In 1553, Michael Servetus, a Spanish physician, was ruthlessly sentenced to death and burned at the stake. Servetus was persecuted by John Calvin—the father of Calvinism—who labeled Servetus a heretic and wanted to silence his dissenting viewpoints. In the end, Servetus paid the ultimate price for his right to speak freely.
The grim history of Michael Servetus shows us that we should not forget how valuable freedom of expression is. Today, freedom of expression is, to a large extent, imperiled by neglect. An emerging demand for restrictions on the right to freely express our thoughts is gaining ground, and a large fraction of American millennials are willing to wrap up minorities with protective layers of limitations on freedom of speech while governments around the world are calling for desperate measures to deal with the predicament of “fake news.” So why is free expression so important, and why should we insist on it?
Why Is It Important?
One of the most cited texts on this subject is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty in which he expounds on the meaning of free expression. The utilitarian approach put forth by Mill provides a strong defense for the freedom of expression, and Mill argues that human progress is inextricably linked to the right to freely express one’s self. For, he argues, by oppressing the pluralism of opinions, we risk suppressing the truth:
”(..)If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
If we curtail the free expression of undesired viewpoints because we regard them as inferior, fallible, or immoral, we deprive ourselves of prospective inventions, ideas, and breakthroughs.
Looking at the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, numerous of formerly undesired scholars and writers are today acknowledged for their influence on modern societies. Who would have predicted that? Similarly, most Christians would disagree with Servetus’ unitarian rejection of the Trinity, but what did the religious community achieve by silencing him? As Mill argues, human beings are fallible, and assumptions should accordingly be subject to scrutiny and contradiction—otherwise, the foundation of our knowledge will be reduced to mere pretensions and superficial premises.
Freedom of expression is vital to human flourishing because new ideas are necessary to sustain economic growth.
We can also prove Mill’s thesis by looking at empirical evidence. In fact, evidence (and here) shows that freedom of expression is positively correlated with growth. Why? The reason is actually quite simple: it allows for people to exchange ideas freely. If disruptive ideas are silenced, they will remain beneath the surface of arbitrary censorship forever. Conversely, if people can interact freely, ideas will breed, as Matt Ridley notes.
Put in other words: freedom of expression is vital to human flourishing because new ideas are necessary to sustain economic growth. But if we insist on interfering with the right to exchange knowledge and experiences, how shall new ideas permeate the surface of civilization?
Tolerance and Freedom of Speech
Some proponents of restrictions on freedom of expression, however, argue that minorities should not be exposed to offensive speech. The absence of limitations on free expression incite hostility and hatred towards minorities, it is argued. Hence, students, policymakers, and well-meaning pundits advocate various forms of censorship. Unrestricted speech, they emphasize, causes great harm to the vulnerable and creates a fertile environment for intolerance. Is it not plausible, though, that unrestricted speech leads to greater tolerance, rather than promoting intolerance?
We can examine this by comparing the United States and Europe. The First Amendment offers strong protections for freedom of expression. In contrast, numerous European countries provide weak protection. Many countries have adopted hate speech laws criminalizing offensive speech while countries such as Germany are strengthening existing laws. Such laws are aimed at deadening hateful speech and intolerance.
Americans seem to be more tolerant despite—or because?—of their strong legal protection of freedom of speech.
You should think that countries with strict hate speech laws are, on average, more tolerant because they disallow the dissemination of bigotry. The data available, however, shows the contrary—as noted here, the supposition that far-reaching protection of freedom of expression increases intolerance does not seem to resonate with reality. In fact, Americans seem to be more tolerant despite—or because?—of their strong legal protection of freedom of speech. As shown by Pew, US citizens are more in favor of free expression compared to Europe and other continents. Moreover, American attitudes towards diversity are more tolerant than Europeans’.
Those findings are rather interesting, and it suggests that countries like the US with well-protected freedom of expression are actually more tolerant. A plausible explanation could be that a solid legal protection of freedom of expression enables spiteful people to exhibit their bigotry. When exposed to dissenting viewpoints, people are given the opportunity to weigh and assess arguments. This will inevitably encourage some people to distance themselves from blatant intolerance. An additional effect is that the exposure to extremist speech elicits increased self-control when it comes to anti-social behavior, thus promoting tolerance in society. This thesis comes from The Tolerant Society, in which Lee Bollinger introduced the supposition that our tolerance towards others is increased when confronted with extremist speech and pluralism.
Michael Servetus Today
The destiny of Michael Servetus shows that restrictions on freedom of expression require serious deliberations. By persecuting and silencing dissent, we not only encourage conformity, we also deprive future generations of innovations and ideas to the detriment of human progress. As John Milton noted in Areopagitica:
Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.