I love the United States of America. For almost all of my adult life I have lived under an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” I begin with this because I believe what follows fits squarely within that oath.
On 6 January 2021 a meme was generated that I expect will last for many years if not generations. A meme is a form of mental virus that is presented to a host through symbols. As with a biologic virus, memes propagate and move from host to host infecting greater portions of a population. A meme can be text or image. The strongest memes are those which connect most effectively to existing stories present within a society and the meme that lasts longest is one that has powerful connection to the societal narrative itself. As I have previously discussed, I believe there are multiple significant societal narratives operative in the United States of America. Each of these narratives have associated stories and storytellers. Each storyteller, I expect, is a sincere believer of that story and how it explains the dissonance or resonance of events with their accepted narrative. I give the benefit of the doubt and assume genuine belief on the part of storytellers. I do not think that the mouthpieces or storytellers for the 1619, I Have a Dream, or the America is Awesome narratives are snake oil salespersons. They are interpreting events in accordance with their believed stories and their narrative.
The meme to which I refer is the bare-chested Viking-like figure in the United States Capitol building during the violent events of 6 January. Who he is or what he actually believes he represented is irrelevant to his status as a meme and the effectiveness of that meme. The actions associated with the meme connect through stories to each of the three societal narratives. For those who are of the 1619 or I Have a Dream narratives that meme represented an assault on American democracy. For those of the America is Awesome narrative, the meme may have been an expression of frustration against perceived injustice or tyranny.
In response to the Viking-man meme, unprecedented events happened and associated with those events have come a variety of calls for silencing certain forms of speech or certain speakers.
I don’t say this to justify actions or interpretations. I am trying to offer some thoughts to those who I hope wish to have one indivisible nation.
One of my favorite movies of all time and one that I would take with me if I could only take ten movies to a desert island is A Man for All Seasons (1966). It tells a story about Sir Thomas More who, at the point of the story that I will relate, was the Chancellor of England to King Henry VIII. At this point, a friend of Sir Thomas’ has just left his house under some suspicion. The characters in this scene are Thomas, his wife Alice, his daughter Margaret, and her husband, Will Roper. The dialogue goes as follows.
Alice More: Arrest him.
Sir Thomas More: For what?
Alice More: That man’s dangerous.
William Roper: That man’s a spy.
Margaret More: Father, that man's bad.
Sir Thomas More: There's no law against that.
William Roper: There is: God's law.
Sir Thomas More: Then God can arrest him.
Alice More: While you talk, he’s gone
Sir Thomas More: And go he should were he the devil himself until he broke the law.
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!
Here, one of the greatest thinkers in the English language expresses (granted, in a fictional rendition) a utilitarian ethic for granting the devil the benefit of law – such benefit would also be best for Sir Thomas. In addition to this well considered reason I offer that one should also grant the devil the benefit of law because it is right to do so. It is the purpose of law. To protect each in their life, liberty, and property. The liberty of each individual, even the devil’s, is critical to maintain a proper and neutral conception of law.
Jonathan Haidt, the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (affiliate link) might assert that the discussion among the extended family of Sir Thomas More reflects what happens when one believes that he or she is righteous. I want to emphasize that this is also what can happen when one perceives another as the devil. For most people, it is okay to do anything in opposition to the devil as expressed by Will Roper in the dialogue above. Will Roper was not an unintelligent character. In fact, the opposite was true. He was intelligent, well read, and a successful and respected lawyer. He should have understood the purpose and value of law, but in his zeal to pursue a perceived devil he was willing to abandon the law.
I fear that many people are entering or are present in such a state of mind in America as I write this in early 2021. Many people who are smart, informed, and should know better are expressing a need to jettison the law or previously accepted and embraced principles to ‘get after the devil.’ Note that none refer to the intended target as the devil. Instead, such people use other words like rioters, terrorists, extremists, fascists, etc. The devil has many names in 2021.
In some efforts, there are people who have called for the limitation of speech in some fashion or another or the limitation of some other liberty. I expect that those who are making such a call believe that this is necessary because the ideas of ‘the devil’ are so vile and dangerous that they must be stopped, prevented, and even erased.
I want to give three reasons why I believe, along with Sir Thomas More, how dangerous this is.
I caveat all of these with the phrase ‘in all its forms’ because in 2021 there is a wide variety of means of speech. There is the speech uttered in a public gathering that comes from a person’s mouth. There is the speech of a private correspondence through electronic or written form. There is the speech of written and spoken public discourse that has a massive variety of means or methods from tweets to posts to publication and beyond. All of these forms ought to be protected for the reasons I list above and will illuminate below.
Only the rarest of intellects can generate profound thought internal to his or her own mind. In almost all cases, it is necessary to articulate the original thinking, have that thinking challenged, and then reassess, reconsider, reformulate, and then express the adjusted idea. Real thinking comes from having ideas challenged and then developing and strengthening those ideas into better and stronger ideas. Only the rarest of people can achieve this dialectic development internal to their own mind. People must be allowed to express ideas, even dumb ideas (and I submit that at least 90% of everyone’s, especially my own, ideas are dumb prior to improvement) or no person will be able to develop smart ideas. If people are afraid of uttering their dumb ideas because of a perception of public criticism or censure then all will be forced to carry around a host of foolishly simple and undeveloped ideas in their own heads or be limited to only those ideas deemed to be acceptably communicated and broadcast by approved sources. That is truly dangerous.
As each person moves through life, he or she only becomes aware of flaws in other thought as they encounter it. Absent that encounter each person is ignorant of the perceptions of the surrounding populace. Imagine a world where we move through it in silence. On one hand, we are free to imagine that everyone thinks exactly as we do and perceives the world exactly as we do. I hope that sounds as absurd to you as it does to me. Such a world would retard each person’s intellectual growth and empathy and sympathy for the experiences and suffering of others. Such an environment fosters a form of solipsistic egocentrism rather than anything like genius. The communication of others helps to guide our thinking and helps us to inform and assist others. Just as our ability to speak allows for others to challenge and correct our thinking, the speech of other people allows us to challenge and correct their thinking.
On one of my office shelves, I have a 1939 unabridged English translation of Mein Kampf. At the beginning of the book is an inserted preface of sorts that was signed by a variety of scholars, public intellectuals, and some German exiles; Albert Einstein among them. In this preface, the signatories advocate for such an unabridged English version of the book because they believed that it was critical for people in America, in particular, to be aware of what Adolph Hitler actually thought in its totality. I regularly read, study, and teach about violent extremist groups. I am grateful for the freedom of speech that allows me to read and listen to their words because it allows me to understand their perspective and intent. As I come to better understand them, I am better able to advise and recommend ways to correct, oppose, or destroy them as necessitated by the ideas and actions they espouse and demonstrate.
I do not advocate for an extreme version of the liberty of speech because I think all speech is equally beneficial or valuable. I advocate for this extreme version of free speech because it is only in such a world that we can each grow and develop and understand and challenge each other. It is neither possible nor preferrable for a person to go through life in isolation. Human beings are social creatures. For us to form societies we must have some level of common values and norms – a common narrative root.
In the United States of America, what are the common narrative roots? They are found in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The beauty of the Constitution is that if society changes to such a degree that values have changed then the Constitution can be amended therefore it can and should be a living document. However, for the changes to be enacted, there must be a form of consensus within states and across states. Such a consensus is gained through speech. In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson expressed a fundamental vision statement for the united colonies in opposition to Great Britain. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” John Locke (1632-1704) as well as the 5th and 14th amendments of the US Constitution expressed the three elements as life, liberty, and property.
Our narrative roots begin with the idea that it is socially unacceptable to harm anyone’s life, their liberty, or their property. All such actions should be condemned whether they come in the form of protest or promotion of things we approve of or not. They should be condemned when they take place on the steps and in the halls of the US Capitol building and when they take place in the streets and against the structure of a federal courthouse or a private store or restaurant. Liberty begins with the ability to express through speech. I hope and pray that we can all agree on such a narrative root as speech improves us, allows us to instruct and be instructed, and informs us of opportunities and dangers.
If we are to heal our narrative divide as a nation, we have to be able to speak and we need to listen. Speaking what we think and listening to others is one way to improve our ideas and come to a level of tolerance, if not acceptance, of differing speech and ideas.
The belief in the essential respect for life, liberty, and property should not be jettisoned to ‘get after the devil,’ ever. It doesn’t matter what or who the particular devil is. When we jettison such belief such adherence and respect then we ourselves become devils against whom others may be inclined to also justify the jettisoning of such respect. Freedom of speech must be sacrosanct even if that speech literally or figuratively comes from Adolph Hitler.
Brian L. Steed is an applied historian,