I recently attended the History conference of the Athens Institute of Education and Research. Even the organizers admit it’s something of an occasion to visit Athens. I decided to praise the ancient Athenians for their notion of parrhesia (despite their brilliantly self-destructive flaws) and criticize our current pusillanimous academic scene’s dhimmi behavior vis-a-vis Arab and Islamic efforts to bully us into curtailing our freedom of speech so we can “respect” their thin skin. No one challenged me, and later, singly, a dozen people came to tell me how glad they were I had spoken up. I wonder how deep the politically-correct consensus goes, or is it as fragile as the crowd’s praise of the emperor’s new clothes? Below, my talk.
Freedom of Speech and the Thrash of Globalizing Cultures:
Lessons from Ancient Athens for the 21st Century
The so-called “Democratic West” today faces significant challenges both from other cultures, and from critics generated from within. Some of these challenges involve typical competition from rival societies, and helpful self-criticism from members of our own societies. But some represent lethal attacks, both from the outside and from within, and we seem to have exceptional difficulty telling the difference between beneficent and malevolent discourse. This talk is both about the Athenian principle of Parrhesia (“free speech”), and an illustration of it.
Let’s begin with why speech is almost universally not free. In most cultures it is allowed, expected, even required that alpha males shed blood for the sake of honor… if not another’s blood, then one’s own blood (as in seppuku). If you criticize those in power, they will make you pay; if they do not, they lose face and their power immediately begins to wane. People self-censor to avoid suffering the inevitable consequences. In such cultures, violence and intimidation pervade; indeed in tribal warrior cultures, one is not a “man” until one has killed another man. And you’re surely not a man if another demeans you publicly and you do not respond.
But the free tongue is silenced not only by political violence, but by group solidarities. Here we also find the working of a deep-rooted solidarity that insists on silence: “my side right or wrong.” Here we have community pressures in punishing violators: failure to side with “one’s own,” brings shame, and effectively excommunicates the offender. If I do not avenge my relative, I am not a man. Thus any breaking of ranks, even if done on principle, will bring accusations of cowardice not only from the opposing clan, but more devastatingly, from relatives.
And finally we silence ourselves: if one will shed blood to counter unwanted criticism, how much the more will one not reveal embarrassing things about oneself. As a principle, one might describe public self-criticism – admission of fault, sin, failure – as something people avoid whenever possible. As a French friend of mine said, “in France no one admits they were wrong; it’s a sign of weakness.” Public self-criticism is like chewing broken glass; virtually no one does it voluntarily.
The overall point I want to make here is that given these cultural and personal dimensions, the principle of “freedom of speech,” or differently put, the art of giving and receiving public criticism, is actually opposed by an extraordinary array of forces. Its accomplishment, therefore, takes far more than merely legislating free speech or a free press. If the cultural dimensions, both individual and group, are not addressed, no legislation will make a significant difference. Obviously and thankfully, we all self-censor, but the degree of self-censorship, especially in political issues, makes a key difference in the cultural “atmosphere.”
Which brings me now to one of the crucial accomplishments of Athenian society in the middle of the first millennium BCE: the extension of the right of parrhesia, to the public as a whole, or isegoria.
The Athenians, as they developed their democracy increasingly identified Parrhesià with courage. Notes Foucault: “the parrhesiastes says something which is dangerous to himself and thus involves a risk.” When the Chinese courtier, in a famous legend, brings his coffin to court the day he intends to tell the emperor he disagrees with him, he is a parrhesiastes; so was Diogenes when took on Alexander the Great. If a teacher tells a student the truth, it is not Parrhesià; if a student tells a teacher the truth, it is. By the end of this talk, I’ll let you decide whether I have exercised Parrhesià.
But Parrhesià also has a non-political dimensions — you admit the truth to yourself even if it threatens your self-image, or, more dangerously, offends your community. The ancient Cynics practiced a style of Parrhesià that on principle flaunted convention, and spoke provocative truth no matter what the social consequences. (According to one version, they got their name because, like dogs (kyon, kynos), they behaved without any shame (anaideia), sleeping and making love in the street.) As Janis Joplin put it to a generational revolt kicked off by the “Free Speech movement” in Berkeley: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Or as Diogenes put it, combining his lack of shame with his sharp and free tongue: “other dogs bite their enemies, I bite my friends to save them.”
My fifteen minutes do not allow me even a short survey of how this idea played in history, but I want to emphasize three interlocking issues that made this extraordinary development possible. First, as opposed to cultures of consensus, ancient Greece was one of Agon, competition on all levels including verbal, producing it exceptional literary achievements – philosophy and theatre. Second, Isegoria, or the extension of parrhesia to every member of the polity, including – most exceptionally – manual laborers. Without this, no democracy. To quote Thucydides, one of the great practitioners of Parrhesià, slightly out of context: “to be happy means to be free and to be free means to be brave.”
But above all, isegoria calls for an exceptional level of trust in the collective and individual abilities – and courage – of the demos to exercise Parrhesià wisely. For that to happen, the strongest must exercise a quiet courage, not that of the boastful warrior, but of he who submits to verbal disputes, resolved by the public consensus. Parrhesià as a common right demands that alpha males develop an exceptionally thick skin; it means that people must endure not just criticism but even ridicule without striking back violently. It means an exceptional level of psychological security. This is perhaps the least explored and most significant dimension of the problem, but I think it fair to say, that many Athenians of the fifth century BCE possessed this quiet if exhilarating courage.
Of course there’s an enormous payoff to self-criticism: it allows exceptional learning curves because it permits one to examine and avoid past mistakes. It makes meritocracy possible since all public figures are subject to criticism and, if necessary, to replacement. It makes any kind of science and history possible. So this combination of self-criticism, free speech, and public dispute play a critical role in the emergence of modern society, with its scientific disciplines, its historical consciousness, its egalitarian and meritocratic principles, its tolerance, its free press. And in the astonishing success that democratic culture has experienced in the modern world, free speech and press have become “universal human rights.”
Demopaths and Parrhesiaphobia
But for all the pleasant and accomplished pictures one can draw of ancient Athens, or the modern world, it remains true that the price for these accomplishments is something highly painful and unpleasant: as I said, tolerating Parrhesià and engaging in the public self-criticism it demands, is, on both an individual and collective level, akin to chewing broken glass. Most cultures don’t tolerate parrhesia, on the political or on the social plane; and they all have elaborate ways of enforcing the silence they demand on behalf of the powerful.
One of the major errors that we, the products of modern culture, make – and most especially academics who are raised in a culture of public self-criticism – is to assume that the benefits so outweigh the costs that everyone understands and accepts the principles of Parrhesià. But I want to argue today that the opposite is true, that despite widespread legislation on freedom of speech and press, most societies manage to throttle those freedoms in “informal” unofficial ways. My own experience with the French media over the al Durah affair suggests that even one of the modern birthplaces of democracy has problems with a free press.
Perhaps the culture that has reacted most powerfully to the spread of Parrhesià in the world today is the Arab world. Indeed, from an historical point of view, comparing the Arab world today with the situation in the 12th cn, one might even argue that it has regressed in its encounter with the modern world, indeed it seems to have developed a form of parrhesiaphobia, in which the existence of free speech constitutes an existential threat – to culture and to religion. And the most acute expression of this parrhesiaphobia is found in the neo-Islam that has gained increasing strength over the last generation.
Since 1989, with the Salman Rushdie affair, Jihadi Muslims have engaged in a series of assaults on the principles of freedom of speech in the West. In every case these efforts at bullying the West have succeeded. The two most striking came in the 21st century: the Muhammad Cartoon Affair, and the Pope’s comments on violent Islam, both of which provoked violence intended to silence the critics of Islam. As the signs carried in a violent demonstration outside the Danish embassy in London read: “Slay/Behead/Butcher those who insult/mock Islam.”
Clearly these folks do not believe in freedom of speech. But they do demand freedom of speech, and we provide it. In the case of the Danish embassy protest, British cops defended the rights of Muslim extremists who announced the forthcoming European Holocaust: “Europe you will pay; extermination is on its way.”
This has made us, rightly, a joke to those radical Muslims who want to reinstate Sharia law. When the pope said Islam is inherently a violent religion and Muslims rioted around the world, the joke – and the shame – should have been on them. Instead, the very people who illustrate the pope’s remarks get to laugh when our intelligentsia pressures him into making an apology.
Indeed, I think our excessive adherence to a kind of post-modern political correctness in which we dare not judge the “subaltern” underdog, in which we grant a kind epistemological priority to the “other,” has created a new phenomenon, what I’d like to call “demopathy,” a variant on the ancient Greek plague of demagogy. Demopaths demand democratic and human rights even though they have no intention of granting those rights to others. As one Muslim put it on Belgian radio: “I demand from you according to your principles, the freedom of speech that I will deny you according to my principles.”
Most are less honest: like the Muslim Brotherhood front, CAIR, they loudly demand that Muslim rights be respected, even as they protect and foster Muslim radicals. As long as we are dupe to these hypocrites, we undermine the precious heritage that we retrieved from ancient Athens and have so admirably enshrined as the normative standard in the world today.
Let me conclude by noting three things: First, I suspect that much of our misplaced “respect” for offended Muslims has less to do with genuine respect than with fear, and that rather than defer to his or her rage by going out of our way not to provoke them, we need to tell them to get a thicker skin. If you do a Venn diagram of what we would do were we generous to a fault and what we would do if we were afraid, the two circles would overlap almost entirely. The Muslims who intimidate us are not fooled by the conceit: they know we are afraid. And in showing this fear we strengthen the radicals and undermine the genuinely moderate among them.
Second: beneath our exaggerated deference lies not only fear but contempt, a kind of racism of low expectations in which we fail to rebuke Muslims – whether for engaging in the violence or justifying it – because we do not think they can handle it. And just as they know we’re afraid, not respectful, they also sense our contempt. What a combination of traits designed to provoke the enduring hatred in that “other”!
Third: as the ancient Athenians noted, Parrhesià is defined by courage, something of which our intellectual elite today around the world is in sore need. I firmly believe that this cultural clash between Islam and the West need not be a clash so much as a thrash of civilizations, that if we show some respect for ourselves and our values, and for Muslims as human beings capable of rising above honor-driven sensibilities, we can resolve many of these issues in the realm of the discourse rather than weapons. The Athenians taught us both that Parrhesià is the key to democracy, and that “the secret to that freedom is courage.”
And to any Muslims who hear or read these words, and might take offense, let me add to Diogenes comment about biting my friends, William Blake’s Proverb of Hell: Opposition is true friendship. Don’t walk away hurt; let’s talk.