When Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote ‘I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ she summarized Voltaire’s position on freedom of thought and speech. Echoing through Voltaire the thoughts and philosophies of the Enlightenment that had built on the works of Descartes, Hobbes, Locke and so many others striving to move society from a superstitious theocracy into a rational society of people offering a fairer and more just world in which we could live.
The influence of enlightened thought cannot be denied and it and the ideal of liberty, equality, fraternity was the foundation for the US Constitution and, soon after, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
Freedom of thought and speech is explicit in the US Constitution and precisely laid out in the Rights of Man, ‘The free communication of thoughts and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man: any citizen thus may speak, write, print freely’.
OK, that was then, almost 400 years ago, and this is now. What does the prattling of a load of old blokes in wigs have to do with today?
The Rights of Man, the US Constitution and many other writings and declarations inspired the liberal democracies in which many of us now live. The same ideal is found 200 years later in 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’
That ideal is, in my view, one of the most important things to have been handed down to us. And one of the things that we are in gravest danger of losing.
Governments around the world crush dissent, people are not allowed to voice opinions for fear of being arrested and imprisoned.
All these things happen in intolerant societies don’t they?
Not really, for the same fear of ideas is driving dissent in the West as well. Many of those espousing the idea of tolerance have become the most intolerant not only because they refuse to listen to opposing views, but actively seek to silence what they perceive as dissent or offense. Only Newspeak is allowed and they will fight, not in Voltaire’s shadow to protect freedom of thought and speech, but to stop it. By refusing platforms to speak, they become the most bigoted of all. They seemingly lack the intelligence or maturity to understand that the only way to counter bad ideas is to understand them and defeat them with reason and logic not with guns and sticks. More so, disagreement doesn’t make something wrong it is just a different opinion.
I’ll leave you with two quotes.
‘Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don’t let our people have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?’ Stalin
And one that is attributable to Voltaire: ‘Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.’