Free Speech, Equality, and Tolerance Are Mutually Reinforcing: A Conversation with Jacob Mchangama

In this conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Jacob Mchangama discusses central ideas of his new monograph Free Speech: A Global History from Socrates to Social Media. The conversation reflects on how to write a global history of this subject; contrasts egalitarian and elitist conceptions of free speech; explores facets of the free speech recession experienced in the early 21st century; and explains why the counterintuitive principle of free speech should be seen as essential.

Jacob Mchangama is a Danish lawyer, human-rights advocate, and social commentator. He is the founder and director of Copenhagen-based think tank Justitia focusing on human rights, freedom of speech, and the rule of law. Jacob Mchangama recently hosted the podcast series Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech

Ferenc Laczó: Your new book Free Speech: A Global History from Socrates to Social Media traces the history and gradual spread of free speech across the millennia. You focus on the struggles, setbacks, false starts, and sacrifices connected with the uneven spread of this principle and associated practices around the globe. Would you be willing to briefly reconstruct the basic narrative arc of your learned and detailed monograph? Which key innovations in argument have provided support for this essential cause of free speech across the centuries and what were some of the crucial moments of progress in the history of free speech in terms of new legislations or new policies?

Jacob Mchangama:  I originate the beginnings of free speech as a concept and principle in the Athenian democracy some 2,500 years ago. It might well be that there were other previous cultures or polities that had in place a principle and culture of free speech, but that history has left us no record of them. The connection between democracy and free speech, or at least representative government and free speech, is very strong, so it’s no coincidence that free speech originated in Athens – which was a direct democracy as opposed to representative democracies that dominate today.

One of the interesting things about the Athenian democracy is that not only did they have a concept called isegoria, meaning “equality of speech”, which essentially meant all citizens, including the poor and ill-educated, had a direct voice in politics, could vote and discuss laws. By the standard of today that was very egalitarian. As is commonly known, they omitted women, slaves, and non-citizens, which is not very egalitarian, but of course we have to judge those things by the standards of their times. 

Perhaps as interestingly, they also had a concept called parrhesia, meaning something like “uninhibited speech”, which was something more like a culture of free speech, in the sense that it was a broad commitment to tolerance of social dissent, and which allowed, in general, the Athenians to question dogma, to poke fun even at the gods and the high and mighty.

This culture of free speech is extolled for instance in Pericles’s famous funeral oration where we also see this idea of the importance of debating political decisions before you enter into them. 

Of course, the concept of free speech has developed in the meantime but these concepts are in many ways still valid today. The Athenian democracy was not a liberal democracy in the way we know it today; free speech wasn’t an individual right protected by constitutional rights, they did not have a separation of powers, and so on. Nonetheless, I think there are still strong links between its origins in the Athenian democracy and our conceptions today. 

However, in antiquity we also have a rivaling conception of free speech, if you like, in the Roman Republic, which is a much more top-down and elitist approach.

 In the Roman republican assemblies, ordinary citizens did not have a right to speak. While free speech was seen as important, it was essentially for the wealthier, well-educated senatorial elites rather than the ordinary citizens, the plebs.

These two conceptions of free speech are in contest throughout history and sort of morph along with technological and political developments.

Your book argues that, based on millennia of often bloody experience with the consequences of its denial and suppression, free speech should be seen as a noble experiment – which amounts to a more normative argument that I would like us to discuss more extensively later. Before we do that, would you perhaps be willing to address the other, darker side of your story, that is to say the main kinds of argument that have been used to impose restrictions on free speech and the consequences they have had across the millennia?

Some of the restrictions, you could argue, have been adopted out of good intentions and others have been much more nefarious – 20th-century totalitarianism is a good example of the latter.

If you go back to ancient times, you do have speech codes before the Athenian democracy. But typically, these speech codes are enacted to protect the ruler from the ruled rather than the way that we would think of free speech today – where we would say free speech protects the governed from the governors. It’s a completely different conception of speech, and speech was in many ways seen as dangerous as words and actions.

Free speech gradually developed along the lines that you should distinguish between words and deeds.

But at the time, it could be argued that it would undermine the authority of the king, the authority of religion, and that should be seen as a great threat to the social coherence and social-political order of a given society. You see that, for instance, in as sophisticated a figure as Thomas Aquinas, who argues for why it is justified to execute an obstinate heretic: he says an obstinate heretic not only endangers the soul of the heretic but risks polluting the entire community of Christians and thereby endangering salvation for everyone. If you believe that, then it makes sense why you would not allow someone to speak up. 

There’s a very strong link between authoritarianism in different guises and the suppression of free speech. You see that – again going back to Athens – how twice the Athenian democracy is overthrown by oligarchic machines and the very first thing they tried to do both times was to purge democrats and impose limits on what could be said.

Any authoritarian regime, whether it’s led by a small oligarchy, an absolutist ruler, or an all-powerful party depends on controlling information and opinion – without that you can’t really have an authoritarian regime. In other words, there are many different reasons given for suppressing speech, but they all come down to questions of power.

One thing that’s special about your book is that you really aim to provide a global perspective. There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about how to overcome certain Eurocentric biases, how to design a new kind of global historical narrative. You indeed cover developments in various parts of the world at quite some length, whether in the United States, Europe, the Arab world, India, or China. At the same time, my sense was that much of your narrative has a Western focus. This perception in turn led me to two basic questions: how did you aim to create balance between the various parts of the globe in the book and why that way? Second, should we think of free speech as having a global history or rather as having a variety of diverse histories with notable differences between what becomes the democratic world and what are known today as the non-democratic parts of the world?

I’ve tried to include as much as I can and was very eager to move the history outside the West rather than focusing only on the Western world. I, for instance, include the Abbasid Caliphate, the first and strongest Islamic polity in the medieval period. Even though there was no concept of freedom of speech at the time of the Abbasid Caliphate, I still think developments there contributed to the development of free speech and certainly contributed to freedom of inquiry – you had radical free thinkers there too.

At the same time, you cannot ignore that Europe, and Western Europe in particular, is sort of the epicenter of the story, the place where free speech was really conceptualized and institutionalized. However, I’ve tried to shift the focus a bit more to the east within Europe too, for instance, I discuss the Edict of Torda of 1568 at some length.

After the Enlightenment, the history of free speech becomes more intertwined and interlinked at the global level. When you move into the 20th century, you have human rights conventions and so on. With social media nowadays, the history of free speech becomes much more intertwined – it is difficult to divide the world into completely separate spheres.

That said, there are very big differences between the conception of free speech in China and Denmark even today. There are certain overlaps now, but the further back you go in time, the more distinct the developments probably are, especially when you move away far from Europe. For instance, I show that under Akbar the Great in the Mughal empire in India, you have developments related to the freedom of conscience that do not seem very strongly linked to European developments, even if there are representatives from different religions invited to the Mughal court to exchange ideas. 

On the other hand, it is important to see that these kinds of ideas can pop up in different parts of the world and in different kinds of cultures.

It might be taking it too far to say that free speech is sort of an inherent universal value, but certainly aspects of free speech and freedom of conscience appear to have originated in different cultures independently of each other.

That’s a really important insight. I also wanted us to talk a bit more about the contemporary situation, our interconnected world where debates about free speech are really prominent. Towards the end of your narrative, you write about the free speech recession we have been observing in the early 21st century. You diagnose an elite panic, not least in connection with digital platforms and social media. You also show that more provocative ideas are increasingly viewed as dangerous even in the US where the value of free speech has otherwise been held in such high regard. So, this points to a certain decline in the culture of free speech in democracies while autocracies, such as, perhaps most prominently, the Chinese one, are imposing new mechanisms of surveillance and control. 

So, may I ask, how much worse you think the situation has truly gotten in recent years in the world of democracies and outside of it? More specifically, what major new challenges has the rise of the internet pose, and what new policies have been adopted in response? And, last but not least, how would you assess those challenges and the responses that have been given?

The internet became more popular in the 1990s and the internet activist John Perry Barlow published his famous Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace at the time, which sort of summed up the zeitgeist at a time when democracy was very much advancing globally. It was still shortly after the Cold War, and communism had been defeated, at least in Europe. A number of countries enthusiastically embraced liberal democracy; it was the culmination of the third wave of democracy, which had seen the number of democracies rise. Free speech and press freedom had really been an important step in ensuring these wins for democracy, for instance in dismantling apartheid. Apartheid rested on very draconian censorship while the international media was able to expose its injustices. There was also the Helsinki effect of the ‘70s: Western democracies almost tricked communist states into signing the Helsinki Final Act, which included human rights provisions, including on free speech. That was then used to great effect by dissidents to name and shame their own government and call for a higher degree of respect for free speech.

Free speech had really been an instrumental part of democratization, and the internet was supposed to turbocharge that development and bring democracy and freedom to all parts of the world, and really consign censorship to the “ash heap of history”.

For a while, democracies were very much on board with that idea, not least during the Arab Spring, where social networks were instrumental in allowing dissidents that had lived under harsh censorship to circumvent official propaganda and censorship to organize in the streets and topple regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. 

It soon became clear that free speech and social media have their limit. They’re great at mobilizing protests, but it’s still up to human beings to come up with viable alternatives and solutions to the old regimes that are toppled. If you don’t have that in place, free speech is not enough to ensure viable political institutions. 

The big institutional change in the West, I think, comes with the US presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016, where the narrative in much of traditional media and many elite institutions is that it’s false information, “fake news”, that really decided the election.

Subsequently, I think we could see that this claim was probably vastly exaggerated. However, it became a powerful narrative in a classic case of elite panic which was sort of asking why we allowed ordinary people to have a voice and access information by circumventing the traditional gatekeepers.

The result of this was supposed to be false information that swept a populist politician into power.

Trump’s rise to the presidency as the “leader of the free world,” if you like, was the culmination of authoritarian tendencies in democracy that go back further than that. Poland and Hungary might be the classic examples of such authoritarian tendencies within the European Union, but I would say liberal democracies in general have for more than a decade eroded free speech protection via laws against hate speech, against disinformation, and now laws that try and impose top-down control on what can be said and shared online on private platforms.

You reconstruct history since ancient times, which allows you to highlight how some of the debated questions from long ago have never quite been resolved and amount to constitutive tensions today. For example, several chapters of your book address the tensions between egalitarian and elitist conceptions of free speech. Another chapter points to the revival of mobilization against blasphemy in the current century. There indeed also seems to be a lot of focus these days on limiting hate speech and fighting so called disinformation. 

What might be truly novel or different about current debates on how to reconcile free speech and tolerance in diverse societies? Are we perhaps simply replaying debates known from earlier epochs? And what difference does the density of global interconnections really make in shaping controversies?

When you’ve written a book about the history of free speech it’s always tempting to say that the past experiences are perfect analogies to the present. I think one should probably be cautious because there will always be something distinctive about the developments that we’re going through now. Nonetheless, I still do think that a lot of the discussions we have today are framed in the language that is sometimes eerily similar to what went on before, and maybe some of the things that we are discussing are merely different manifestations of the same underlying dynamics. 

The history of free speech and the respect for free speech sort of seesaws throughout history. One possible parallel, however imperfect, might be that we’re now in a time a bit like after the French Revolution in the early 19th century, where you saw a huge backlash against free speech. Free speech in the second part of the 18th century had actually become much more accepted. Even absolutist rulers saw that some degree of free speech was necessary for progress and enlightenment. Then the French Revolution comes along and sweeps away the monarchy, which ends up with the execution of the King, and unleashes terror and war in Europe. Then there’s a huge backlash against free speech all over Europe, even in Britain, which is more liberal than most continental European states.

Free speech becomes synonymous with sedition and the overthrow of the established order; order over liberty becomes what rulers are committed to. Maybe we’re in the same kind of period.

As I mentioned, in the 1990s and early 2000s was seen as an unmitigated good, but now due to some of the developments that I mentioned, we see it as the harbinger of chaos and disorder and as something that may even be sowing the seeds of the destruction of democracy. 

So, in that sense, I think there are clear parallels and, of course, some of the categories of speech that we’re concerned about, for instance disinformation, are also categories that have been litigated throughout history a number of times. Also, hate speech was a big issue, for instance, at the UN when human rights conventions were developed. Should, as the Soviet bloc insisted, hate speech be prohibited? Should there be an obligation to prohibit war propaganda and hate speech, or was that dangerous to include, as Western states argued? We’re having the same kind of discussion in the age of social media.

In short, I definitely think there are recurrent themes and developments, although it’s also important to distinguish what sets our current age apart from previous ones in the sense that such developments now take place when we have long-established democracies – there were no long-established democracies in the early 19th century.

The orthodoxies have also changed.

At the time, order was seen as based on perhaps respect for rulers and for religion to an extent that is certainly not the case today where some of the orthodoxy of liberal democracies, if you wish, is rather about tolerance and equality.

These new orthodoxies have come to justify restrictions on free speech and categories of speech that are seen to run against and threaten those values.

In closing, let us talk a bit about your more normative claims and specific recommendations. I have read your book as a principled defense of free speech via a study of history. On the concluding pages, you write that “It is up to us to defend a culture tolerant of heretical ideas, use our system of ‘open vigilance’ to limit the reach of disinformation, agree to disagree without resorting to harassment or hate, and treat free speech as a principle to be upheld universally rather than a prop to be selectively invoked for narrow tribalist point scoring.” Is that perhaps an accurate brief summary of the position you are committed to? What are some of the more overarching lessons you would like readers to draw from your book? 

I think you pinpointed my own normative takeaway from the book in the conclusion. That is the position that I would want people to be persuaded by when reading the book, knowing full-well that free speech is in many ways a counterintuitive and very difficult principle for human beings to uphold, both as a principle and on a universal level.

When it comes to specific recommendations, I hope to show with my book that free speech, equality, and tolerance are values that are mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive. 

I tried to show in the book that free speech has been absolutely essential for all persecuted minorities and groups, and that censorship and repression has been instrumental for those who have subjected groups to persecution – whether with slavery and Jim Crow laws in the US South, apartheid in South Africa, and the like.

I tried to show that free speech does come with costs and harms, but that very often resorting to censorship and repression is a cure worse than the disease.

The fact that you might have belonged to a persecuted group at one point does not mean that you have become immune to subjecting others to persecution and censorship. You could look at socialists and communists in 19th– and early 20th-century Europe, especially in Czarist Russia. Stalin was repeatedly sent into Siberian exile, and it didn’t make him tolerant at all. In fact, the very first thing the Bolsheviks did when they came into power was to abolish free speech for good. 

So, even though free speech is a difficult principle, it has actually been proven time and again to be absolutely essential if you care about egalitarian democracy that is committed to both freedom and tolerance, if you believe in the importance of individual autonomy. Even though we talk a lot about disinformation these days, I don’t think you can approach the truth without having free speech. There’s much confusion about what’s going on in Ukraine, but I think living in the West you have a much better chance of trying to figure out what’s going on than if you live in Russia where censorship and propaganda is now approaching almost Stalinist levels.

So yes, free speech does allow for disinformation, but it also allows us to use this freedom for very good ends and we have been doing so. I think there’s a tendency, especially in democracies, to take all the benefits of free speech for granted, to not think enough about them. We take for granted all the goods that have been brought about by free speech, and then we prefer to focus on all that the harms and the cost. In a next step, we are willing to compromise free speech in order to do-away with the harms without realizing that we are jeopardizing all the gains too. That is essentially what I try to warn against.

Whether you want to champion the rights of the LGBT community, fight against climate change or for workers’ rights, your most important weapon, at least if you believe in peaceful change, is going to be free speech.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In cooperation with Lucie Janotová and Hannah Vos.

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