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.

Our economic system, our prevailing rights of property and methods of distributing wealth, may be freely dealt with, and the Socialist has his say so long as he does not choose an acute labor crisis as the occasion for expressing his mind. Lastly, marriage, the family, and the relations of the sexes, are rapidly freeing themselves from the reticences of our rather prudish traditions. The recent agitations in regard to methods of contraception indicate clearly that there is still a good deal of old-fashioned frantic obscurantism; but the work of Havelock Ellis has proved that even the most intimate and usually repulsive details of sexual relations, normal and abnormal, can be presented in a spirit at once high-minded, scientific, and sympathetic. Then, too, all the speculations which are associated with Freud's name have given a certain dignity to what might formerly have been regarded as prurient reveries. The modern story and drama are also serving to diminish the importance of the impurity complex.

When one reviews the history of toleration and of freedom of thought, one has no reason to be discouraged. The issue of free speech is really modern, and emerged clearly as a defensible proposition only with Milton's Areopagitica, to be followed by the widely divergent reasoning of Jeremy Taylor and Joseph Glanvil, and by Locke's classical first Letter on Toleration (1689), which says almost the last word on the matter so far as religious differences are concerned. Natural science and philosophy have gradually escaped from the control of an antiquated theology, and it is a good while since any one has been imprisoned for his scientific or philosophical views.

English experience and the democratic revolutions, beginning with the first French Revolution, have served to assure practical freedom in the discussion of current political questions; which is a gain of incalculable importance. Finally, the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century has opened up such fundamental matters as the limits of private ownership, the apportionment of profits, the implications of the new position in which woman finds herself, her place in the family, and her general relations with the other sex.

The world-war has greatly deepened our study of the State and has forced us to consider, not merely the old questions as to how it should be governed, whether by a king, an aristocracy, or democratically, but whether the national state as now conceived is not a product of particular historical conditions which are passing away, and whether it is not coming to be an anachronism and the chief obstacle in the way of the permanent peace for which we all sigh.

It is clear that the extension of public discussion to matters hitherto deemed too fundamental and sacred to be questioned is a secular process, extending through the centuries, which is widening the range of our thought and speculation malgré nous. In the beginning, social relations and religious beliefs changed so slowly that there was no idea of progress and improvement, only of degeneration, since the old have always been prone, for rather obvious psychological reasons, to suspect that things were brighter and nobler in their youth than in their years of decline. The Greek and Roman writers tried in some cases to account for the manner in which man had reached the condition in which they found him, but they did not look at themselves as contributing to or hindering advance. Indeed, the notion that man can learn more and more of the world in which he lives, of the nature and workings of natural things, and that he may succeed in applying his knowledge to better his estate was not very clearly stated until Lord Bacon's Advancement of Learning appeared, in 1605. This truth has become a commonplace with us now, and we see on every side multiform demonstrations of its validity.

Nevertheless few people as yet realize that the great increase in our knowledge of man and the world, and the practical revolution that this knowledge is making in our environment, may in time discredit practically all the opinions and beliefs which have been handed down to us from the Middle Ages and earlier times. How much of contemporaneous thought, widely accepted as peculiarly binding and sacred, was formulated for us in the decadent Roman Empire and transmitted to the Middle Ages, only a student of intellectual history is likely to appreciate. He is constantly impressed with the fact that thought, instead of taking the lead, too often lags behind the procession of outward changes, and tardily and grudgingly adjusts itself to them.

To take a good illustration, the principles of International Law were set down by Grotius in the first half of the seventeenth century with such insight and astuteness that his work became a classic. But there were no standing armies of highly trained conscripts in his day, no nations in arms, no strong national feeling, no monster guns, no steel ships driven by steam or oil, no such deadly explosives as modern chemistry has discovered. As yet war was carried on neither in the blue heavens nor beneath the ocean wave. Distant colonies and defenseless peoples in Asia and Africa had not yet become objects of European exploitation on any considerable scale. As yet there were no Quakers to denounce war altogether, and to found the line of conscientious objectors; no Voltaire to admire them and spread the fame of their good sense and humanity among the philosophers. What could Grotius know of the causes and etiquette of war as we know it, or of the conditions essential to the peace which it devolves upon us to hasten? Yet, if I am not mistaken, many of the cherished principles of international law as it was treated before the war were derived from the Dutch jurist and his De Jure Belli et Pacis, published n 1625.

Nothing could be less intelligent than to assume, as many respectable persons still manage to do, that the forms of agitation which are popularly summed up in the terms socialism, anarchism, feminism, and pacificism are mere eccentricities of unbalanced minds, seeking to cloak their hatred of restraint and their cowardice under theories of social regeneration. All these movements are simply indices of altered conditions produced by modern applied science, and the new vistas of necessary adaptation which these have opened.

The patience of even the most tolerant is bound to be sorely taxed. Old-fashioned toleration of religious dissent and of political views, which is now pretty generally established, as well as the freedom of scientific and philosophical speculation, are no longer sufficient. Pascal remarked that, if the earth were turning on its axis, the decisions of the Roman Curia would not stop it. If the terms and conditions of human relationship, private, national, and international, are being revolutionized, as they obviously are, the protests of distracted reactionaries cannot check the process; they can serve only to render the adjustments slower, more bungling and circuitous, than they would otherwise be.

Were there time, it might be shown by glaring historical instances that it is the conservatives, not the reformers, who have hitherto been responsible for disorder and bloodshed; who organize inquisitions and censorships, Albigensian crusades and massacres of St. Bartholomew. It may be that this is only because they have always constituted the dominant party; that those advocating change may some day become so numerous and so well organized that they too may be in a position to coerce the laggards. As yet only a few minor attempts, the gravity of which has been grossly exaggerated by the heated imaginations and fears of the conservative, can be charged up against them. It might be shown that the horrors of the present war are largely due to the perpetuation of outworn institutions, of discredited ambitions, and of illicit national aspirations.

Burke, if I remember rightly, feared lest, if the foundations of the State were really revealed, they would be found to be so insubstantial that anarchy might supervene, and he concludes therefore that they should always be shrouded in mystery. We are now beginning to see that man is not naturally an unruly animal; on the contrary, he is, perhaps, o'er docile, o'er solicitous in regard to the esteem of his fellows. He has always been readily enslaved, and the curtain of history rises on tens of thousands of laborious Egyptians, neglecting their own convenience to drag great blocks of limestone to construct a suitable home for their ruler when he should pass to the realms of the sun.

Our inborn subservience is reinforced by the ineffaceable impressions of childhood's dependence. Man spontaneously generates social order and reveres his guides and rulers. He has always been cowed by the wishes of his ancestors and by the writings of ancient sages. He is not naturally anarchic and is not likely ever to become so.

Personally, I am convinced that modern conditions are far more favorable than any previous state of the world for the rapid extension of an unprecedented degree of toleration, and that the revived restraints due to the war are transient, and need not be a serious cause of apprehension to any one, however irritating they may appear to those who regard them as foolish and unnecessary.

One may reach such a stage of intellectual emancipation that he exempts nothing from scrutiny; he perceives that the spheres in which mankind has made the most startling achievements in human coördination and effectiveness are those from which all notions of reverence, except for intelligence and success, have been eliminated. Only when that ancient, savage term 'sacred' disappears from our thought and speech, except as a reminder of outlived superstition, can we hope for a full and generous acknowledgment of the essential rôle of absolutely free discussion.

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