This post is not directly about the Je suis Charlie campaign, the terrorist attacks in Paris or the magazine Charlie Hebdo, rather it is about a quotation many people have used to sum up their feelings in light of these events. This supposed quote is:

“I do not agree with what you have to  say but,  I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”

When people have used this they tended to attribute it to Voltaire. I had come across this statement, or some variation on it, before the Charlie Hebdo furore but had not really given it emuch thought. People used this statement on social media and on TV to support or summarise their position that they don’t necessarily like the “satire” of the magazine but they don’t think it should be censored.

A side issue is that Voltaire did not write this statement or anything much like it. It was, rather, written (in 1906) by a biographer of Voltaire as a summary of his position in general and a paraphrasing of a genuine statement of his:

“Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.”

Not a a very close paraphrasing it would seem. Nevertheless, it may still reflect his position and people much prefer quoting famous figures like Voltaire to obscure biographers.

My focus here is not, however, the veracity of the attribution of the quote but its usage in the current context which I find a bit troubling for two reasons. Firstly, because I don’t really believe the people making this statement and secondly because it suggests a certain kind of relativism and a related lack of acknowledgement of the power of words and statements or, if you like, discourse.

So, by using this phrase people were claiming that they would potentially give their life to allow someone else to say things they disagree with.  Of course I realise this was being used rhetorically and no one was really expecting this to be put to the test but they are still making a strong statement (and a significantly more forceful one than that made by Voltaire). However, the thrust of the statement is that they would make significant sacrifices to defend someone else’s rights to free speech no matter how much they disagree with them.

In most cases I do not believe this. Would all of these people make a genuine sacrifice for the rights of the Westboro Baptist Chruch to publicly proclaim that “God Hates Fags” and to protest at the funerals of soldiers and tell their families the recently departed are going to hell? Would people really get up off their chair to defend the circulation of such hateful ideas?

Furthermore, my guess is that many people would be too scared to stand up for beliefs that they actually share if faced with genuine sacrifice to do so. We know that in the aftermath of visceral threats to their own life (or way of life) people tend to veer towards valuing security over liberty (with freedom of speech a key aspect of this) as this British poll from 2005 in the UK found  and various studies of the USA and Germany have shown. Of course, the further we are away from perceptible danger (and admittedly the more egregious the breaches of liberty) then the less tolerant of infringements people are, as this study of perceptions of the NSA/Snowden leaks shows.

Also, I am not convinced people genuinely value freedom of speech (even if such a thing did exist) as they often claim. If they did then they might be more concerned about ongoing attempts to curb it such as that by British Home Secretary Theresa May’s plans to remove passports, ban public speaking and social media use for those suspected of extremism (it is unclear how this will be defined).

Even if people are genuinely passionate about and willing to make sacrifices for other people to make pronouncements they disagree with, and possibly find repellent, this position also suggests a worrying relativism and lack of acknowledgement of power.

The implication of the idea that anyone should be able to say anything is that all statements are of equal value and power. “I say A, you say B but nothing really matters”. But one of the key things we have learnt from twentieth century philosophy, social sciences and humanities (in particular the “cultural turn“) is that words matter. Words are never just statements about the world but actively construct it.

One of the key lessons people have taken from the philosopher Michel Foucault is the intimate relationship between power and knowledge (indeed, he suggested they should be considered as one concept power/knowledge). When statements are made they construct particular realities and connections between people and things.

This can easily be seen in a professional sense, for instance, when a particular set of behaviours is defined by the psychiatric profession as constituting a mental disorder (and is entered into the the DSM or the ICD) then it becomes a “real” medical condition which can be legitimately treated and the person displaying the behaviours is no longer seen as awkward or difficult but as having an illness and deserving of support (at least in theory).

On a more prosaic level labelling theory shows that if we repeatedly attach a particular word (or set of words) to a person, behaviour or thing then it often comes to be understood in relation to that. Also, any playground bully knows that if you shout the same abusive name at someone long enough it tends to stick.

The main point I wish to make is that it does matter what is said and some statements are backed up with more force or institutional legitimacy than others. While perhaps some people would passionately defend the rights of others to make statements with which they disagree they are still quite selective about the ones which they stand up for. There is not much defence of “hate preachers” or “holocaust deniers”. The statement attributed to Voltaire seems to be used to present an image of openness and liberty but (unintentionally) helps to obscure the power of words and those using them.

The implication of this post is not that there should be more (or less) censorship necessarily but that we should not pretend that ideas and statements freely circulate and are of equal power and influence. Perhaps we should take heed of a different quote (this one is genuine and attributed to the right person):

“My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same a bad.  If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do.” Michel Foucault