So, while we all struggle in our educated, liberal brains to wrap our heads around whether publishers should or should not publish the deluded writings of human-tighty-whitey-truck-skid and minor-professor-turned-incel-army-building-conman Jordan Peterson (spoiler, they’re not obligated to, but will because Cha-CHING!), The Guardian looks at the history of Free Speech as a thing we all use to justify saying whatever-the-fuck-we-want from whatever-the-fuck-perspective.
One reason is that “free speech” isn’t really a norm, but a slogan: a label each of us applies to language and conventions we approve of. People complaining about threats to free speech sometimes don’t like the way new norms and voices are challenging their own. Why shouldn’t Boris Johnson be allowed to talk of “piccaninnies”? How can anyone expect me to refer to a person as “they”? It’s a free country, isn’t it?
None of this is new: what free speech means has been controversial for about 400 years. Our modern concept of it began as a radical Protestant argument – that it was pointless to punish Christians for arguing about dogma and worship, because these were questions to which ultimately only God knew the answers. It was this freedom of speaking and printing that John Milton famously extolled in his Areopagitica (1644): the liberty of speculating about God’s hidden truths. It was never meant to extend to debates about public affairs, politics or morality.