Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Is freedom of expression a principle worth defending?

I think the answer is yes, though it's clear that a number of people feel otherwise.  That includes many people who wouldn't come out and say so straightforwardly, and who might indignantly deny the suggestion that they fall in that category.  But in practice they make it clear, explicitly or in effect, that they think freedom of expression is not really such a big deal; that it's not a principle worth actively defending if there are costs or dangers or disadvantages for doing so; and that it's often not just prudent, but desirable and praiseworthy, to sacrifice or downplay it fairly readily when it conflicts with other priorities or concerns.

Christopher Hitchens strongly disagreed with such people, and one of his virtues was that he was exceptionally effective at cutting through their obfuscations and moral evasions and calling them to account.  Nick Cohen just retrieved and posted a video clip of one such occasion.  It's an admirably clarifying and exhilarating blast from the past. Hitchens is no longer with us, alas, but his voice is still there.

(Hitchens's main intervention in the discussion, in response to an opening statement by Shirley Williams, runs from about 1:08-3:11. But he comes back again at 7:53 to add some very important points.)

—Jeff Weintraub