August 2015
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Free Speech and Responsibility

by Jonathan Wallace

The following is an excerpt from a book I have been working on called The Idea of Free Speech. As a synonym for "free speech", I often use the Greek word "parrhesia", which literally translates as "franchise" or "truthful speech". While "free speech" or "freedom of speech" carry a lot of baggage, about rights and rule-sets, the Greek word simply implies a quality of being outspoken and honest, which is why I prefer to use it in essays like this one. A "parrhesiastes" is a truth-teller. A "sophist" (also a Greek coinage) is someone who deploys words skilfully to "make the worse appear the better cause".

Responsibility has become a truism, the subject of a high school principal's commencement speech, that rights are balanced by, etc. Our eyes glaze over; there may be no word so calculated to get an adolescent thinking about the last episode of Survivor or next Saturday night's party.

I had a personal epiphany about citizenship and responsibility while hiking the Long Trail in Vermont in 1980. Volunteers constituted as a trail maintenance society had built wooden lean-to's every seven miles or so along the three hundred mile trail. Any lean-to that was within a short walk of a road was trashed, full of garbage and graffiti. Hedonistic kids with cars were using them for party shacks, had not worked hard to get there and never expected to see them again (nor did they care about anyone else who might need shelter). Lean-to's located five miles from a road were immaculate.They were used only by people who had walked there, which is hard work especially if you are carrying a fifty pound pack. You were always glad to see them in perfect shape, and you left them in the same condition for the next person.The word was that the trail maintenance people were planning to remove all the lean-to's that were near highways.

This is not an absolute rule of the universe, but I detect a relationship between parrhesia and personal responsibility, and between sophistry and the denial of same. President Truman famously had a sign on his desk, “The Buck Stops Here”. When Oppenheimer agonized in the Oval Office about having dropped the bomb on Japan, Truman eased him out and told his people never to let him in again: “He didn't drop the bomb. I did”. Most Presidents since Truman seem to have a slogan, “The buck stops anywhere but here”; Reagan's “mistakes were made” is a classic diffusion of responsibility into the vague environment. In our time, human agency is often deflected or ignored, in press coverage and power-speech; events as disparate as financial slumps and global climate change are treated as acts of God and not attributed to any human choices which could be outlawed or regulated.

One element of being a parrhesiastes is to take responsibility. One would not trust the franchise of someone who was truthful about everyone else, but never about herself. One of the things we do to delude ourselves is to see truth and behavior as compartmentalized, available and secure in one realm while disregarded in another. A classic example, enduring for centuries, is the idea that good and honest men can lie to and cheat on their wives. Ross Perot hit on something when he said that any man who would lie to his wife would lie to anyone else without a second thought.

Sophists, by contrast, invest a lot of their energy and wordage denying responsibility, or placing it on someone else. Hofstadter-style paranoids build elaborate, well-footnoted structures to attribute our societal failures to enemy action. The battleship Maine could not possibly have blown up because it was designed and maintained so that explosives could leak flammable gases near open flames; it must have been those dastardly Spaniards with a submerged mine. The Libertarian philosophy has an elegant theorem, which blames any chaotic condition, such as civil war in Somalia, not on human greed, ambition and Bloodymindedness, but on whatever shreds or vestiges of government are still in the environment.

Whenever "responsibility" is mentioned, like "toleration" or "public opinion", the freedom of speech is hovering somewhere nearby. People who are frank and truthful take responsibility. In so doing, they are exercising parrhesia, often saying something painful, unpleasant and, in many cases, offensive to others.

A side-effect of increases in technological power is the ability or tendency to cause wide-spread, long term and very subtle damage for which responsibility is hard to trace. The melt-down at Chernobyl is thought by scientists to have caused tens of thousands of additional cancer deaths world-wide. Yet, no particular individual contracting cancer outside of Russia can ever know she would have lived but for Chernobyl.

Global climate change is our century's main battleground between parrhesiastes and sophists. All parrhesiastes, like Tolstoy's happy families, are more or less alike, but there are examples of every kind of sophist in the fight: those who ridiculously comfort themselves by saying that God would never permit us to destroy our planet, so it can't be happening (at least one of whom serves in the U.S. Senate); the Hofstadterian paranoids, who claim that climate change theories are the product of an elaborate socialist conspiracy; and the more reasonable-sounding avoiders of responsibility, who, when asked about climate change by a reporter, use the stock reply, “I'm not a scientist”.

Richard Hofstadter, in another work, traced the latest elucidation of the American parrhesiastes' concept of responsibility to the Pro-Pro's, the progressive Protestants of the nineteenth century. “The modern sinners could not see the results of their own acts because these would be remote in time and space. Therefore it was necessary to become ever so much more imaginative than formerly in appraising one’s own sin and those of others”. Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (New York: Vintage Books 1955) p. 205 fn 8

Free speech and taking responsibility are two of the most important planks in my belief system; but I now also understand that they are joined at the hip, that you can't have either without the other.