Chapter 2 - Freedom of Speech and Expression

Posted in The Forgotten People

The Four Freedoms
Freedom of Speech and Expression

Speaking last year, President Roosevelt, in discussing the things at stake in this war, made use of an expression - "The Four Freedoms" - which has now found currency in most of our mouths. The four freedoms to which he referred were: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear.

One has only to state them to get a response from the listener. Every one of us will at once say, "Ah yes, I believe in those freedoms. The President is right." That the President is right I have no doubt myself; but that we either fully understand or believe in these freedoms is open to some question.

I propose therefore, in this and my next few broadcasts, to take each of these four freedoms and in turn, endeavour to get at its meaning and significance, and work out what it involves in our own living and thinking.

Tonight, then, I take the first freedom - freedom of speech and expression - which connotes also freedom of thought. This is a magnificent ideal, but what does it mean?

Let us, on the threshold of our consideration, remember that the whole essence of freedom is that it is freedom for others as well as for ourselves: freedom for people who disagree with us as well as for our supporters; freedom for minorities as well as for majorities. Here we have a conception which is not born with us but which we must painfully acquire. Most of us have no instinct at all to preserve the right of the other fellow to think what he likes about our beliefs and say what he likes about our opinions. The more primitive the community the less freedom of thought and expression is it likely to concede.

All things considered, the worst crime of fascism and its twin brother, German national socialism, is their suppression of free thought and free speech. It is one of the many proofs that, with all their cleverness, they are primitive and reactionary movements. One of the first actions of the Nazis in Germany was to regiment the newspapers by telling them exactly what they could print. The result was that newspaper controversy came to an end, since all sang the same tune. When I was in Berlin in 1938 I mentioned this phenomenon to a high German official of the Foreign Office and, with about the one gleam of humour that I encountered on that visit, he replied that he thought it quite' a good idea, since it saved buying more than one newspaper. As you probably know, I am one who has in recent years had a severe battering from many newspapers, but I am still shocked to think that intelligent men, in what they believe to be a free country, can deny to the newspapers or to critics of any degree the right to batter at people or policies whom they dislike or of whom they disapprove.

Now, why is this freedom of real importance to humanity? The answer is that what appears to be today's truth is frequently tomorrow's error. There is nothing absolute about the truth. It is elusive. In the old phrase, "it lies at the bottom of a deep well". It is hard to come at. So few of us have objective minds - detached minds - and what we conceive to be the truth is very often coloured or distorted by our own passions or interests or prejudices. Hence, if truth is to emerge and in the long run be triumphant, the process of free debate - the untrammelled clash of opinion - must go on.

There are fascist tendencies in all countries - a sort of latent tyranny. And they exist, be it remembered, in radical as well as in conservative quarters. Suppression of attack, which is based upon suppression of really free thought, is the instinctive weapon of the vested interest. And vested interests are not all one way. We have, for example, waged a fairly successful war against profit-making vested interests in the last two or three years; the war has placed an almost crushing burden upon them. But it would be indeed a casual observer who failed to notice that the vested interests of the great trade unions are growing. All these interests must remember - and so must we who are ordinary members of the public - that great groups which feel their power are at once subject to tremendous temptations to use that power so as to limit the freedom of others.

Many of you will recall John Stuart Mill's famous essay on Liberty, which was published eighty-three years ago, but is still full of freshness and truth. In the course of that essay Mill stated many principles, four of which I should like to put to you in his own words. First:

There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.

What is being pointed to in that passage is the easily forgotten truth that the despotism of a majority may be just as bad as the despotism of one man. Public opinion in a reasonable educated community will, I believe, in the long run over a term of years, tend to be sound and just; but public day-to-day opinion, which must frequently be ill-informed, is quite capable of being not only wrong, but so extravagant as to be unjust and oppressive.

My second passage from Mill is this:

The principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Here again we have a pregnant truth. It is a good rule, not only of common law but of social morality, that we must so use our own as not to injure others. The man who claims too much aggressive liberty for himself may be getting it at the expense of somebody else. Liberty is for all, not for some.

Mill next says:

As the tendency of all changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable.

I find this passage particularly illuminating. Fascism and the Nazi movement are both based on social philosophy which elevates the all-powerful State and makes the rights of the individual, not matters of inherent dignity but matters merely of concession by the State. Each says to the ordinary citizen, "Your rights are not those you were born with, but those which of our kindness we allow you." It is good to be reminded by Mill that this tendency is not confined to any one country. As the organization of society becomes more complex we must be increasingly vigilant for the freedom of our minds and spirits.

My final passage from Mill is this:

Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action: and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.

In other words, it is a poorly founded and weakly held belief which cannot resist the onset of another man's critical mind.

There are, without doubt, limits on all these matters in time of war. When the battle is on, when nations are in a death struggle with other nations, the supremacy of the national security is clear and undoubted. That is the whole justification for wartime censorship, as well as the element that sets limits to it.

But even in time of war we must watch these things. You will agree that I speak as one with some practical - occasionally painful - experience, when I say that the arrow of the critic is never pleasant and is sometimes poisoned. Much criticism is acutely partisan or actually unjust. But every man engaged in public affairs must sustain it with a good courage and a cheerful heart. He may, if he can, confute his critic, but he must not suppress him. Power is apt to produce a kind of drunkenness, and it needs the cold douche of the critic to correct it.

There are, at times like these, temptations towards political censorship or, what is just as bad, politically conscious censorship. The temptation towards suppression of thought and speech is greatest of all in time of war because at such a time people say, "Let us have strength!" - all too frequently meaning, by "strength", suppression; whereas the truth is that it requires more strength of character to sustain adverse or bitter criticism than to say, with a grand gesture, "Off with the critic's head!"

We are, if we take thought about them, conscious of certain facts. It requires great moral courage to put an unpopular view in Parliament or on the platform; to speak and vote against a popular but foolish strike at a union meeting; to denounce social evils amid the disturbed and relaxed social conditions and standards of war.

All these things are proof that we are as yet far short of really understanding or practising President Roosevelt's first freedom.

In a few minutes one can do little more than indicate the nature of the problem. But it is clear that it gives us much food for thought and self-examination.

Of all the countries I have visited, England is the one where freedom of thought and expression is best understood. And that fact has given to the English people a wide tolerance of opinion and a quiet wisdom of understanding that we have yet to achieve.

19 June, 1942