10 September 2008
New Zealand Herald columnist Paul Thomas suggests that society should measure a person’s worth according to whether “they accept Voltaire’s formula: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. This proposal will be well received by the considerable number of bloggers and political poseurs who proclaim Voltaire’s supposed dictum as their guiding principle in life. But one cannot be sure that Voltaire himself would pass the test because on all the evidence he was never guilty of making such a demonstrably silly claim. The actual author of this widely quoted maxim was a biographer of Voltaire who wisely chose to remain anonymous.
In reality human beings have never given their lives in defense of the right to propagate ideas with which they profoundly disagree. It is only rare individuals - martyrs of the faith - who give their lives in defense of an idea with which they do agree. The rest of us are habitually reluctant to express unpopular opinions. Even Saint Peter denied Jesus in a moment of crisis. Others, like Galileo, who do profess an unorthodox belief, go on to recant under pressure. For better or for worse, that is the way we are.
Those who profess their willingness to die for the sake of the freedom to express beliefs of which they disapprove missed a splendid opportunity to put their principle into effect when the British “holocaust denier” David Irving was refused permission to embark on a speaking tour of New Zealand. But, so far as I am aware, no lives were sacrificed in defense of Irving’s right to express his unpopular opinions. The internet did not fall silent as it mourned the loss of all those thousands who profess to live by Voltaire’s dictum. And the New Zealand Herald launched no long-running campaign with strident banner headlines warning of “threats to our personal liberties”.
APN, the publishers of the New Zealand Herald and employers of Paul Thomas, were happy to mount such a crusade in the name of “free speech” in an attempt to block the passage of the Electoral Finance Act. But in doing so they were more interested in furthering their own political and commercial interests than in upholding the freedoms of the public. Their real attitude to “freedom of speech” (not to be confused with “freedom of the press”) is illustrated by the way in which APN executives used uniformed security guards in an attempt to prevent the writer from carrying a placard outside APN headquarters in Albert Street, Auckland. (The placard exposed APN for misrepresenting New Zealand involvement in the Vietnam war).
The good news is that there is no call for people in the media to “defend to the death” the right to express opinions with which they disagree. Non-fatal means would suffice. They could, for example, allow and even encourage the expression of ideas which conflict with their own commercial and political interests.
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