We’re All Puritans Now

The distinguishing feature of puritanism is ‘an intense sense of responsibility for one’s conscience’

Its Banned Books Week, a time for all the family to gather round the dinner table to discuss free speech and censorship. One book that often comes up in such conversations is Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, which was the subject of a famous obscenity trial in the 1960s.

I have been reading the Wikipedia page for the trial, and found this marvellous section on the testimony of academic Richard Hoggart, who was subjected to a snide cross-examination by the prosecuting barrister, Mervyn Griffith-Jones:

Under Prosecution cross-examination Griffith-Jones pursued Hoggart’s previous description of the book as “highly virtuous if not puritanical”.

“I thought I had lived my life under a misapprehension as to the meaning of the word ‘puritanical’. Will you please help me?”

“Yes, many people do live their lives under a misapprehension of the meaning of the word ‘puritanical’. This is the way in which language decays. In England today and for a long time the word ‘puritanical’ has been extended to mean somebody who is against anything which is pleasurable, particularly sex. The proper meaning of it, to a literary man or to a linguist, is somebody who belongs to the tradition of British puritanism generally, and the distinguishing feature of that is an intense sense of responsibility for one’s conscience. In this sense the book is puritanical.”

I love the way that Hoggart takes Griffith-Jones’s feigned ignorance, and uses it against him. It is the academic equivalent of a mic-drop.

‘An intense sense of responsibility for one’s conscience’ is an extremely important philosophical attitude. A few years ago I wrote for Tor.com about ‘The Outliers’, those brave men and women who take a moral stand in favour of free speech and the truth, even if it means that the full force of the state is visited upon them. The idea that one’s conscience compels you to speak is also one that runs through the earliest arguments for free speech, such as Socrates’ in The Apology or Peter Wentworth’s controversial speech to parliament in 1576.

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