Christopher Hitchens: “Freedom of speech means freedom to hate.”

This is a transcript of the late Christopher Hitchens’ remarks at University of Toronto’s Hart House Debating Club in November 2006. The motion being debated was: “Freedom of speech includes the freedom to hate.”


hitchens 5Fire! Fire! Fire, fire, fire… Now you’ve heard it. Not shouted in a crowded theatre, admittedly, as I realize I seem now to have shouted it in the Hogwarts dining room. But the point is made.

Everyone knows the fatuous verdict of the greatly over-praised Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who, asked for an actual example of when it would be proper to limit speech or define it as an action, gave that of [falsely] shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.

It is very often forgotten that what he was doing in that case was sending to prison a group of Yiddish-speaking socialists, whose literature was printed in a language most Americans couldn’t read, opposing President Wilson’s participation in the First World War, and the dragging of the United States into this sanguinary conflict, which the Yiddish-speaking socialists had fled from Russia to escape.

In fact it could be just as plausible argued that the Yiddish-speaking socialists, who were jailed by the excellent and over-praised judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, were the real fire fighters, were the ones who were shouting fire when there really was fire in a very crowded theatre, indeed.

And who is to decide? Well, keep that question if you would–ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, I hope I may say comrades and friends–before your minds.

I exempt myself from the speaker’s kind offer of protection that was so generously proffered at the opening of this evening. Anyone who wants to say anything abusive about or to me is quite free to do so, and welcome in fact–at their own risk.

But before they do that, they must have taken, as I’m sure we all should, a short refresher course in the classic texts on this matter, which are: John Milton’s Areopagitica–“Areopagitica” [actually “Areopagus”] being the great hill of Athens for discussion and free expression; Thomas Paine’s introduction to the Age of Reason; and I would say John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty.

In which it is variously said–I’ll be very daring and summarize all three of these great gentlemen of the great tradition of, especially, English liberty, in one go. What they say is, it’s not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen and to hear. And every time you silence somebody, you make yourself a prisoner of your own action, because you deny yourself the right to hear something.

In other words, your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases as is the right of the other to voice his or her view. Indeed as John Stuart Mill said, if all in society were agreed on the truth and beauty and value of one proposition, all except one person, it would be most important–in fact, it would become even more important–that that one heretic be heard, because we would still benefit from his perhaps outrageous or appalling view.

In more modern times this has been put, I think, best by a personal heroine of mine, Rosa Luxemburg, who said the freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently. My great friend John O. Sullivan, former editor of the National Review, and I think probably my most conservative and reactionary Catholic friend, once said–it’s a tiny thought experiment–he says, “If you hear the Pope saying he believes in God, you think, well, the Pope’s doing his job again today. If you hear the Pope saying he’s really begun to doubt the existence of God, you begin to think he might be on to something.”

Well, if everybody in North America is forced to attend at school training in sensitivity on Holocaust awareness and is taught to study the Final Solution–about which nothing was actually done by this country, or North America, or by the United Kingdom while it was going on–but let’s say as if in compensation for that, everyone is made to swallow an official and unalterable story of it now, and it’s taught as the great moral exemplar, the moral equivalent of the morally lacking elements of the Second World War, a way of stilling our uneasy conscience about that combat–if that’s the case with everybody, as it more or less is, and one person gets up and says:

“You know what, this Holocaust, I’m not sure it even happened. In fact, I’m pretty certain it didn’t. Indeed, I begin to wonder if the only thing is that the Jews brought a little bit of violence on themselves.” That person doesn’t just have a right to speak, that person’s right to speak must be given extra protection. Because what he has to say must have taken him some effort to come up with, might contain a grain of historical truth, might in any case give people to think about why do they know what they already think they know. How do I know that I know this, except that I’ve always been taught this and never heard anything else?

It’s always worth establishing first principles. It’s always worth saying, what would you do if you met a Flat Earth Society member? Come to think of it, how can I prove the earth is round? Am I sure about the theory of evolution? I know it’s supposed to be true. Here’s someone who says there’s no such thing, it’s all intelligent design. How sure am I of my own views? Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the feeling that whatever you think you’re bound to be okay, because you’re in the safely moral majority.

One of the proudest moments of my life, that’s to say, in the recent past, has been defending the British historian David Irving, who is now in prison in Austria for nothing more than the potential of uttering an unwelcome thought on Austrian soil. He didn’t actually say anything in Austria. He wasn’t even accused of saying anything. He was accused of perhaps planning to say something that violated an Austrian law that says, “Only one version of the history of the Second World War may be taught in our brave little Tyrolean Republic.”

The republic that gave us Kurt Waldheim as Secretary General of the United Nations, a man wanted in several countries for war crimes. You know, the country that has Jorge Heider the leader of its own fascist party in the cabinet that sent David Irving to jail. You know the two things that have made Austria famous and given it its reputation by any chance? Just while I’ve got you? I hope there are some Austrians here to be upset by it. A pity if not. But the two greatest achievements of Austria are to have convinced the world that Hitler was German and that Beethoven was Viennese.

Now to this proud record they can add they have the courage finally to face their past and lock up a British historian who has committed no crime except that of thought and writing. And that’s a scandal. I can’t find a seconder usually when I propose this, but I don’t care. I don’t need a seconder. My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.

Now, I don’t know how many of you don’t feel you’re grown up enough to decide this for yourselves, and think you need to be protected from David Irving’s edition of the Goebbels diaries, for example — out of which I learned more about the Third Reich than I had from studying Hugh Trevor-Roper and A.J.P. Taylor combined when I was at Oxford.

But for those of you who do, I would recommend another short course of revision. Go again and see, not just the film and the play, but read the text from Robert Bolt’s wonderful play “A Man for All Seasons” — some of you must have seen it — where Sir Thomas Moore decides that he would rather die than lie or betray his faith, and at one moment, Moore is arguing with a particularly vicious, witch-hunting prosecutor, a servant of the King and a hungry and ambitious man.

And Moore says to this man, “You’d break the law to punish the Devil, wouldn’t you?”

And the prosecutor, the witch-hunter, he says, “Break it? I’d cut down every law in England if I could do that, if I could capture him!”

And Moore says, “Yes, you would, wouldn’t you? And then when you’d cornered the Devil, and the Devil turned round to meet you, where would you run for protection, all the laws of England having been cut down and flattened? Who would protect you then?”

Bear in mind, ladies and gentlemen, that every time you violate or propose to violate the free speech of someone else, in potencia, you’re making a rod for own back. Because the other question raised by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is simply this: who’s going to decide?

To whom do you award the right to decide which speech is harmful or who is the harmful speaker? Or determine in advance what are the harmful consequences going to be, that we know enough about in advance to prevent? To whom would you give this job? To whom are you going to award the job of being the censor? Isn’t it a famous old story that the man who has to read all the pornography, in order to decide what’s fit to be passed and what’s fit not to be, is the man most likely to be debauched?

Did you hear any speaker, the opposition to this motion — eloquent as… one of them was — to whom you would delegate the task of deciding for you what you could read? To whom you would give the job of deciding for you, relieve you of the responsibility of hearing what you might have to hear?

Do you know anyone — hands up — do you know anyone to whom you’d give this job? Does anyone have a nominee? You mean there’s no one in Canada good enough to decide what I can read? Or hear? I had no idea. But there’s a law that says there must be such a person. Or there’s a subsection of some piddling law that says it. Well, the hell with that law then. It’s inviting you to be liars and hypocrites and to deny what you evidently know already.

About the censorious instinct we basically know all that we need to know, and we’ve known it for a long time. It comes from an old story about another great Englishman — sorry to sound so particular about that this evening — Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer, compiler of the first dictionary of the English language.

When it was complete, Dr. Johnson was waited upon by various delegations of people to congratulate him, of the nobility, of the quality, of the Commons, of the Lords — and also by a delegation of respectable ladies of London, who tended on him at his Fleet Street lodgings, and congratulated him.

“Dr. Johnson,” they said, “we are delighted to find that you have not included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary.”

“Ladies,” said Dr. Johnson, “I congratulate you on being able to look them up.”

Anyone who can understand that joke — and I’m pleased to see that about 10 percent of you can — gets the point about censorship, especially about prior restraint, as it’s known in the United States, where it’s banned by the First Amendment to the Constitution. It may not be determined in advance what words are apt or inapt. No one has the knowledge that would be required to make that call.

And, more to the point, one has to suspect the motives of those who do so. In particular, the motives of those who are determined to be offended, those who will go through a treasure house of English, like Dr. Johnson’s first lexicon, in search of filthy words, to satisfy themselves and some instinct about which I dare not speculate.

Now, I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion and organized religion. Absolutely convinced of it. And I’m glad you applaud, because it’s a very great problem for those that oppose this motion. How are they going to ban religion? How are they going to stop the expression of religious loathing, hatred, and bigotry?

I speak as someone who is a fairly regular target of this, and not just in rhetorical form. I have been the target of many death threats, I know within a short distance of where I’m currently living in Washington I can name two or three people — whose names you probably know — who can’t go anywhere now without a security detail because of the criticisms they’ve made of one monotheism in particular. And this is in the capital city of the United States.

So I know what I’m talking about, and I also have to notice that the sort of people who ring me up in the middle of the night, and say they know where my children go to school — and they certainly know where my home number is and where I live — and what they’re going to do to them and to my wife and to me — and who I have to take seriously because they have done it to people I know — are just the people who are going to seek the protection of the hate speech law if I say what I think about their religion.

Which I’m now going to do. Because I don’t have any what you might call ethnic bias, I’ve no grudge of that sort, I can rub along with pretty much anyone of any, as it were, origin, or sexual orientation, or language group… except people from Yorkshire, of course, who are completely untakeable.

And I’m beginning to resent the confusion that’s being imposed on us now — and there was some of it this evening — between a religious belief, blasphemy, ethnicity, profanity, and what one might call multicultural etiquette. It’s quite common now for people to use the expression “anti-Islamic racism,” as though an attack on a religion was an attack on an ethnic group. The word Islamophobia is in fact beginning to acquire the opprobrium that was once reserved for racial prejudice. This is a subtle and very nasty insinuation that needs to be met head on.

Now, who said, “What if Falwell says he hates fags? What if people act on that?” The Bible says you have to hate fags! If Falwell says he’s saying it because the Bible says so, he’s right. Yes, it might make people go out and use violence — what are you going to do about that? You’re up against a group of people who say, “Don’t you put your hands on our Bible or we’ll call the hate speech police.” Now what’re going to do when you’ve dug that trap for yourself?

Somebody said that antisemitism and Kristallnacht in Germany was the result of 10 years of Jew-baiting. Ten years?! You must be joking! It’s the result of two thousand years of Christianity, based on verse of one chapter of St. John’s Gospel, which led to a pogrom after every Easter sermon for hundreds of years, because it claims that the Jews demanded that blood of Christ be on the heads of themselves and all their children to the remotest generation [actually Matthew 27:25, though John 18-19 belabors it].

That’s the warrant and license for, and incitement to, anti-Jewish pogroms. What are you going to do about that? Where’s your piddling sub-section now? Does it say St. John’s Gospel must be censored? Do I — who have read Freud and know what the future of an illusion really is, and know that religious belief is ineradicable as long as we remain a stupid, poorly evolved mammalian species — think that some Canadian law is going to solve this problem? Please.

No, our problem is this: our prefrontal lobes are too small, and our adrenaline glands are too big, and our thumb/finger opposition isn’t all that it might be, and we’re afraid of the dark, and we’re afraid to die, and we believe in the truths of holy books that are so stupid and so fabricated that a child can — and all children do, as you can tell by their questions — actually see through them. And I think it should be, religion, treated with ridicule and hatred and contempt. And I claim that right.

Now, let’s not dance around. Not all monotheisms are exactly the same at the moment. They’re all based on the same illusion, they’re all plagiarisms of each other, but there’s one in particular that at the moment is proposing a serious menace not just to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but to quite a lot of other freedoms too. And this is the religion that exhibits the horrible trio of self-hatred, self-righteousness, and self-pity.

I’m talking about militant Islam. Globally, it’s a gigantic power. It controls an enormous amount of oil wealth, several large countries and states, with an enormous fortune. It’s pumping the ideology of Wahhabism and Salafism around the world, poisoning societies where it goes, ruining the minds of children, stultifying the young in its madrassas, training people in violence, making a cult of death and suicide and murder.

That’s what it does globally, it’s quite strong. In our societies, it poses as a cringing minority, whose faith you might offend, which deserves all the protection that a small and vulnerable group might need.

Now, it makes quite large claims for itself. It says it’s the final revelation. It says that God spoke to one illiterate businessman in the Arabian Peninsula, three times, through an archangel, and that the resulting material — which as you can see when you read it — is largely plagiarized from the Old and the New Testament — almost of all of it, actually, plagiarized, ineptly, from the Old and New Testament — is the be accepted as a divine revelation and as the final and unalterable one, and that those who do not accept this revelation are fit to be treated as cattle, infidels, potential chattel, slaves, and victims.

Well, I tell you what: I don’t think Muhammad ever heard those voices. I don’t believe it. And the likelihood that I’m right, as opposed to the likelihood that a businessman who couldn’t read had bits of the Old and New Testament re-dictated to him by an archangel, I think puts me much more near the position of being objectively correct.

But who is the one under threat? The person who promulgates this, and says I’d better listen, because if I don’t I’m in danger, or me, who says, no, I think this is so silly you can even publish a cartoon about it.

And up go the placards, and up go the yells and the howls and the screams, “Behead those” — this is in London, this is Toronto, this is in New York, it’s right in our midst now — “Behead those who cartoon Islam!”

Do they get arrested for hate speech? No. Might I get in trouble for saying what I’ve just said about the Prophet Muhammad? Yes, I might. Where are your priorities, ladies and gentlemen? You’re giving away what is most precious in your own society, and you’re giving it away without a fight, and you’re even praising the people who want to deny you the right to resist it. Shame on you, while you do this. Make the best use of the time you’ve got left. This is really serious.

Now, if you look anywhere you like — because we’ve had invocations of a rather drivelling and sickly kind tonight for our sympathy: “What about the poor fags? What about the poor Jews? The wretched women who can’t take the abuse, and the slaves, and their descendents, and the tribes who didn’t make it and were told their land was forfeit?” — look anywhere you like for the warrant for slavery, for the subjection for women as chattel, for the burning and flogging of homosexuals, for ethnic cleansing, for antisemitism: for all of this, you can look no further than a famous book that’s on every pulpit in this city, and in every synagogue, and in every mosque.

And then just see if you can square the fact that the force that is the main source of hatred is also the main caller for censorship. And when you’ve realized, therefore, that you’re faced this evening with a gigantic false antithesis, I hope that still won’t stop you from giving the motion before you the resounding endorsement that it deserves.

Thanks, awfully. Night-night.

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The Editors

Senior editors of the Skeptical Libertarian.

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