This post is a critical overview – a summary – of three freedoms or rights promised by the First Amendment: freedom of Religion, Speech and The Press. They are complex ideas, objectively speaking. And in our increasingly polarized society, merely hearing them spoken, or reading them in text can generate strong emotional reactions. I’d like to examine how much of what these terms actually represent today is reality, and how much is mythology. To do that requires critical thinking, which needs some definition.
Not everyone is familiar with critical thinking. In fact it’s getting harder than ever to find, no matter the medium. A critical thinker today is apt to feel lonely – even useless. During a teaching career of over 45 years, I emphasized critical thought in every course – including philosophy, logic, humanities, ethics, and comparative religions. Along with the course outline, I would hand this document on critical thinking to every student – a sales pitch for what I hoped they would learn, over and above the subject matter of the particular class. It came up often in class discussions too – both as a practical way to approach difficult questions, and as a skill to be developed on its own.
Critical thought includes open-minded attention. Today, more than ever, we need to be willing to consider any idea that’s put forth seriously – especially our own ideas – without rushing to conclusions. This willingness to pay attention is in the interests of Truth. Yes, truth exists. It’s our friend and can heal destructive nonsense, but it’s also hard to find. Any viewpoint, opinion or claim that is important deserves careful consideration. So when arguments break out – as they always will – think critically, like a doctor with her patient on the critical list. It’s a habit we all need to develop. It takes practice.
Free Speech is a relatively new concept. Controlled speech has been the norm from the beginning of civilization. The idea of free speech arrived in the 18th century “Enlightenment” period, with the development of democracy, especially in France and English North America. Voltaire, the French revolutionary, famously said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend with my life your right to say it”. And Jefferson – much influenced by the French Enlightenment -supported free speech with moving language at his first inauguration in 1801: “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union, or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is left free to combat it.” How and whether these famous examples of political oratory have been supported in the centuries since is what this post is about.
It’s not surprising that in northern and western Europe, kings, nobles and church authorities lost power at the same time the Industrial Revolution developed. In the previous agriculture-based cultures, power belonged to religious authorities, the nobility, and large landholders. Their interrelations were different at different times and places. But when the land was turned to tradeable products, like sheep’s wool, or flax, and factories built to knit or weave them, the class structure changed too, favoring factory owners, machine products, traders and related business. But whether you were a serf, a house servant, a conscript in the military or merchant marine, or a factory hand, your social standing and daily labor weren’t much improved. So trade unions began to develop in reaction, but not steadily, and they often met strong resistance.
Free speech had no room in those early industrial factories and businesses, any more than it had in agricultural society. Great Britain’s government had a complex parliamentary structure, with a ‘lower house’ (Commons) and ‘upper house’ (Lords), and a Prime Minister who represented the Monarch. Over time, however, the upper house lost its dominance of government by stages until 1918, when a series of acts allowed all citizens over 21 (including women) to elect their favored candidate.
By contrast, Latin language speaking countries in Europe and South America were dominated by Roman Popes, who did not permit or recognized any right to speak freely. In fact the Catholic Church maintained the notorious Inquisition from the 16th Century until the early 19th Century, when Napoleon put an end to it, to strengthen his support among revolutionaries. Not surprisingly, when he became Emperor Napoleon, he allowed no free speech. Finally, for workers in warmer parts of the ‘New World’, such as the American South, slaves who produced cotton never had a chance of free speech in any sense.
Even the idea of basic freedoms is a late development in world history. None of the dozens of ancient civilizations gave ordinary citizens any say in government – let alone free press, speech or religion – until those ‘rights’ developed in Rome and Greece – late comers in the history of civilizations. In the Roman Republic (510 BCE – 27 BCE), the populus was formally represented by elected Senators, but as in America today, Roman government favored the wealthy aristocracy – patricians with large land holdings outside the city.
In Greece, real democracy (self-rule) developed under Pericles’ enlightened leadership, after Persia was defeated (478 BCE). The voting citizens (Demos) were about 40,000 comprising all males 20 and older. These were only 10% of the population of 5th century Athens however. Their families couldn’t vote, nor could the people who paid rent to live in the city, nor the huge number of slaves. Citizens were obliged to elect their leaders directly, and laws were passed in the Assembly by a simple majority. They met almost weekly! The actual numbers of attendants was probably small – maybe 6000. It’s said they could all fit onto a small hill – the pnyx – in front of the Acropolis.
Even this degree of democracy was opposed by Athenian traditionalists who considered it to be dangerous – i.e. a threat both to their influence and religious views – and subject to manipulation by clever speakers (whom Socrates called “sophists”). Plato was well aware of the consequence of misspeaking, having watched his mentor Socrates be given the hemlock cup for that ‘fault’, as envisioned in this painting by Jacques-Louis David (1787).
Finding My Voice
‘Having a voice’ is the same as ‘having one’s say’ in issues that affect people, whether an individual, family, community, employment, or government at all levels. Having our say is the foundational idea of true democracy – i.e., government of, by and for the people. There is beautiful rhetoric attached to this idea for centuries in the western world. But rhetoric doesn’t always represent reality. Many people still have no voice. They didn’t lose it; they never had it.
‘Finding my voice’ is a common expression. What does it mean? Was your voice lost? Most of us literally do lose their voice now and then, say from a cold or flu. Others lose it permanently, from disease condition – e.g. Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins), Mariah Carey, Celine Dione. But non-singer musicians talk about finding their voice as well. In fact, not only musicians, but poets, fiction writers, and artists generally – even visual artists – might use this way of speaking.
Does a bigger voice require more volume? Sometimes speaking softly – even silence – gives us a louder voice. Folk singer Joan Baez illustrates this perfectly for me. I often used her recording of “The Wagoner’s Lad” as an example in Humanities classes. Notice there is no instrumental accompaniment – just a naked voice. Notice too that the emotion she conveys gets stronger and stronger as her voice gets quieter and quieter. You ‘hear her’ better as she pulls you in, making her message louder. It’s a heartbreaking message with a centuries old history – meaningful here and now.
Listen to me! Look at me! I matter!
In contrast to a Baez style understatement, think of the way disenfranchized people – people who have lacked power in this country since it was founded – have tried to be heard, from traditional ‘call and response’ spirituals to the recent ‘emo punk rock‘ style. Popular singers today often sing louder – even scream – in voice registers unnatural to their anatomy. This style isn’t guaranteed to get a bigger favorable audience; it may well bring damaging nodules to the vocal chords. .
From the 18th Century “Industrial Revolution” until now, many people – a large majority – have felt themselves to be cogs in a wheel with little say in the life that a few overlords have put on them. That was the century when democracy started as well – at least in principle. It’s a period that also further entrenched a distorted economy, misnamed “free market capitalism” by its advocates today, who appeal to Adam Smith, and misrepresent his thinking. The market isn’t really free – it remains largely dominated by a small number of monopolistic oligarchs who know how to persuade public opinion and government agencies to favor policies that keep them in power.
I don’t wish to sound cynical; I consider cynicism a fault. But there’s endless data, analysis and research to confirm my view, for those willing to hear the bad news about the American Dream and what goes with it. I recommend Michael Hudson as a go-to source of information, online and in books. Hudson knows the financial world from the inside, having long experience as a Wall Street analyst. He counsels governments on finance and tax policy, and gives presentations all over the world to groups reflecting diverse academic, economic and political constituencies.
The 20th century – named the Century of the Self by BBC documentary producer Adam Curtis – showed how people’s thinking can be influenced – even controlled – primarily to get them to buy things. But the same psychological methods can get them to ‘buy’ into belief systems, ‘selling them’ on political candidates, legislators, and court judges who further the aims of oligarchs. ‘Follow the money’ is as true as ever. Learning how to get a true bigger voice is important. But so is knowing how much concentration on our own voice is good, for ourselves or others. Ultimately, I hope we can get out of the Century of the Self to find community and real happiness.
Power Has a Louder Voice
From ancient times to the present, only in secret can a person speak, write, believe and do as she wishes. A soon as others are involved – offended, threatened or harmed – authorities can investigate, and punish or forgive, as is thought beneficial to those in power. So much is obvious, and appropriate. In a democracy, those freedoms and prohibitions belong to governments, and are protected by constitutions – which in turn are answerable to ‘the people’. But governments and constitutions change all the time, through amendments, voting rules, gerrymanders, precedural rules, the makeup of courts, and more. All these aspects give the most powerful persons – primarily the ‘money interests’ – opportunities to get their way.
For example, major corporations are free to contribute as much as they wish to campaign funds, which gives their candidates a huge advantage over their opponents. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who was Associate Justice of the Supreme Court for 27 years until her death in 2020, often spoke against the “Citizens United” decision of the Court. It determined that corporations are ‘legal persons’, and thus have the right of free speech, which (it was decided) includes paying money as well as speaking. That gave a huge advantage to big spenders in campaigns. Clearly this issue is a place where critical thinking would be helpful, to the voting public and in courts. But objectivity won’t advance the interests of the corporations, and those who control them.
Employees of corporations are normally told how to speak when they address customers or the public. “If you work for me, this is how you will talk to people. When a customer says ‘Thank you’, you answer ‘Of course!’ or ‘No problem!'” Since wage earners are often employed “at will” – where either party can break the contract without having to justify the action – they have no recourse if they are let go arbitrarily. Most states have this rule, claiming it’s only fair since each party can be harmed by the other’s choice. This claim of fairness is debatable and controversial, because the potential harm to either party is not at all equal. Again, corporations have advantage over employees.
I learned good lessons about the value of unions while teaching at a public community college. I originally spoke against the proposal that our school join a district teachers’ union. Being from a ‘Free-market Capitalist’ background, I said I had plenty of choice without their help. I quickly learned how naive that claim was, as the differences between management and teachers became clearer. However, unlike colleges in Chicago proper, our suburban college had a president and directors who were generous and open to teachers’ arguments. I’m saddened today to see how many schools – public and private – are managed by finance officers rather than educators. In practice, teachers are viewed simply as paid laborers – the cheaper the better – rather than providers of essential service to the public good.
Women’s Voices, Then & Now
Women have voice pitches that naturally lie between boys and men; size matters. Traditional masculine power structure has favored low pitch and steady pace over high pitch and eratic pace. Women in Confucian cultures would effect a higher than natural pitch, to show they were closer to children, and so more obedient to authority. Recently I noticed this happening in a sushi restaurant in my neighborhood. In fact the female servers’ voices were so high pitched my hearing aids couldn’t process their speech. I wondered if this was intentional – continuing the traditional show of subserviance. This prompted some research on the social aspects of voice pitch. The first few Google searches brought articles that said there was no effort to alter voice pitch today, except in Anime cartoons, which in no way represent Japanese culture.
However, a bit deeper research confirmed my idea. Here are two 1995 articles (antique by GenSmart-phone standards, granted). Nicholas Kristof (NYT) describes how Japanese elevator operators in New York raise their pitch as they raise their passengers. Another NIH-related article shows the pitch differences between Japanese and Dutch women. And finally, a 2012 research paper discusses the effect of perceived differences in voice gender on corporate hiring decisions.
Free The Press
The Press has also been largely under the influence of those in power, from its beginning with Gutenberg to the present. Benjamin Franklin – printer, publisher, polymath and one of the Founders – left New England and its Protestant Christian authoritarianism in Boston (think Harvard) to set up shop in the “Quaker State”. Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods) was established as an English colony by William Penn Jr, who was granted the land by King Charles II in 1680. The land paid off a debt to Penn’s father, Admiral Wm. Penn, who had funded the royal navy from his personal wealth in several naval campaigns. Franklin knew well the dangerous influence of money and debt. He emphasized work, frugality and love to our neighbor. In Poor Richard’s Almanac: he wrote, All things are easy to industry; all things are difficult to sloth. A penny saved is two pence clear. What is Serving God? ‘Tis doing Good to Man. The noblest question in the world is What good may I do in it?
Today what goes to press is determined in many ways by the power of money. If we include films and videos, along with newspapers, magazines and books, the same controlling influence applies. And today, smart phones and social media increase that influence immeasurably.
Free Speech on the Web
The scope and immediacy of internet communications underscore the importance of distinguishing between hateful or inciteful posts on the one hand, and a “Clear and present danger” principle on the other. The latter was introduced a century ago (1919) by Justice Oliver W. Holmes. However, it was never formally adopted by Congress, nor used in First Amendment law cases. The idea claims that some situations – especially in wartime, when it was discussed – warrant the limiting of inciteful speech that might endanger public welfare. Ultimately, it’s a question that should be decided by the representatives of We The People.
Some limitations seem necessary to maintain social order. Saying another person should be killed might be an allowable expression of belief, in many situations, but no one would call murder an expression to be allowed. Deeds can also produce things which may be viewed as symbolic ways to ‘say something’. So we have the famous (or infamous) example of decorating a ‘mixed media’ painting of The Virgin with elephant dung in 1999. It was judged unacceptable by New York mayor Juliani, but was praised by the New York Museum of Modern Art who later purchased it. MoMA is not government controlled.
These are more or less localized issues. But the Web allows instantaneous sharing of writing, speaking, images and videos around the world. Is it true that the Internet ‘changed everything’ about questions of free expression? Perhaps. Mark Zuckerberg has said that his and other platforms are “not arbiters of truth”. Even so, Facebook itself has censored some persons’ posts, including those of President Donald Trump, because they were judged to be threats to public welfare. Facebook aside – inconsistent or not – some people think social media should be free, since it has become so important world wide, from people on the street to celebrities and politicians. But it has already been forced to limit posts in many situations, because lies and false information have endangered the lives and welfare of those who receive, believe, and act on them. Posts have said, e.g., Covid-19 is a fraud. Chlorine will cure it. China purposefully started it. It’s a conspiracy to change people’s genes to make them compliant to government. The vaccine doesn’t work, etc. Evelyn Douek of Harvard argues that these social media platforms have such great influence that they were compelled to exercize judgment about what to allow, and it’s well they did so. Wired Magazine recently interviewed Ms. Douek about her 2020 article, “Governing Online Speech: From ‘Posts-As-Trumps’ to Proportionality and Probability“. Her view is well argued.
Hate Speech v. Cancel Culture
Inciteful or hateful speech is not subject to legal action. ‘Hate Speech’ is a common term, but the United States has no laws defining or prohibiting it. Some states permit prosecution or prohibition of certain kinds of speech which is deemed dangerous to public order or life threatening. But prosecutions after the fact seldom bring conviction; and its prohibition ahead of time is even more unusual. Other countries both define and punish hate speech. These include Canada, U.K., Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, S. Africa, Australia, Brazil, and many others.
The United States has not ruled about hate speech. However, it’s rulings regarding efforts of individual states to limit it have the practical effect that it may not be prosecuted as “hate speech”, but as something else. Is this difference just a bizarre example of “American Exceptionalism”? Of course some kinds of hateful speech – like libel and slander – are already punishable under law, and should be so, because they cause obvious harm; but the harm is against ndividuals, not a group. So, for example, burning a cross on the sidewalk outside someone’s home – although it causes psychological harm – can’t be forbidden, because the ban is considered too broad. In 1952, the Supreme Court found states can prohibit exhibiting in public any publication which “portrays depravity, criminality, unchastity, or lack of virtue of a class of citizens, of any race, color, creed or religion” that “exposes the citizens of any race, color, creed or religion to contempt, derision, or obloquy,” or advocates violence against them. In 1969 the court changed even that limitation, saying government cannot constitutionally punish “abstract advocacy of force or law violation” unless there is “imminent lawless action”. This language mirrored older ‘clear and present danger’ language of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1919 – during the 1st World War.
Cancel Culture is a pejorative term. It’s used by people who criticize others who try to erase language and symbols disfavoring a certain group. That view is on the ‘liberal’ side; they don’t object to those who defame the wealthy and influential in our society. Critics of the ‘cancel culture’ believe this desire to cancel is extreme, overly sensitive, and counter to the idea of free speech. I certainly believe that displaying the Confederate flag or a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee would offend Blacks by honoring a regime that enslaved them, and fought to continue their slavery. Similarly, many books, films, or songs are clearly racially prejudicial. But there’s little doubt that efforts to eliminate them can go to extremes. Not all prejudices are equal. The issue is largely subjective. Here are some examples, from silly to serious. First, Babar (one of my favorites since childhood) offends some for disparaging jungle life in favor of civilization and colonialism! Second, Litte Black Sambo – published in London (1899) and very popular here – but was later thought to be a slur on American blacks, was removed from many libraries. Actually the story’s author, Helen Bannerman was a Scot who lived in India with her British physician husband, and wrote children’s books about the children she lived among. Third Disney’s Song of the South film depicts southern life and tales, animated with cartoon characters like Br’er Bear, Br’er Fox & Br’er Rabbit, which mimic life and tales of plantation slaves. Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah. It evokes pros and cons. The book’s author – Joel Chandler Harris – advocated for a new and integrated South, though he maintained a paternalistic attitude personally. Fourth, an undeniable case of prejudice is the Rolling Stones song Brown Sugar, whose composer and singer Mick Jagger originally intended to call Black Pussy. He now regrets writing it, in 45 minutes of thoughtless extravagance as he puts it. He’s nothing but insulting, and enjoying it. Unfortunately extremes of every belief characterize American society today. So how to find some balance and harmony is as hard as it is important.
Can speech be ‘inappropriate’?
I think we should and can learn appropriate speech, writing and behavior, with practice. “Where’s your manners?” – said by a parent to her child – suggests an old-school value that might be worth some reflection, in a time where apparently anything goes. This doesn’t mean one particular generation got it right. The point is more a matter of good intentions than of absolute rules. The Meaning orContent of any speech, writing, behavior or religious belief is distinct from the form in which it’s expressed. I’ve always felt we should adapt our manner and style to our audience. Let me give an example.
As an advocate of the Socratic approach to teaching, I wanted to draw students into a conversation and teach them to think critically. To do that, it was counter-productive to talk ‘at them’ in academic terms. Don’t use fancy words to impress them with your knowledge. Often jokes and light-heartedness have a better effect. At times I erred on the side of informality, which offended a few listeners. (Students differ, of course; so look for a balance). Similarly, the surrounding environment gives a message, over and above the topic being discussed. Simply standing behind a podium facing seated students, as in an auditorium (or even in a classroom), projects an atmosphere of authority and importance that encourages listeners to be passive, rather than involved. (TedTalks speakers and stand-up comics might be exceptions.) So I chose to meet students in a circle – anywhere we could find a comfortable space for it – in the college, or in a park, or (with older students of course) at a local bar!
Finally, let me suggest there is an inner or spiritual dimension to freedom, whether of Speech, Press, Behavior or even Religion itself.
Recently a pair of young evangeligal Christians were preaching the Gospel on a busy street corner in my neighborhood, taking turns, with a megaphone at full volume! I tried politely to encourage them to consider ask themselves if they might be disturbing the peace. A man listening in yelled, “Yeah! Shut the F**ck Up!” The evangelist’s answer was ‘Jesus said to keep preaching the Gospel, even in the street.’ That’s true, as shown in various biblical texts, like The Great Commission (Matt 28: 16-29). Paul – the Jewish persecutor of Christians – was converted and told to preach the Gospel to the nations, as described in Acts 9: 15-16 “15 But the Lord said to the priest Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Despite this rationalization, I suggested to the evangelists that respecting people’s freedom of belief is vital. It can’t be imposed, with or without the help of technology, but they didn’t listen.
To put this another way, in my view even god can’t (i.e. won’t) make a believer out of a non-believer, if the latter chooses to reject that belief. In the end, every person is what she or he loves. If we love ourselves above all others including god, that love essentially opposes, and ultimately rejects god – however we may appear in our outer selves. Acceptance or rejection of god is in our power. Forcing us to love god would be an expression of god’s self-love – a contradiction of the divine nature, which is Love Itself and the origin of all loves. Compare this idea to the common experience of a controlling parent (or partner, or friend) who manipulates an adult child (or partner or friend) to live according to the manipulater’s perspective or desires. “I’m only doing this for your own good” is an empty expression – masking self-love on the part of the manipulater. The 18th Century philosopher Kant had much to say about this question of autonomy in his discussion of the ‘Categorical Imperative’. We must never even try to make another person into an instrument for our own purposes, without that person’s informed consent. Of course children can’t make informed consent or good decisions, and it’s the responsibility of a truly caring adult to persuade and lead them in the right direction.
We might say there is good and bad freedom. Its goodness or badness is not a function of the outcome, however, but the motive from which an action occurs. Love of others, self-forgetfulness, truth-seeking are good motives, while hating others, self-involvement and deceit are bad motives. The more we live from the latter, the more addicted we come to be. Like drug addiction, naturalism and denying anything higher become habitual and eventually pervert us, despite heavenly efforts to help. But if we practice the better way, our ‘better angels’ can help us along. No one has pure motives, of course.
Another related belief, which I share, is that the universe has a purpose – it didn’t just happen. Can we know that? That depends on our definition of knowing. I get weary of hearing naturalist anti-religious arguments. They are rigged to win, by presuming ahead of time that what constitutes proof must be put in material terms. A disbeliever’s demand for the evidence can’t be met, if only measurable, scientific, repeatable methodology is accepted – the Scientific Method.
Moral good is not equivalent to spiritual good, but it’s also important in the process of advancing the inner character of a society. I think morality ultimately requires some religious perspective, but others think it can be achieved without religion. That may be possible, but in our democratic society, the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness demand respect in and of themselves – not as happy producation of a few super successful influencers who use the Declaration and the constitutional rights as sales pitches. First Amendment freedoms are violated in the process of controlling others deceitfully. That can’t be justified by giving gifts to make up for the violation. Anand Giridharadas makes this point in a video INET interview about the New Feudalism in Silicon Valley. He thinks democracy is harmed by those who claim they’re “doing good by doing well” – that is to say, making a fortune, and using the profits to contribute to public welfare. I’ll let the viewer decide if his perspective is well argued.
Finally, William Schweiker – thoughtful observer of religion in daily life from the UChicago Sightings series – discusses the “banality of evil” today. It’s even used as sales pitch for Nike Satan Shoes – while real evil goes unnoticed!