Free Musings on Free Speech

(This is an old post that I never got around to finishing. It’s largely complete now, so I thought I’d throw it up. Enjoy!)

As some of you may be aware, Nicola Roxon, Australia’s former Attorney-General, retreated earlier this year on the issue of anti-discrimination laws. Initially, these laws could have led to punishment for saying or writing things about a person’s ethnicity, religion, or even “social origin” (whatever that means), by which the aggrieved might have been offended or insulted. After admitting some of the legislation may have been clumsily worded, Ms. Roxon oversaw a modification of the proposed laws, removing the ambiguous references to “offence” and “insult”.

All well and good, I suppose; problems remain, however, and it is clear that the proffered changes did not go far enough. There are still elements of the legislation that are worringly vague, and all one needs to do is allege offence at something another person has said or written. The burden of justification lies with the so-called “offender”. Be that as it may, the campaign that sprang up as a result of the legislation’s proposal has been heartening, for two reasons. First, it demonstrated the ineradicable power of ideas; and second, it offered a rather timely object lesson regarding the value of the very intellectual processes these proposed laws sought to truncate.

The fact that disparate groups and individuals could create such a successful, and united, front against the onslaught of such pernicious laws is proof of the inherent power of good ideas. In this case, the power of the idea of free speech was upheld in the face of legislation whose intention it was to staunch the flow of ideas and free communication in the intellectual marketplace. A moment’s thought will reveal the value of ideas, and the concomitant importance of free speech.

Clearly, an unfettered right to free communication is fundamental to other, subsidiary rights. Freedom of thought, for example, would not truly be free if it was prevented from traversing intellectual lands that had been fenced off by laws seeking to de-legitimise certain forms of communication. A person who is not able to explore certain ideas simply because they have been deemed forbidden suffers from a rather diminishing form of incarceration. Similarly, freedom of religion is curtailed when adherents are not able to freely practice certain elements thereof, having been declared unlawful through legislative fiat. Religion, just like any other kind of belief system, relies on particular strains of thought that are inescapably animated through the liberality of unbound communication. Even something as seemingly unrelated to free speech as, say, welfare distribution policy, could not long survive if ideas surrounding that particular issue are not allowed to flow. Ossification of once-fresh ideas is certain if they can never be challenged, debated or sharpened. How else is a political community able to arrive at some approximation of the “truth” if certain ideas and opinions are ruled out of the public discussion through the oppressiveness of misguided lawmakers?

The organisations, groups and individuals who stood up for the idea of free speech were standing up for a valuable idea, one that undergirds so much else in the contemporary West – and indeed, upholds one of the West’s great innovations. What they proved was the value of an idea, whose inherent power was able to nullify a poor, yet oppressive, shadow. The ensuing debate was itself evidence that the free-flowing exchange of knowledge, ideas, thoughts and opinions (in this case, in the context of widespread opposition to draconian laws) is a vital cog in the large and complex machine we know as the democratic polity.

On Reading

Reflecting upon the ostensibly mundane aspects of life can offer us an immediate window into why we do the things we do. Take reading, for example: it’s something most of us can do (I assume anyone reading this post is literate), and we do it without conscious thought. However, I want to talk about reading as a deliberate habit or pursuit. It’s more than simply a means to an end, even if it might be treated as such. Is it not possible to see reading as valuable in itself, rather than viewing it as a practical necessity to which we must give grudging assent? I am the sort of person who likes nothing more than to spend a night at home, immersing myself in the contents of a good book. Indeed, it is something I positively delight in, and if I am out of the house for long periods of time, I often find myself hankering for something substantial to read. It’s probably fair to say that reading is more than a pastime or hobby for me; if I wasn’t able to read, I think I’d be diminished as a person.

I may well be biased, but I think the beautiful simplicity of delving into the written thoughts of another is something that shouldn’t be shunned because it’s too boring or difficult. Banal though it may seem, reading acts as a gate – a key – into a rich and enticing place, where thoughts are unbounded and words (used well, mind you) are transformed into little nuggets of beauty and meaning. Reading should, I think, be warmly embraced, much as one might cherish the affections of an old and stimulating friend. There is comfort there, to be sure. And yet, one also finds one’s thinking challenged, stretched, subverted, vexed, unsettled, elevated, broadened and illumined. Done well, reading has the ability to make the mind fertile and the heart glow with an unquenchable incandescence.

The intellectual and spiritual lustre that reading evokes is one reason I love to engage in it. But what lies behind this consistent devotion? Is it possible to “deconstruct” that process, and to dive into the mechanics of something that I often do without reflection? Scratch beneath the surface, and it’s surprising what one finds. If I peel back the layers of my taken-for-granted love, what will I discover?

Let’s take what is probably the most basic element of reading: words. Words cannot be separated from reading; the one is impossible without the other. If words are like air, then the act of reading is like breathing. I would even go as far as to argue that an immersion in the world of words is, for me, akin to that most fundamental of human activities. I am drawn to perform both acts by an unconscious, unremitting movement of the will; and when I do so, I know that I have drawn into myself the “stuff” that upholds and maintains life. Words are like that. They contain within themselves the seeds of meaning, thought and wisdom. What would the human person be without these qualities? Strung together, well-chosen words have the capacity to enliven and ennoble a person’s being, just like air inhaled sustains life in his body.

It’s fair to say, then, that I love words, and reading is an opportunity to become well-acquainted with them. I am quite excited when I happen upon a new term or phrase, and dutifully add it to my collection. That way, it will be ready to use when the time comes. Perhaps it’s my careful, assiduous nature, but I cherish the beauty and explanatory power of a well-chosen word. One can achieve a degree of accuracy when language is used widely and diversely. An idea or feeling, previously shrouded in fog, suddenly emerges with crystalline clarity as the selected words supply content to that which was unformed.

It should be absurdly clear that reading is an important aid in this wonderful process. Delving into a book, or essay, or article is like diving into a repository that replenishes and rejuvenates one’s love for language. And one does not even have to read that far before happening upon something that changes and challenges one intellectually (or emotionally – or even spiritually). Words stimulate new thoughts and refine existing ones. I mean, it is often the case that just a single word can unlock another reflection, or trigger the firing of another neuron, or give shape to a formless blob of mental energy. Like sharp scalpels, words enable a person to carve meaning up into fine little slices; what may at first appear to be monolithic and indistinct can, with the proper use of words, be transformed into a dense landscape of undulating significance, where shadow and depth conceal hidden truths, subtle distinctions and neglected perspectives. Through the expansive use of what our language can offer us, we become accustomed to the various shades and hues that dapple reality, like so many rays of warm sunlight passing through a verdant web of leaves.

You can see, I hope, the intimate, interweaving connection between words and thoughts. It’s often difficult to say what comes first: the idea; or the language used to express it. Does the mind first think of the idea, before giving voice to it through words? Or do words themselves act as indispensable agents in the very process of intellectual creation? Whilst ultimate parentage usually remains a mystery, it’s probably a bit of both: our thoughts are inescapably framed and brought to life through language, whilst words are lifeless without the raw materials of an inarticulate notion. If we take this a little further, it becomes easier to see how the character of language can actually shape and structure our thoughts. Indeed, where our language is elegant and our prose is clean, so too are our thoughts likely to be. Conversely, where our language is ignoble, base, squalid or just plain dull, our thoughts are likely to obediently follow. George Orwell seemed to know all about this. Speaking about the mutually reinforcing influences of thought and word, he said:

“But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in intensified form…It [the English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts” (“Politics and the English Language”, in Essays).

Of course, it is not the case that only those with a dictionary-sized vocabulary can achieve what I am talking about. No, no, no. We should be under no illusions that the academic, the wordsmith and the lexicographer are alone privy to this esoteric art. However, where there is an interest in reading – and, underlying that, an interest in words, language and what they can offer – there is likely to be a corresponding interest in thinking, the art of quietly and patiently reflecting on a chosen topic. One might even say that reading can engender a certain spirit of quiet contemplative passion. Not always; but often. Reading offers, as I said, a gateway into a foreign land of new ideas. It can teach us to consider; to look at differing perspectives, or to meditate upon previously unknown claims to truth. Done attentively, reading gives us the chance to step into the interior world of another’s mind. It can encourage, prod, probe and challenge, inciting us to sift through competing views and vying voices. It can make us more open, more receptive, to things we may never have considered before.

The fact is that reading gives one a chance to learn. By developing good reading habits, the fortunate person has the opportunity to engage in another’s considered thoughts on a matter. Even individual words can contain within them a world of meaning and history. Place them in context, alongside other words, and a glimpse into the author’s internal life is possible. Words – and by extension, reading – form a fundamental link between otherwise isolated minds. And, because we are finite (inhabiting only one plot of time and space at any moment), it is impossible to have access to all knowledge. The only way to tap into new bodies of wisdom and learning is to access those whose minds are immersed in them. That, in turn, is often only possible through the discipline of reading. Undoubtedly, reading opens one up to an expanded world of thought and communication. The mellifluous prose that emerges from the artful arrangement of words discloses an author’s mind. If one is really fortunate, it may bear the author’s soul before the grateful recipient. Moreover, reading an author’s particular thoughts can, with almost accidental ease, stimulate and evoke thoughts of one’s own. Indeed, it is possible to almost feel those new buds of intellectual energy, slowly but inexorably, encroaching from below. As a person draws them in, and turns them over in his own mind, he might find himself accessing that library of words – a little dusty, perhaps – to give shape and structure to thoughts that might otherwise exist at the edge of his consciousness. The process is dynamic, fluid, creative: thoughts blend, merge and bulge before finally coalescing; new words are drawn upon to supply nuance and detail to ideas past and present. The fervent dance between word and thought, language and concept, continues apace, concealed behind the calm expression of the dedicated student.

What I am talking about, you must understand, is more than just the solitary game of playing with new concepts. That is a privileged activity, and should not be shunned. However, if that is all we do, then we are not really allowing ourselves to be enveloped within the totality of reading’s purpose. Rather, I am referring to the joy of formation through reading; the delight of a life changed and shaped as one captures the seed of an idea, and, without allowing it to die, lets it germinate. Not just information, mind you, but true formation. As Don Watson, a former speechwriter to Paul Keating, observed, “…language is capable of expressing more than information: it is a vehicle of the imagination and emotions” (Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language). Now, by itself, reading cannot always succeed in forming a person. Sometimes it may fail to excite the emotions, or nurture the soul. Moreover, there is plenty of detritus out there that cannot contribute to one’s intellectual or spiritual health. I am not advocating a steady diet of literary junk food. But if one is to truly learn – and by that, I mean the acquisition of wisdom that shapes one’s intellect and transforms one’s life – reading well should be seen as a vital element in that noble project.

Of course, this requires discernment, and not a little time and effort. Truth may need some coaxing, and a voracious appetite isn’t always a guarantee that it will eventually be digested. Better is the attitude that says, “I will take the time to mull over this idea; to think about it, understand it and reflect upon it. I won’t instinctively reject it. But neither will I take it for granted that what I am reading is self-evidently true”. The acquisition and reception of truth is always going to be a process fraught with risk. We won’t always succeed, shunning life’s verities, and accepting with relish shadows and darkness. Still, for us poor souls, who are bent towards the truth (but who often fall short), a circumspect attitude when it comes to reading may do more good than harm.

I fear we may have lost the art of reading. Perhaps my love for it represents a yearning for a by-gone period. In our contemporary, internet-saturated age, it seems harder and harder to justify the slow, meandering journey one takes when walking through the worded garden of an author’s mind. Sometimes, it is a precious thing to be able to calmly wade through a work for its own sake – not because there is some practical, specified obligation behoving the reader to complete the task, but because of the sheer, unfettered joy that pertains to the art of reading. Although it might seem pointless, then, this blog post has a serious point: to evoke a sense of wonder and privilege when it comes to what is, for many, a common and joyless activity. If it has elevated the notion of reading in your mind, very well then; if, by reading this essay, you develop a lifelong passion for it, even better. For then you will have learned its chief lesson and demonstrated its subject’s power.