In the semi-fictional motion picture QUILLS about the last days of 18th century French philosopher Marquis de Sade, we are left with the impression of a man that so enjoyed defying societal conventions that he relished in his illusory antagonism. Of course he was man who deliberately went out of his way to offend church and state, to confront the hypocrisy of bourgeois and aristocratic society with his graphic sexual depictions. In the end, however, once we strip away Marquis de Sade's extraordinarily creative sexual facade as articulated in his writings, he was just a man demanding the freedom to be human, to feel human, even while in a small prison cell forced to use his feces to write words on the walls as a reminded he has an intellect that cannot be imprisoned.As free moral agents presumed to be endowed with free will, at least for those rejecting Spinoza’s doctrine of determinism, human beings are free to choose and to express themselves within the context of natural laws and societal traditions and institutions that condition their minds. If acting according to human nature is the way to achieve freedom, then what are the perimeters of human nature, given that there are many theories of human nature mostly rooted in historical traditions and cultures. Does human nature and freedom mean the same thing to an American Christian fundamentalist as to a Hindu in New Delhi, and do those concepts have the same meaning today to a New Yorker as they did to a Puritan living in 18th century Pennsylvania, or to a French Catholic living in Paris at the time of Marquis de Sade?
In Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man, Marquis de Sade speaking through the mouth of the dying man protests when the priest tells him that he is free. “Yes, in terms of your prejudices; but reason puts them to rout, and the theory of human freedom was never devised except to fabricate that of grace, which was to acquire such importance for your reveries.” Eighteenth-century French society condemned Sade for his “libertine lifestyle” as much as for his work; an aristocratic society under despotic monarchy that this creative but controversial author rejected as corrupt and unjust. If he lived in the American colonies, the treatment would have been comparable, if not much worse.Sade’s life and work were subject to suppression in the 18th century, while today his literary works are material for college students and the thinking literature reader. If the intention is as Voltaire wrote that, “we can, by speech and pen, make men more enlightened and better,” the question is whether the author’s honest intent to make men better conflicts with societal convention as was obvious in Voltaire’s case; and if that raises the question of moral relativism?
As corrupt and unjust as it was for England’s workers and peasants, and as hypocritical about the gentry and the bourgeoisie, Victorian culture nevertheless upheld a pristine image for the sake of appearances. Victorian society punished deviations because the elites of the time were intent on never seeing their reflection on a real mirror and instead chose an impressionist painting representative of an image where a cultural false identity suited them far better than the concealed reality.
From the era of European monarchies to 20th-century dictators, freedom of expression has been at the core of power primarily because molding the mass mind (public opinion) is the domain that historically the state has chosen to zealously guard, and it still does to this day but in very sophisticated circumspect ways instead of resorting to torture and prison. This is so at least in some countries and with a segment of citizens depending on social status and political influence.
Because restrictions are invariably imposed by external agents like the state and other societal institutions that the individual internalizes and exercises self-imposed censorship owing to self-interest, the lack of alternatives, the realization that free will is only free within an institutional framework, can lead to what R. D. Laing, in The Divided Self, calls a “false self.” Human beings, at least or at most if you like intellectuals, attach value to free speech because it is what the raw material on which the self is based but intertwined with and subordinated by the “false self.”
The libertarian view may very well take free speech to the limits of human nature and civilization that determine free speech perimeters for the “normal” person (one not influenced by substances, suffering from mental or physical debilitations). However, the forum itself determines the degrees and nuances of free speech, for it is only natural that let us say two brothers or husband and wife will apply different standards to their speech when they converse about intimate matters than they would in a public forum. Free speech perimeters are socio-politically and culturally conditioned; above all, specifically determined by forum and circumstances, thus the realization that free will is indeed constricted.
It is not so much a case where free speech exposes institutional hypocrisy, corruption and decadence as Marquis de Sade and many other scholars have argued, especially since most people have learned to expect institutional corruption, etc. for they are in fact a reflection of the “evil” aspect of human nature (limitations reflecting the finite nature of man). Instead of the idealist criteria rooted in the Renaissance-Scientific Revolution-Enlightenment bourgeois revolution of thought designed to call attention to flawed institutional structures and to suggest constructive alternatives, free speech based on utilitarian criteria is perhaps more the norm in the lives of people driven less by idealism and more by survival, and beyond survival ambition and egoism.
Of course, the clever writer/speaker, as so many great authors have proved from centuries past, can convey the point to an audience without having the authorities censor the work. Because the state as the representative of the political and financial elites is the guardian of social order, freedom of speech as a fundamental human right has been relegated to the political domain and far less to the business sector, where self-censorship is readily understood for those interested in continued employment, promotion, benefits, etc.
The issue of absolute free speech falls into the same domain as moral absolutes, and it is an issue of humanist relativism v. theistic dogmatism. If human beings can agree that under no circumstances can we justify killing infants for no apparent reason, although this has been done throughout the ages, then the belief that there are no moral absolutes falls apart, no matter how much we wish to defend existential ethical ambiguity. Similarly, if we can agree that free speech intentionally or not will cause harm, does the principle of “freedom” then take precedence over the moral issue? Civilization needs free speech to thrive as much today as in the age of Voltaire, but enlightened free speech with redeeming human and social value–as Voltaire wrote, to make men better .