The revolutionary power of heresy
Freedom of speech has toppled tyrants and propelled humanity forward. We lose it at our peril.
Words hurt, they say. This is the ideological underpinning to so much censorship today – the idea that words wound, as a punch might wound. The imagery of violence is deployed in almost every call for censure in the 21st-century West. Speech has been reimagined as aggression, hence ‘microaggressions’. People speak of feeling ‘assaulted’ by speech. ‘Words, like sticks and stones, can assault; they can injure; they can exclude’ – that’s the thesis of Words That Wound, an influential tome published in 1993. Activists claim to feel ‘erased’ by controversial or disagreeable utterances. Trans campaigners speak darkly of ‘trans erasure’, as if words from the other side of the divide, the speech of gender-critical feminists, might contain that most awesome and nullifying power of genocide.
Words make us feel ‘unsafe’, people say. Witness the rise and rise of Safe Spaces on university campuses, designed to ensure students’ psychic security against the terrible threat of their hearing an idea they disagree with. Safe Spaces recreate the state of childhood, complete with colouring books and ice cream, speaking to how determinedly some long to retreat from the adult world of hurtful chatter and brickbats.
The United Nations wrings its hands over ‘hate speech and real harm’ (my emphasis). The ‘weaponisation of public discourse for political gain’ can lead to ‘stigmatisation, discrimination and large-scale violence’, it says. Better keep a check on those hurtful words. One US university even maintains a list of ‘words that hurt’. It includes the phrase ‘You guys’. That scandalous utterance ‘erases the identities of people who are in the room’ and ‘generalise[s] a group of people to be masculine’. Shut it down. Silence that act of violence.
Both the formal and informal punishment of words rests on the belief that they can wound. Laws in Europe claim to guard people from speech that is alarming, distressing, hurtful. The overlords of social media censor speech for ‘the wellbeing of our community’. Everywhere the cry goes up: words injure, they can cut like a knife, they can be used as ‘weapons to ambush, terrorise, wound, humiliate and degrade’. And just as the law protects us from such dreadful things when they are done to our bodies with fists and kicks, surely it should also protect us from them when they are done to our minds with words and ideas. Surely our psychic wellbeing should be accorded as much respect by the powers-that-be as our physical integrity is.
The temptation of many of us who believe in freedom of speech, in the liberty of all to utter their beliefs and ideas, is to damn this claim that ‘words hurt’ as a libel against public discourse. As a slippery untruth that is cynically designed to depict words as all-powerful, as containing so much energy, so much heat, that they can lay waste to self-esteem and even make us fret over erasure, over being wiped out entirely by that sore comment or that disturbing idea. Actually, we often say, words are just words. They’re not sticks, they’re not stones, they’re words. They won’t kill you, they won’t hurt you, you’ll be fine. They say words are a force of nature like no other, we say: ‘Relax. It’s just speech.’
We need to stop doing this. We need to stop countering the new censors by accusing them of exaggerating the power and the potency of words. We need to stop responding to their painting of speech as a dangerous, disorientating force by defensively pleading that words don’t wound because they’re just words. We need to stop reacting to their branding of speech as a weapon, as a tool of ambush and degradation, by effectively draining speech of its power and saying: ‘It’s only speech.’ As if speech were a small thing, almost an insignificant thing, more likely to contain calming qualities than upsetting ones, more likely to help us overcome conflict rather than stir it up, more likely to offer a balm to your soul than to stab at it as a knife might stab at your body.
For when we do this, we play down the power of words. And that includes the power of words to wound. Words do wound. It’s true. Words hurt people, they hurt institutions, they hurt belief systems. Words make churches tremble and ideologies quake. Words inflict pain on priests and princes and ideologues. Words upend the social order. Words rip away the comforting ideas people and communities might have wrapped themselves in for decades, centuries perhaps. Words ambush the complacent and degrade the powerful. Words cause discord, angst, even conflict. Isn’t every revolution in history the offspring of words? Of ideas? Words do destabilise, they do disorientate. People are right to sometimes feel afraid of words. Words are dangerous. When they say words wound, we should say: ‘I agree.’
But here’s the thing: it is precisely because words can wound, precisely because of their power to unsettle, that they should never be restricted. It is precisely the unpredictable energy and influence of speech that means it must be put beyond the jurisdiction of all earthly authorities. Because nothing that empowers the individual to such an extent that it allows him to sow and spread ideas that might one day change society for the better should ever be constricted. They say the power of speech justifies its censure and control. We should say the opposite: the fact that speech is powerful is all the justification we need to let it be free, everywhere and always.
We must point out that where words hurt – and they do – censorship hurts more. Physically, spiritually, existentially, censorship is more wounding to the individual, and to society, than unfettered speech is. Those in the 21st century who claim to feel bruised and bloodied by words should take some time to read up on the heretics of history, and even the heretics of today. You want to see wounding? Witness their trials.
Consider William Tyndale (1494-1536), one of the great heretics in the history of England. Tyndale was a 16th-century religious scholar who would become a leading light in the Protestant Reformation. His crime, his utterance of words that hurt, was to translate the Bible into English. That was forbidden at the time. Biblical knowledge was for priests only, for men versed in Latin, for men of learning and insight, not for the English-speaking throng. As FL Clarke put it in his great 19th-century biography, The Life of William Tyndale, ‘good and noble’ men thought that ‘for the Bible to be placed in the hands of the common people was a dangerous thing – the poor and ignorant should be content to hear only those portions that the priests might think fit to read in the churches; they were the shepherds who were appointed to feed the sheep’.
Tyndale disagreed. And he was willing to risk life and limb for this disagreement. He made it his life’s work to translate, print and distribute the Bible. Forbidden from doing so in England, he travelled to Germany, where Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German had appeared in 1522. Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament went to print in Cologne in 1525. But his continual hunting by agents of the English Crown and the Catholic Church – he was ‘hunted like an outlaw’, always ‘working clandestinely’ – forced him on to the run. He moved further south in Germany, to work with another printer, where he published a pocket edition of the Bible. This is how that thing we take for granted today – a carriable, readable version of the Bible in one’s own tongue – was created. Tyndale’s Bibles were smuggled on ships to England, hidden in cargos of grain and among other merchandise, ready to be spirited among the people by his sympathisers. The Bibles were ‘copied in secret and read in terror’, says Clarke.
It is difficult to overstate Tyndale’s contribution to freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. In translating and printing and spreading the Bible, Tyndale was doing more than challenging the stranglehold that the Catholic Church had over religious ideas, over the Word of God itself. He was also, in turn, expressing a great faith in ordinary people’s ability to understand things for themselves. To no longer require ‘shepherds’ to instruct them and guide their thoughts. His trust was not only in God, but also in the capacity, as Clarke had it, of ‘the ignorant and the unlearned’ to enlighten themselves. It was a searingly radical idea. It remains a radical idea, still unfulfilled in so many ways.
No, we are no longer deprived of English-language Bibles. But we are discouraged from reading certain texts, lest they unsettle or inflame our small minds. ‘Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or servants to read?’, as the prosecutor in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial of 1960 infamously asked. Today, good and noble people still believe that for certain books ‘to be placed in the hands of the common people [is] a dangerous thing’. Only now they don’t crush or pulp said books, as the ecclesiastical authorities did with Tyndale’s Bibles, but rather add trigger warnings to them. That’s the new form of shepherding, where experts, rather than priests, attach danger signs to books so that we sheep will know of the risk involved in reading them, and might avoid reading them entirely.
The other idea – the heretical idea – that people should be free to read and see for themselves was one Tyndale was willing to die for. He was condemned as a heretic by Cardinal Wolsey in 1529. The authorities eventually caught up with the Bible-translating outlaw and he was arrested in 1535 and transported to Vilvoorde Castle near Brussels. The next year he was convicted of heresy. He was strangled to death in public and then burnt at the stake so that ‘the mortal remains of William Tyndale were an indistinguishable heap of ashes!’. Words hurt? They do. But not nearly as much as strangulation and fire. Censorship is infinitely more violent than freedom.
Or consider another great heretic of old, John Lilburne (1614-57). Lilburne was a political agitator. He was a Leveller during, and after, the English Civil War – that portion of the rebels that believed in a greater expansion of democratic rights than Cromwell was willing to concede. Lilburne coined the term ‘freeborn rights’ to describe the fundamental liberties we all just have, or ought to have. The liberty to think and speak for ourselves and to choose who should govern us.
The idea of representative democracy spread through England like a fire in the 1640s, largely thanks to the ‘blizzard of gloriously intemperate pamphlets from the pen of John Lilburne’. Lilburne raged against the menace of undemocratic, unaccountable rule. ‘Unnatural, irrational, sinful, wicked, unjust, devilish and tyrannical it is’, he wrote, ‘for any man whatsoever – spiritual or temporal, clergyman or layman – to appropriate and assume unto himself a power, authority and jurisdiction to rule, govern or reign over any sort of men in the world without their free consent’. This remains a radical idea, too. Also unfulfilled. To see that, one need only observe the furious reaction of the elites to the swinish multitude’s rejection of the European Union in the 2016 referendum, which was a rejection of the idea that commissions in Brussels should have the right to draw up our laws despite not having our free consent to do so.
Prior to the English Civil War, Lilburne, then young and not well-known, had shown himself as willing as Tyndale had been a century earlier to suffer for his beliefs. In the mid-1630s, William Prynne, the Puritan controversialist, wrote a pamphlet titled News From Ipswich, in which he slammed a particularly intolerant and regressive bishop and took aim at the Star Chamber, too – the institution of royal control over public printing. For this, he was himself dragged before the Star Chamber in 1637 and charged with seditious libel. He was fined, publicly whipped, put in the pillory, had the tops of his ears cut off, and his cheeks were branded with the letters ‘S’ and ‘L’ for seditious libel.
Lilburne, then an apprentice in London in his early twenties, was horrified by the torture of Prynne. He also shared Prynne’s criticisms of the bishops. He had helped to spirit Prynne’s tracts, and others, into England to distribute them among the people. Young Lilburne was himself taken to the Star Chamber and found guilty of smuggling blasphemous materials and condemned to whipping. He was ‘tied to the back of a cart on a hot summer’s day and unremittingly whipped as he walked with a bare back all the way from the eastern end of Fleet Street to Westminster Palace Yard’. One bystander guessed Lilburne had received 500 blows from the whip. His shoulders ‘swelled almost as big as a penny loafe with the bruses of the knotted Cords’.
Most strikingly, Lilburne just wouldn’t shut up. When he arrived at the pillory in Westminster, ‘in spite of his wounds and the burning sunshine’, he loudly told his story and reiterated his criticisms of the bishops. The radical crowd lapped it up. A lawyer told him to shut up, but he wouldn’t. So he was gagged, ‘so roughly that blood spurted from his mouth’, but even that didn’t do the trick. Lilburne took copies of dissident pamphlets from his pockets and threw them among the people. After that, his mouth gagged and his pamphlets all gone, and with no other means of expression left to him, he ‘stamped his feet until the two hours were up’. A good heretic never falls silent, in any circumstance.
So, yes, words hurt. But not as much as receiving 500 lashes and a bloodied gob for the crime of expressing dissident thoughts, of using your speech to ‘hurt’ authority.
Or let us fast forward 400 years to some heretics of today. The good people of Charlie Hebdo. Their offence is well known – they mocked Muhammad. (And other religious leaders, too.) And for that they paid the ultimate price, the same price as Tyndale: execution; death for heresy.
No, the slaughter of 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo offices in January 2015 was not officially sanctioned, as was Tyndale’s strangulation and Lilburne’s public torture. But it can be viewed as a violent expression of an official idea – namely, that it is wrong to give offence, including to Islam.
Indeed, France is a country in which you can be taken to court for calling Islam ‘the stupidest religion’, as novelist Michel Houellebecq was in 2002 (he was acquitted). It’s a country in which you can be fined thousands of euros for demeaning Islam, for saying that Muslims are ‘destroying our country by imposing their ways’, as Brigitte Bardot was in 2008 (and on other occasions, too). Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the radical Islamist brothers who visited that barbarism upon Charlie Hebdo, did not have to look to the Koran or to the statements of Eastern imams to fortify their belief that criticism of their religion is wrong and punishable. That was a belief written into the very laws of the land in which they were born and brought up. Their atrocity can be seen as the militant wing of political correctness, an extrajudicial enforcement of the heresy-hunting that is a central feature of governance and control in the West today.
So, yes, words can be painful. They can be used as weapons. You can feel ‘ambushed, terrorised and wounded’ by them. But that pain is incomparable to the pain of the physical ambush of the Charlie Hebdo offices, and the pain of the grief and sorrow those deaths will have caused. Charlie Hebdo is accused of ‘punching down’. That metaphor of violence – punching – should induce shame in everyone who uses it given the real, barbaric violence the Charlie Hebdo staff suffered for their blasphemies. The barbarism of censorship outweighs the pain of words, every time.
There are other ways censorship hurts us, and society, more than speech does. Censorship dulls our critical senses. It infantilises us by imploring us to trust others to decide on our behalf what we should think about the world. It implicitly instructs us to suspend thought and analysis and instead let the wisdom of the more learned, of today’s secular shepherds, wash over us. Censorship is an invitation to revert to a childlike state, which makes it unsurprising that modern zones of censorship – Safe Spaces – so often resemble kindergartens for adults. Those spaces are a real, physical manifestation of the childish nature censorship asks us all to embrace.
Censorship nurtures rigid thinking, too. When we hide ourselves and our ideas from contestation, debate, mockery and rebuke, our minds become ossified. We start to believe what we believe not because we have tested it against the doubts and disagreements of others, but because we just know it is right. This is how an idea becomes a catechism, how a political movement becomes a religion, how an individual turns from a free thinker into the imperious holder of what he presumes to be perfect, untouchable, unquestionable beliefs. Censorship is the handmaiden of dogmatism. Freedom, in contrast, is the implacable foe of dogmatism.
John Stuart Mill knew the dangers of protecting ideas from challenge. Your every effort to silence speech is an ‘assumption of infallibility’, he said. There is only one way to know if we are right about something, said Mill, and that is by submitting our beliefs to the severe test of public opinion and public dissent. ‘Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right’, he wrote. Assuming rightness in the absence of freedom is how petty tyrants behave, all the way from those good and noble men who wanted to destroy Tyndale’s dangerous Bibles to today’s radical No Platforming of any thinker, politician or feminist whose heretical utterances threaten to expose or upend the new religions, the new ideologies.
And yet even as we remind people of the violence and intolerance of censorship, of censorship’s threat to life as well as to our right to use our faculties of reason, we should not baulk from admitting that speech can be dangerous, too. Speech hurts. Very often it is intended to. That is one of its powers. Indeed, the heretics mentioned above knew very well that their speech was hurtful, that it would feel deeply unsettling and even threatening to many who heard it, and yet they continued to speak. They used their words as weapons.
Tyndale’s idea of an English Bible was genuinely terrifying to the ecclesiastical order of the time and to those who adhered to that order. Tyndale’s Bible will have felt as wounding to the Catholic zealots who threw it into the flames as a Germaine Greer article describing transwomen as a ‘gross parody of my sex’ feels to many activists today.
Lilburne positively revelled in the hurtfulness of his words to the priests and politicians who encountered them. No timid, cautious ‘civil dialogue’ for him – instead, he unleashed that ‘blizzard of gloriously intemperate pamphlets’. Glorious intemperance is a virtue that defenders of free speech might be wise to resurrect. One historical account notes that Lilburne wielded both ‘his pen and sword’ with ‘uncommon perseverance’. He ‘possessed an unconquerable spirit’ and was ‘of so quarrelsome a disposition that it has been appositely said of him that, if there were none living but him, John would be against Lilburne, and Lilburne against John’. There will have been few apologies from Lilburne for causing offence, few denials that words can indeed hurt, especially his words.
As for Charlie Hebdo, the most admirable thing about that magazine is its willingness to offend, to hurt. Just a few days after the massacre it was back to depicting Muhammad, this time holding a ‘Je suis Charlie’ sign with a tear running down his face. Charlie Hebdo hurts not for the sake of it, but as a revolt against the stifling strictures against hurt, against the idea that there is no greater crime than to utter words that might make someone, or some religion, feel bad. To paraphrase Mill’s argument that eccentricity becomes the duty of the free thinker in times of tyranny, we might also say that causing ‘pain’ is a moral obligation in an era in which stopping pain is so often the cynical justification for social control and censorship.
Too often today, believers in the liberty to speak baulk at the truth about words: they hurt. No, they are not violence – equating speech with violence is foolish and wrong. But speech is powerful, it can wound, it can induce pain in some of those who hear it. If speech did not have this power – to unsettle, to overthrow, to change minds and worlds radically – what would be the point of defending it? Surely we defend speech precisely because it contains so much extraordinary energy, because it can be a ‘blizzard’, because it does wound.
Some defenders of free speech end up, no doubt unwittingly, playing the same game as their opponents, by arguing that the heat and fury does indeed have to be drained from society every now and then. Only they think free speech is a better tool for achieving that draining than censorship. Where the censors insist that social control is necessary to maintain civility and calmness, the more liberal voices say that free civil dialogue makes a better fist of that task. There is nothing at all wrong with ‘civil dialogue’, of course. But it is a concept that will likely have been alien to Lilburne, and which would no doubt invoke scoffing at Charlie Hebdo. It seems to suggest that free speech is good because it pacifies, it tempers, it calms, when sometimes free speech is good because it does the opposite of all that. It fucks things up.
As one columnist argues, civility is ‘the biggest weasel word of all’. ‘[W]ords like “respect” and “civility” [are used] to mark the boundaries of free speech’, he says. So on some campuses, free speech is defended, but in the name of civil dialogue, and the consequence is not that different to when free speech is controlled in the name of avoiding harm or offence – that is, colour and daring are discouraged, in preference for the soothing hug of free civility, or therapeutic censure. But freedom of speech is not social work. One is reminded of the words of French film director Claire Denis when she was challenged for not being politically correct in her films: ‘What the fuck? I’m not a social worker.’
We forget the hurtful, wild, unruly nature of unfettered speech at our peril. Societies have fallen as a result of free speech. Churches, too. Ideas that people felt they could not live without, whose destruction they felt would propel them into sorrow and chaos, have been wiped out by free speech. Heresy hurts. It is meant to. As Frederick Douglass said of freedom of speech, it is ‘the dread of tyrants’, for ‘they know its power’. ‘Thrones, dominions, principalities and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgement to come in their presence.’ Make them tremble – that, often, is what the heretic must do. So let’s do it.
Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer.
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All pictures by: Getty.