by Lev Tsitrin
To me, any essay in defense of free speech cannot be anything but good. Just as a sculpture made of gold is a thing of value simply by virtue of preciousness of its material irrespective of its aesthetics and artistry, the subject — freedom of speech — confers instant value to any essay about it.
And yet, there is more than the worth of material that gives value to a work — be it a sculpture or an essay. Excellent as it is, the passionate defense of free speech against those who would stifle it, offered in the recent “Naming the Unnameable: Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens and the Defence of Free Speech” left me with a nagging feeling of something missing, of the righteous passion that should have been more balanced by cold thought.
Needless to say, I am entirely in sympathy with its message of unacceptability of the threats to free speech exemplified in Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie for writing his “Satanic Verses,” and which culminated in a terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo when twelve people were gunned down for not showing the degree of reverence for Islam that its hard-core adherents think it deserves. And yet, I instinctively felt that its argument left much to be desired.
It took some time for this nagging felling to crystallize into a clear understanding of what was missing. It was the lack of understanding — and even worse, of the desire to understand, the rationale of the enemies of free speech. There was an unspoken assumption that ayatollahs and their ilk are a dark demonic force that cannot be comprehended by a person with a liberal Western mindset, that they are fanatics who cannot be reasoned with, exemplifying, to re-quote the author’s wonderful line from Hitchens, “dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation.”
I am not sure that’s all there is to it. Let’s ask ourselves, aren’t there topics that are unacceptable for the Western discourse, too? How many would seriously debate, giving equal time to the argument of each side, whether Earth is round or flat? Or whether it moves around the Sun, or the Sun moves around the Earth?
Very few will waste even a second of their time debating such matters. Why? Because they have been adequately settled. Yes, there was time when such debates were perfectly legitimate, when people did not know what was the shape of the Earth, or the configuration of the solar system. We all read, after all, about Galileo’s trial. But discussing it now? Its bonkers!
There is a time for everything — a time to have a debate, and a time to not waste any time on that same debate. What is settled, needs no further debating. Yes, free speech is essential for examining every side of an issue, is vital for establishing the truth, But once the facts have been fully established, what’s the use of a debate?
Simply put, the more knowledge we acquire, the less freedom there is left for debate. Settled knowledge limits what’s open for discussion.
We all obey this paradigm. Those for whom a particular subject is settled frown down on any attempt to debate it — for a simple reason that they deny that the issue is debatable, and see an attempt at having such debate as wasteful at best, or manifesting malice, mendacity, and hate at worst. There are Western countries that criminalize Holocaust denial, turning this particular lie into a hate crime. The impulse to suppress the discussion of what they believe is settled, drives the mainstream media to shoot down any earnest suggestion that there was fraud in the 2020 election, and when forced to mention a politician supporting this view, most journalists will append, “even though it was proven that there was no election fraud.”
Where the last word on the subject has been said, there is nothing further to add. So, even in the West, freedom of speech excludes matters that have been settled. And why won’t this attitude be universal? To Communists, it is self-evident that Marx/Lenin/Stalin/Mao settled all questions of social development, proving conclusively that Communism is the ultimate form of humanity’s existence and organization. What’s there to debate when it was settled beyond reasonable doubt that Communism is our common destiny? To Communists, having a debate about Communism is perverse. Likewise, ayatollahs see any doubt that Mohammed was a prophet as perverse and vile. To them, the question of human destiny is settled, too — it will come to fruition after glorious re-appearance of the Mahdi who spent the last twelve hundred years in hiding. This being fully proven; free speech is inapplicable.
Yes, Communists and Islamists do hate free speech — but that hate is not irrational, and not even self-serving, as we in the West assume. On the contrary, they reason exactly as we do. Just like us, they simply exclude what’s settled from the realm of discourse.
This commonality of approach points to a way forward. Rather than merely rail at them as representing “dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation,” we should simply tell the Communists and the Islamists that what they assume is proven and settled, isn’t settled at all, and keep proving that by examining their views, and pointing to holes in their reasoning. Luckily, it is very easy to do: the central, although unspoken, premise of Islamism, that one can know that Mohammed was a prophet, is factually wrong. And Marx and his followers weren’t particularly profound thinkers, the philosophy they developed having a great many lapses in reasoning, each fatal to the system they built — and those holes can be easily exposed.
All this reminds me of a moment in Shakespeare’s Hamlet where king Claudius, knowing full well his guilt, becomes suspicious of Hamlet who has apparently gone mad, astutely observing that “there is method to his madness.” Unlike that of Shakespeare’s Claudius, criminality of Communism and Islamism is open for all to see, and we have every reason in the world to be mad at them, the 9/11, and subsequent Islamist attacks fully justifying it — but unlike Hamlet’s, our madness has no method to it at all.
Why? We seem to have convinced ourselves that our opponents are irrational, and not amenable to an argument. Not so. They are exactly as rational as we are; but they made a mistake in seeing as settled, and unavailable for debate, what is not settled at all, and is very much debatable. And it is up to us to prove it — by examining their views, and using western habit of free thought and free speech to debunk their errors.
This is where our focus should be. Mohammed cartoons that are the most salient free speech sally against Islamism, and which became the focal point of defense of Western free speech, are mere flailing in the dark. They do not provide a much-needed rebuttal of the fatal error in Islamist thinking. They sting and enrage the Islamists, but they don’t make them think — while it is thinking that is the source, and the desired result, of free speech. To be of any good use, to provide a positive outcome, our rightful and righteous “madness” need to have a “method” — a focused method of rational exposure of the errors of our enemies. Like any valuable resource, free speech can be wasted — or it can be used for a good purpose, providing good outcome. Let us use it in a rational discourse, rather than waste it in self-defeating expressions of “free speech” for its own sake.
Lev Tsitrin is the author of pseudonymously-published “The Pitfall of Truth: Holy War, its Rationale and Folly”