Issue #197 / June 2022
What are your thoughts on free speech? Do you think it is a right?
LORRAINE, BERLIN, GERMANY
For fuck’s sake, enough of the God and Jesus bullshit!
JASON, LONDON, UK
Dear Lorraine and Jason,
We humans are subtle and chaotic creatures, full of ambiguities and contradictions, and it is this that makes up our distinctiveness. We are fully and necessarily different from each other, and even though we have the entirely human tendency to reduce each other to generalisations based on arbitrary categorisations of identity, such as race or religion or gender, we must resist as best we can, for it is uncharitable at best to deny any human their rightful individual sovereignty, their specialness. It is our distinctiveness that is the very thing that should be prized.
Each of us is an amalgam of all we have loved and lost and learned, our personal successes and failures, our particular regrets, and our singular joys – and part of that uniqueness is that we think in different ways. Not all of our thinking is right or fully formed, far from it, but there it is, regardless – that flawed and terrifying uniqueness of thought. So, it is little wonder that people adopt and signal a kind of protective groupthink, because our own true thoughts, at their most interesting, can be terrifying. In fact, humans are mostly distinct individuals thinking terrifying things.
I’m not so sure free speech is a right, but it is certainly a societal or cultural attainment, something we, as a community, can use to enliven, embolden and liberate the soul of our world, provided we are fortunate enough to live in a society that allows such a thing. To be able to speak freely is not only a benefit to oneself, by making us feel less alone, it is also a barometer of the health of our society, just as intolerance to opposing ideas indicates a feebleness or lack of confidence in one’s own thoughts and the ideas of our society. I support free speech, not so much because I think it is a right, but rather because it goes some way to validate our specialness. I am genuinely concerned by its alternative, the fearful flattening of ideas through the suppression of our individual natures, something that has become all too evident in almost every institution I can think of.
And so to Jesus, dear Jason. Jesus roamed the land expressing what were, at the time, considered dangerous and heretical ideas. He was literally the embodiment of the terrifying idea. He was followed around by a nervous coterie of muttering scribes and Sadducees whose purpose was to catch him out – expose not just His dangerous ideas, but to lay bare and persecute his uniqueness. They, of course, succeeded and Christ was cancelled upon the Cross. These impossible, dangerous ideas – to love your enemy, to love the poor, to forgive others – were terrifying and unconscionable and forbidden in His day, but became, in time, the better ideas that underpin the society in which many of us are lucky enough to live today. It is worth remembering that. I think we must be careful around our assumptions of what ideas we think are right and what ideas we think are wrong, and what we do with those ideas, because it is the terrifying idea – the shocking, offending, unique idea – that may just save the world.