As NZ’s Internal Affairs Department takes steps to regulate content of our online media and social platforms it is worth remembering how important freedom of expression is to human existence. It acts as a natural check and balance over our ideas and actions, given that people have the power of influence with each other.
By Olivia Pierson
WE MUST SPEAK FREELY, IT'S HOLY GROUND
“To preserve the freedom of the human mind then & freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will, & speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.”
Enlightenment hero Thomas Jefferson wrote these words in a letter to his friend William G Munford as they discussed the importance of science and advancing a culture of freedom for early America.
It is instructive how closely linked freedom of speech was to freedom of thought in Jefferson’s mind. The realm of thoughts and ideas is a sacred realm which literally no man, no tyrant, no outside oppressor can touch, simply because it happens in the privacy of our own heads. Our words to each other are an expression of those thoughts and ideas, but also a buffer zone separating thoughts from actions.
Think of free speech as a midway point, a natural regulator, between thoughts and actions. It remains the proper symposium to challenge ourselves and others as to which actions should be rightly acted upon, and which should be disregarded as improper. It is so important as a human principle that Jefferson felt every person in a free society should be ready to devote themselves to martyrdom in order to preserve it. Free speech serves as a robust bulwark to fine tune the thinking of human beings before we take actions which may be ill considered or cause harm. Free speech truly is holy ground – and I do not invoke the use of a religious vernacular mindlessly.
Note that whenever a totalitarian regime of government asserts control over a nation of people, free speech is always the first brutal casualty. During the 20th Century alone we can draw on many instances of this spectre: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, Hussein’s Iraq, Assad’s Syria, the Al Saud’s Arabia, Khomeini’s Iran and the Kim Dynasty’s North Korea.
In the West, freedom of speech is a daily hallmark of our civilisation, and with it has always been the freedom to offend. We may absolutely detest the nonsense which spews out of other people’s mouths – but we have to fight it within the realm of our wits with the expression of a better idea, not with our fists and not with our guns and knives.
The traditional places of debate in the West – its parliaments, senates and universities have always been robustly loud in their expressed disagreement to the forces of opposition, and this is how it should be. When opposition cannot be verbally expressed, what follows is either repressed, dead subservience or outright destructive violence.
I am reminded of the formidable Dame Maggie Thatcher’s wonderful words in the 2012 film, “The Iron Lady,” where there is a gem of a moment when she says during her doctor’s visit, “Watch your thoughts, because your thoughts become your words; watch your words because your words become your actions; watch your actions because your actions become your habits; watch your habits because your habits become your character; watch your character because your character becomes your destiny. Our thoughts become our reality.”
Watching ourselves voluntarily is not the same thing as being censored by others – a call to be cautious over our thoughts and words should not be misconstrued as a call to repress them for the sake of the feelings of others. If we cannot be free to submit our thoughts to expression and argument, how can we ever be free to watch them?
Thomas Jefferson believed, rightly I think, that the condition of man would proceed in improvement if we “may think as we will, & speak as we think,” for the expression of our thoughts engage natural checks and balances from the thoughts and words of others, which is a value in and of itself. When it comes to something as crucial as our reality, checks and balances are pure gold – free speech being one of the most cherished. Human beings have the power of influence with each other and there is nothing wrong with that – indeed, inside a culture where people clamour, remonstrate and vociferate, it is an enormous gift to a free people.
If you enjoyed this article you may be interested in my book: “Western Values Defended: A Primer”