The Threatened Eclipse of Free Speech

"When we start out to kill enemies abroad on a gigantic scale, we are not likely to hesitate to gag those at home who seem directly or indirectly to sympathize with the foe." In 1917 an Atlantic contributor warned of the dangers of abridging free speech during wartime.

It may be urged further that war is a very ancient expedient and will bring its inevitable ancient accompaniments. When we start out to kill enemies abroad on a gigantic scale, we are not likely to hesitate to gag those at home who seem directly or indirectly to sympathize with the foe. But just here we may well stop and make a couple of distinctions.

In the first place difference of opinion is not necessarily disloyalty. This name is now applied with the utmost abandon; much as 'atheist' was once used to defame any one who differed from the generally accepted religious doctrines, no matter how fervently he believed in God and the Bible. Some people in the United States wish Germany to be victorious; to express this wish publicly, or to do anything with a view of hampering the efficiency of our preparations for war, or to transmit useful information to the enemy, would certainly be disloyal, not to say treasonable. Those, however, who continue to say that they wish we had not entered the war; that some other less horrible policy might have been selected; that war has never yet begotten lasting peace but only new war; that some men loathe shooting their fellow men under government auspices in the same sickening way that they would loathe private murder—such persons are in no way treasonable, and disloyal only in the sense of failing eagerly to coöperate with the majority in a crisis. To accuse them of 'giving aid and comfort to the enemy' is not only to use this legal expression in just the sense that it was designed to preclude,—namely, constructive treason,—but the charge might facetiously be brought against President Wilson himself, who, by distinguishing between the German people and their government, has, according to the Germans themselves, only solidified their intimate union and fortified their resolution to defend their beloved ruler to the end.

It is this confusion between real traitors on the one hand, and on the other hand those persons whose human sympathy and idealism outrun the common bounds, that fills many of us with dismay. Few readers will feel any misgivings in regard to measures, however harsh, taken against the first group; it is the second category that raises the question of freedom of speech and its proper restraint in war-times.


There is another consideration which must not be neglected in any discussion of free speech, whether in peace or war; and that is the time, place, and manner in which talking is carried on. Speech is, after all, only one phase of our general behavior. It may be used to give information, to present various interests and points of view, to clarify problems, and to suggest solutions. On the other hand, it may degenerate into violence, gross misrepresentation, and confusion. Human speech is derived directly from the various noises that our humbler kinsmen in the animal world are wont to make. We can growl, snarl, bark, whine, cackle, and purr, articulately as well as inarticulately. Talk enables us to warn, frighten, conciliate, threaten, soothe, and startle our fellow beings. In the beginning language was made up of vocal gestures which gave relief to fundamental emotions. It still serves this purpose and will continue to do so, in sæcula sæculorum.

What passes for reasoning on most occasions is a series of vocal sounds which serve—to use a phrase at once popular and scientific—to 'relieve our minds.' Arguments employed in political addresses, sermons, and newspaper editorials are commonly little more than mere ejaculations, called forth by feelings of approval or disapproval, comfort or alarm.

Language is also an ingenious substitute for other and more laborious forms of action. A purely verbal attack often produces the same attractive results that might be looked for from a bodily encounter, and with none of its hazards. It gives the weak and timid a weapon for vanquishing the strong. One can arraign and punish whole nations in this way, without shedding a drop of blood. Those who are wont to be frightened by violent talk should realize that the more violent it is, the less dangerous. The very utterance of one's feelings produces a sort of Aristotelian catharsis, relieves the tension, and reconciles the speaker to inaction. If we do not approve of the talk, we are tempted to declare that it is a menace to morals and public order; but it is the talk that disconcerts us, rather than any appreciable risk that it will take the form of actual physical violence. Why cannot we learn that most people are continually saying things that they have no intention of doing, and of urging others to do things which they well know will not be done? The very freedom of speech is commonly its own antidote, and so should logically be welcomed by all those who would have the existing order remain undisturbed.

If speech were confined to cool reasoning, it would attract but little attention and would rouse little objection, whatever might be said. But since it is primarily or exclusively an expression of feelings and sympathies, of approbation and hostility, it will always be offensive so far as it does not suit the tastes and accord with the habits of those who listen to it. It will inevitably be judged as polite or impolite, courteous or inconsiderate, gracious or insulting, godly or impious. Now such adjectives as these are inapplicable when we are employing our powers of speech, as we now and then do, for real reasoning—analyzing complicated situations, making distinctions, agreeing on definitions, and seeking the proper educations and inferences to be made from new knowledge. Conclusions that we express in regard to the constitution of the atom, the construction of a carbureter, the obligations of neutrality, the historic development of marriage, or the nature of the modern state, should not aim to be polite or impolite, gracious or rude; they should aim to be what we call true. But strangely enough most of us most of the time are really quite indifferent to truth, and are using language in the old, primitive way as a signal of agreement or disagreement. We become partisans before we realize it. We get pledged to beliefs we know not how, and they become dear to us by reason of their familiarity and associations. When they are questioned, we are outraged, and rush to their defense in the name of truth. Our hypocrisy is too deep and impulsive for us to detect. Our beliefs are not the result of reasoning, as we fondly conceive in our childlike innocence of the processes of the mind; they are, on the contrary, the motives which prompt us to 'rationalize'—that is to discover plausible grounds for continuing to believe what we wish.

In practice, those are very few who have any inclination to talk in a way that is likely to lead to their arrest, or to express their indecencies with so little subtlety as to attract the attention of the postal officials and guardians of the public purity. The censor is commonly slow-footed and heavy-eyed, for otherwise he would not aspire to his rôle. It is not hard to elude him; one need only avoid a few phrases which he has learned to recognize as wicked or dangerous, and express one's self with a little freshness, or resort to irony, or a scientific phraseology, in order to be quite safe. Indeed, one cannot avoid at times lamenting the decay of censorship, which in the eighteenth century was the occasion of much humorous pussyfooting on the part of Diderot, Voltaire, Gibbon, and the rest; a source of innocent pleasure to themselves and their discriminating readers.

At present, all things may be said and printed if only time and circumstance be somewhat carefully considered. One may reject every vestige, not only of Christianity but of all religious belief, even the existence of God and the life to come; and there are many occasions on which this privilege can be exercised. Indeed, except for blasphemy, which is a sort of breach of good order, no arrests or exclusions from the mails are likely to take place, unless one's negations are accompanied by seditious or otherwise shocking remarks. One can always criticize and attack the policy of all government officials, from the President of the United States down to the local coroner; they can safely be denounced as knaves, fools, and, latterly, even as traitors. One can pick flaws in our Constitution and the courts which interpret it; one can even question the expediency of the State itself, as now understood; but one would better not be associating with supposed anarchists when so doing.

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