying responsibility to listen and in the week in which we mark the International Day of Tolerance, ( November 16th), being prepared to listen maybe an important step towards greater tolerance which is a foundation stone of a more peaceful society.
In addition perhaps we have a responsibility to be more civil and kind towards one another. This is where morality rather than legislation has an important part to play which is the key message of the book ‘Morality’ by the late great former chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who died only last week. According to Jonathan Sacks the existence of liberal democratic freedom involves ‘emphasising responsibilities as well as rights, shared rules, not just individual choices, caring for others as well as for ourselves, and making space not just for self-interest but also the common good’. He goes on to say, ‘There is no liberty without morality, no freedom without responsibility….’ Amen to that.