“I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The quote above is often — and erroneously — attributed to François-Marie Arouet, better known by his pen name of Voltaire, and American patriot Patrick Henry.
There is no evidence to suggest either man actually wrote or said those words, but it can be argued that the statement accurately captures their philosophies.
The actual writer who coined the phrase was Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who included it in her 1906 biography of the French writer, titled “The Friends of Voltaire.” Hall felt the words illustrated his beliefs.
By now, you might be wondering where this odd little history lesson is going. But if you’ve been paying attention to current events, maybe you’ve already figured out why we need a refresher on free speech.
Somewhere along the line, we’ve drifted so far from the philosophies that guided the lives of Voltaire and Henry — better known for his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech — that neither man would recognize us. If Hall and those who’ve written about Henry are to be believed, both men would find it challenging to exist in today’s world. Both might be pariahs in the 21st century.
They’d likely be cast off Twitter and banned from Facebook. Voltaire would probably find that YouTube has banned his videos or at least de-monetized his channel. Henry might have dumped Twitter and moved to Parler and found himself labeled as a right-wing terrorist.
Defend your right to say it? Ha! Not anymore, pal.
Say the wrong thing today and you not only risk being banned from your favorite social-media platform, but there is a good chance you’ll be canceled like a bad sitcom.
America no longer seems full of people with different ideological beliefs agreeing to disagree and yet somehow are still willing to defend their opponents’ right to be heard.
Instead, we’ve devolved into partisan political tribes whose goal isn’t to co-exist with the other side, but to snuff out ideas that are not in complete lockstep with our own. We’d rather live in an echo chamber than try to win in the arena of ideas.
Winning no longer means your ideas carry the day and inspire the masses. It means enacting rules and regulations — some of them draconian — that shut down your opponents.
Now you probably get where this is going — to a scary place where some self-appointed arbiters decide what can and cannot be said. Freedom of speech isn’t just supposed to protect speech everyone agrees with — it exists to protect speech that is so objectionable, it can leave us apoplectic.
This is not a defense of the tweets and posts that got former President Donald Trump and others banned from Twitter and Facebook and later resulted in the largely conservative Parler platform being dropped by Amazon Web Services. Nor should it be interpreted as a defense of the miscreants and felons who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Those criminals should be identified and prosecuted.
Deliberate misinformation and lies should not be tolerated. There is a reason you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. And political violence — no matter the motivation — should be stopped.
Given all that, it is interesting that thousands of troops remain on the ground in Washington weeks after the Capitol breach. But when federal officers were dispatched to Portland, Oregon last summer to protect a U.S. government building under siege, it was considered a fascist move by then-President Trump. If it was wrong to storm the Capitol — and it most assuredly was — then it was also wrong to burn, loot and pillage various American cities in the name of George Floyd and other victims of police brutality.
People are going to approach all these issues from different angles. That has always been the case. Until recently, we’ve been able to have these differences of opinion and co-exist. But increasingly, we seem to be lurching crazily toward lumping legitimate ideas and philosophies in with the Q-Anons and hate groups and casting others as socialists or communists, depending on your viewpoint.
Is it even possible any longer that there are legitimate political and social ideas that may differ from the long-held views of others, but are not seditious?
What would Voltaire and Patrick Henry say if they could see us now? Would they disapprove of our idiocy, but defend to the death our right to be idiots?
ED PUSKAS is Editor of The Star Beacon. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @Ed_Puskas.