Government Minister Sam Gyimah begins an op-ed in The Times today thus:
I wholly disapprove with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
Voltaire’s famous words reflect my opinion on free speech. It is an essential part of a thriving democracy, a civil society and a fulfilling university experience.
Except Voltaire never wrote those words. They are a paraphrase, a summary, written by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote under the pen name Stephen G. Tallentyre.
The phrase appears in Friends of Voltaire and is in reference to Voltaire’s contemporary Claude Adrien Helvétius and his controversial book De l’Espirit (On The Mind), which had been declared heretical and burned.
On The Mind became not the success of the season, but one of the most famous books of the century. The men who had hated it and had not particularly loved Helvétius, flocked round him now. Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional. ‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ was his attitude now. (Pages 198-199)
According to Wikiquote, the misattribution to Voltaire happened in the June 1934 edition of Readers Digest. In repsonse, Hall was quoted in Saturday Review (11 May 1935), saying:
I did not mean to imply that Voltaire used these words verbatim and should be surprised if they are found in any of his works. They are rather a paraphrase of Voltaire’s words in the Essay on Tolerance — “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.”
6/ You may think me naive, or things are too far gone. But I believe – fundamentally – that no problem is beyond solving, particularly where both sides contain good people who want things to be better not worse. But it will be difficult – the above is as minimum to succeed. /end
In the past few weeks I’ve been having debates with good people whom I respect deeply about the limits of freedom of expression. When Britian First were banned by Facebook I suggested that the extremists in our society might be moderated and rehabilitated through dialogue.
When I have made this point, my friends have criticised me for being naiive. The bigots are irredeemable (they say) and the best strategy is therefore to cauterise their movement by silencing it wherever we can.
In March, I was honoured and delighted to be asked to give the keynote speech at the University of Roehampton’s Creative Writing Soiree, an annual evening of fiction, memoir and poetry readings done by the English and Creative Writing students. The suggested title of my talk was ‘The Writer in the World’ which gave me the chance to speak about creativity, literature and the work of English PEN in broader and grander terms than the speeches I am usually asked to give.
I confess to being quite pleased with the end result. Not, I must stress, in the delivery, which comes across as extemporised rather than pre-planned. But rather, the broad idea of what it means to be a ‘writer in the world’ and the pragmatic suggestions for how one might go about living as such a writer.
The speech included a potted history of English PEN, some thoughts on the moral obligations of free speech, my earliest memories of learning to read, and the grind and grit required to be ‘creative’. Its a good statement of what I believe. Continue reading “The Writer in the World”
A controversy has erupted around the Whitney Biennial in New York. Protestors have demanded that a Dana Schutz painting of murder victim Emmett Till be removed from the exhibition with the further recommendation that it be “destroyed and not entered into and any museum or market”. This is a clear call for censorship.
Emmett Till was an 14 year old African-American, murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of flirting with a white woman. His killers were acquitted of the crime by an all-white jury.