About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Currently reading: In Defence of Freedom of Speech

I'm currently halfway through Chris Berg's In Defence of Freedom of Speech: From Ancient Greece to Andrew Bolt. At this stage, it's a fascinating book, and it's written in a nice, clear, pleasant style; it packs in a lot of information in an enjoyable manner.

The book is very much what you might expect with that sub-title: it is tracking through the intellectual history of concepts of free speech, and the various justifications that have been used to support the idea. It's filling in some gaps in my knowledge - something that is always welcome - and I'm particularly enjoying Berg's account of various Enlightenment-era debates.

I guess that anything that is going to be very controversial from my point of view is yet to come: Berg is really just starting to foreshadow what his ultimate philosophical emphasis will be, and how it applies to contemporary societies, especially Australia. But even if I find I disagree with some of the analysis in the second half - we'll see, we'll see - the book is worth a read just for the first half. Besides, I'm not looking to have all my prejudices catered for; I'd prefers to have something that will challenge them. I'm guessing that Berg will be more sympathetic to Andrew Bolt than I am, but if so let's see (and consider) the argument.

More generally, we sorely need a debate about freedom of speech in Australia. Ideas of free speech seem to be under attack wherever I look. I detail some of my more specific concerns about this in my chapter in Warren Bonett's The Australian Book of Atheism, which I encourage you all to read (both my chapter, in particular, and the entire book). In the circumstances, Berg's full-length attempt to generate public debate, and to defend one of our most fundamental freedoms, is a laudable project. I'll probably say a bit more about it (perhaps elsewhere) when I've finished reading, but meanwhile I'm glad to have broached this volume.


Greg Camp said...

Here in the U.S. of A., we feel rather pleased about ourselves regarding free speech--until such time as difficult cases arise, that is. We also have a recent Supreme Court ruling that basically declared money to be a form of speech, meaning that a few have much louder voices.

I lean toward the view that even yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater is all right, so long as it was meant as a point of discussion. What's the typical Australian position on the subject?

The Rev Mountain said...

I'm in the same position, and I'm guessing at approximately the same stage in the book. I'm guessing I may not agree with some of the second half when it comes to the Bolt decision, but thus far am thoroughly enjoying it.

Russell Blackford said...

Greg, Australians usually say that they favour freedom of speech and think it's important. But what that means in practice is not so certain - it's easy to favour freedom of speech for speech of kinds that you personally find inoffensive. The tough question is always whether you favour freedom of speech for speech of kinds that you despise, or resent, or object to morally, etc. I'm not sure how many Australians are up to the latter.

Russell Blackford said...

TRM, the Bolt decision doesn't really have a big role in the book. I guess the emphasis in the title is for topicality and commercial reasons.

That said, Berg is much closer to being an absolutist about freedom of speech than I am, and I guess that's because he's much closer to being an absolutist about what he calls "moral autonomy".

I'm still enjoying it, though, as I get close to the end.

Warren said...

I haven't started it yet. I wonder whether it'll address some of my increasing concerns of the power of technology to enhance the ability for misinformation and misunderstanding to spread and dislodge real and more accurate information.

It seems to me we're getting to the point where the power an individual has is increasingly potentially dangerous (I'm thinking specifically of areas of health, evolution, security and climate science). I guess this falls directly in the path of your question, Russell, about favouring things one agrees with over the alternative. I haven't read enough or thought long enough about this to make a more meaningful assessment of this situation yet.

Greg Camp said...

Warren, good point. I fight that battle every day in my English composition classes. One essential skill to be taught at all levels of education is critical thinking, but that requires people actually to think--gasp!

Legal Eagle said...

You've piqued my interest, Russell: I must get this book and have a look. Once I've finished marking and have a life again!