Sunday, September 18, 2016

Free Speech

Jacques-Louis David
Deputies swearing oaths
Musée National du Château de Versailles

"The commercial democracies in the West have come to be of two minds about free speech. This condition is ratified continually and it remains hidden in plain view; one can feel by now that the pattern almost defies introspection and cure. Freedom is the international face we prepare to meet the faces that we meet  and on that stage the great principle is often restated. The vainglory of adopting free speech as a banner-slogan is recognized but the temptation to strut is not altogether avoided. And yet in our private conduct, and especially in educational institutions where the manners of public debate are learned, the ethic of free speech has taken a very different turn. People know that their words are monitored, beyond their power to calibrate, and the respectable are more cautious than ever before. They take great care not to speak bluntly. ... In the small change of conversation, in the corporate, professional or academic milieu, a remark signalling strong disagreement is taken to be an impoliteness. The first article of workplace wisdom is that any gesture or word that might cause friction is 'unhelpful'."

 David Bromwich, London Review of Books, 22 September 2016