London: Basic Books, 2022
528 pp. $23.40 (paperback)
In recent years, a growing chorus of voices has become increasingly hostile to free speech. Certain people, ideas, and narratives, we are told, must be suppressed in order to combat “hate speech,” stop misinformation, and “protect democracy.” As Jacob Mchangama explains in his book, Free Speech: A Global History from Socrates to Social Media, these arguments are not new. The “justifications for limiting free speech in the twenty-first century,” he observes, “have more in common with those used many centuries past than perhaps we would like to admit” (2).
From ancient civilizations to the present, free speech has been the exception rather than the rule. Mchangama shows how governments have restricted speech and what motivated them to do so. He also shows the progress made in combatting those restrictions. Such progress, however, has not followed a linear, uninterrupted path but a tortuous one filled with countless missteps, setbacks, and regressions. One reason for this, Mchangama writes, is that “the introduction of free speech sets in motion a process of entropy. The leaders of any political system—no matter how enlightened—inevitably convince themselves that now freedom of speech has gone too far” (2).
Many political leaders resort to censorship because they won’t tolerate being questioned or criticized. This is why, “for much of human history, speaking truth to power was ill-advised and often dangerous” (9). Another common impetus for censorship is to quash various forms of religious dissent, such as heresy, infidelity, apostasy, and blasphemy. In the early Roman Empire, for example, “Christians faced periods of sometimes brutal persecution” (30). After Constantine became emperor, however, he established religious freedom in 313 with the Edict of Milan. But later, he and subsequent emperors favored Christianity, and this favoritism culminated in the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, which declared Christianity the official state religion of the empire. This marked the end of religious freedom for heretics, pagans, and other non-Christians. As Mchangama points out, “The persecuted had become the persecutor” (31). For centuries in the West, Christian leaders enforced orthodoxy via book burning and bans, inquisitions, and executions.
Unfortunately, the persecuted turned persecutor has been a recurring historical theme. Many prominent figures, from Martin Luther to John Milton, have inconsistently defended free speech. . . .
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