23 september 2006


And many members repeated the saying often attributed to Voltaire: ‘I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Actually, as John Durham Peters points out in Courting the Abyss, there is no evidence that Voltaire ever said any such thing. An English writer, Beatrice Hall, writing under a male pseudonym in 1906, suggested that Voltaire’s attitude to the burning of a book written by Helvétius might be summed up: ‘How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was his attitude now.’ It was her readers – and countless civil libertarians afterwards – who made the mistake of attributing the saying to Voltaire himself.

Whoever said it, Peters has written an interesting and provocative book, exploring what might lie behind that smug liberal proclamation. To begin with, the language attributed to Voltaire is bewildering. ‘Defend to the death your right to say it?’ Whose death? How would death be involved? I guess its most attractive meaning is something like: ‘I will fight and, if need be, lay down my life for a Bill of Rights that may have this implication.’ A more troubling reading, however, is that Nazi speech is worth protecting even if a consequence of that protection is that someone gets hurt or killed. ‘I will defend your right to say it, even if your saying it makes violence more likely against the people attacked in your pamphlets.’ Is that what is meant? Defenders of free speech squirm on this point. On the one hand, they want to say that we should be willing to brave death for the sake of this important individual right. On the other hand, they assure us dogmatically that there is no clear evidence of any causal connection between, say, racist posters and incidents of racial violence, between pamphlets that say ‘Hitler should have finished the job’ and anti-semitic attacks, or between pornography and violence against women. Indeed, they pretend to have no idea of what such a causal mechanism could possibly be: ‘We are defending only the Nazis’ speech. How on earth could there be any connection between what they say and the things that some violent individuals do?’

It’s a strange dichotomy because, in other contexts, American civil liberties scholars have no difficulty at all in seeing a connection between speech and the possibility of violence. They point to it all the time as a way of justifying restrictions on citizens’ interventions at political gatherings. If Donald Rumsfeld comes to give a speech and someone in the audience shouts out that he is a war criminal, the heckler is quickly and forcibly removed. When I came to America, I was amazed that nobody thought this was a violation of the First Amendment. (Shouting comments at public meetings was another of my favourite pastimes when I was young and irresponsible.) But I was told by my American colleagues that heckling presages disorder, and disorder threatens security. There is a time and place for heckling – usually several blocks away in a pen set up by the police to ‘accommodate’ legitimate protest, which no one except the police and the protestors themselves, certainly not Donald Rumsfeld, has any prospect of hearing. And that’s all the First Amendment requires. So there is an odd combination of tolerance for the most hateful speech imaginable, on the one hand, and obsequious deference, on the other, to the choreography which our rulers judge essential for their occasional public appearances. The Nazis can disrupt the streets of Skokie, but those who disrupt Rumsfeld’s message will be carried away with the hands of secret service agents clamped over their mouths. I have given up trying to make sense of any of this.

Sólin skín sem aldrei fyrr. Ég niðrí bæ.


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