Bertrand Russell on freedom of speech

Writing to the New York Times on the 20th of April 1940, Bertrand Russell reminded his audience (chiefly, the editors of the Times) of an unpleasant fact. His no-nonsense, that’s-the-way-it-is manner you will recognize as characteristic. “In a democracy,” he urged, “it is necessary that people should learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.”

The occasion of Russell’s letter was a Times editorial implicitly supporting a decision to ban Russell from teaching at the College of the City of New York. The outraged sentiments in this case belong, I presume, to the ecclesiastical authorities, politicians, citizens, and newspaper editorialists who demanded that the College Board ban Russell, and who to that end launched a bilious project of defamation. The history of that project is long, complicated, and rather ugly; a more thorough review of it can be found in the form of an Appendix to Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1988). This account itself is derived from The Bertrand Russell Case, published in 1941 and edited by Horace Kallen and John Dewey. For the present purpose, which is to extrapolate from the above quotation, only a relatively brief sketching of events should suffice.

Russell at first was granted the appointment, by the Board of Higher Education on 26 February 1940, to teach 3 Philosophy courses: logic, foundations of mathematics, relations of pure to applied sciences and the reciprocal influence of metaphysics and scientific theories. Nineteen of the twenty-two Board members were present for the vote, and all nineteen were in support. Only when the decision was made public did trouble begin. A Protestant Episcopal Bishop by the name of Manning wrote to New York’s newspapers, denouncing “a man who is a recognised propagandist against religion and morality, and who specifically defends adultery.” Here I shall interject myself to suggest that these accusations weren’t so errant as they may appear. Russell was a propagandist against religion and, in a sense, against ‘morality’ too, morality here defined as a coercive fear-based system of control grounded in and perpetuated by the Church. Of course, Bishop Manning probably meant to imply that Russell was ‘against moral goodness,’ but that is another matter. The Bishop’s sentiments having been outraged, such quibbles went out the window. As the campaign against Russell aged, other judgements were rendered. The materialist philosopher and self-styled agnostic was called “a professor of paganism,” “a desiccated, divorced and decadent advocate of sexual promiscuity,” “an ape of genius, the devil’s minister of men” and an “anarchist and moral nihilist of Great Britain.” This last quotation openly displays the chauvinism informing these attacks; their general drift is that Russell is not one of Us, he’s one of Them, hence he must be repelled. It’s noteworthy I think that Russell’s response was to defend, not his opinions, but his democratic right to be one of Them. After all, it’s clear that’s what he indeed was.

What happened next is as follows. A member both of the Board and of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Charles H. Tuttle, altered his decision after claiming he’d been ignorant of Russell’s views. Tuttle put the appointment back on the agenda, public vilification intensified, new accusations appeared, and yet the original Board decision was sustained by a vote of 11-7. The campaign however only got nastier, if this was possible. City politicians and administrators urged the cancellation of college funding, the toughening of immigration policy to keep out “dogs” like Russell – the word was Councilman Charles E. Keegan’s – the undertaking of investigations into the education system of New York, tarring and feathering, and so on. During this controversy Russell had his defenders too, among them liberal religious leaders and publishers, academics, and politicians such as City Council Republican Stanley Isaacs, all of whom defended Russell’s appointment at great risk to their careers. Along the way Albert Einstein delivered one of his enduring observations: “Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities.”

Defeat of the Board was undertaken in a lawsuit issued by a Mrs. Jean Kay of Brooklyn and presented before Justice McGeehan. Kay filed a taxpayer’s suit in the New York Supreme Court, where her lawyer argued that Russell had not taken a competitive examination before receiving his appointment. To this, the lawyer added the charges that Russell was an alien, atheist, and an advocate of sexual immorality, all of which necessarily ought to exclude him from teaching. The Board’s lawyer attempted to restrict the case to the legal question of whether an alien could be appointed to a post in a US city college. Unfortunately for both him and Russell, McGeehan was a crusader on behalf of public morality and ruled two days later that Russell’s appointment was an “insult to the people of the City of New York.” Russell later was represented by independent counsel, but an application for permission to answer Mrs. Kay’s and her lawyer’s charges was dismissed by McGeehan on the astonishing ground that Russell had no “legal interest” in the matter. Successive requests for permission to appeal were also denied. However, McGeehan himself could not stop the Board from hiring Russell. In the end it took the combined efforts of New York Mayor LaGuardia, Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons, and several members of City Council, who banded together to ensure that Bertrand Russell would never teach in New York. Mr. Lyons introduced a resolution at the meeting of the Board of Estimate, which was made part of the terms and conditions of the budget. It read, “No funds herein appropriated shall be used for the employment of Bertrand Russell.” No funds were.

Believe it or not, this is the brief version of the story. The full version contains a good deal more twists and turns, principal players, ugliness, and also courage. The general theme of the story, if I may be allowed to use literary terms, is the Struggle for Intellectual Freedom versus the Defence of Decency. On the one hand we have Freedom of Speech, and on the other, ‘No, not if we don’t like what you’re saying.’

Here we arrive at the entrance of the Times. After a long silence, an editorial appeared on 20 April 1940 in which it was argued (among other things) that the appointment of Russell was impolitic and ought to have been declined by the recipient “as soon as its harmful results became evident.” That is to say, none of this would have happened had Russell just shut up and gone away. The Times editorialist concluded that it was all his fault.

In his response, Russell acknowledged that “it would certainly have been more prudent as far as [his] personal interests are concerned” had he declined at once his teaching position. He refused however, arguing a withdrawal would give tacit assent to the proposition that “substantial groups shall be allowed to drive out of public office individuals whose opinions, race or nationality they find repugnant.” As for the controversy he had occasioned:

I do not believe that controversy is harmful on general grounds. It is not controversy and open differences that endanger democracy. On the contrary, these are its greatest safeguards. It is an essential part of democracy that substantial groups, even majorities, should extend toleration to dissentient groups, however small and however much their sentiments outraged.

And then he added, “In a democracy it is necessary that people should learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.” This seems to have been the fundamental issue for Russell, as well as for the people who came to his defence. Challenging this point of view we find the propositions that some things are better left unsaid, and that ‘the people’ have a right to ensure that they aren’t said. This we may designate the right not to endure having our sentiments outraged.

Russell’s argument is, I think, characteristically harsh. We tend to think of freedom as a bundle of personal rights. Put crudely, democracy in this view consists in my doing what I want without you getting in my way and trying to stop me. We tend less to consider the necessary complement of this formulation – that is to say, rarely do we approach democracy from the point of the view of that fellow who has a strong moral impulse to do the stopping. When we do find ourselves in that position, freedom usually ceases to be the issue. The function of Russell’s letter is to make us see the matter from this complementary perspective. We are reminded that going swimmingly about your happy business without the interference of shits isn’t the sole outcome of democracy; it’s also having to live with the daily outrage of people who insist upon going about their happy business, of which you happen not to approve. Bertrand Russell is a writer who reminds you that your civilized comforts are possible only because somewhere there is someone else suffering on your behalf. The loftiest principles have to be founded somehow, usually in the muck. Since most of us tend to see democracy from the Get Off My Cloud perspective, Russell’s habit of looking up at things from the gutter is disconcerting.

Democracy isn’t a convenient arrangement. When Our side is winning then, obviously, it’s all fair and democratic. But when it’s Their side having a day of it, democracy seems somehow to have failed. We are all susceptible to that sort of hypocrisy, aren’t we? The remarkable thing however is that some of the people who came to Russell’s defence must have been personally offended by his views. At the very least, some of his supporters did not share them. Among his voluminous writings – forty-three books by my count – you will have trouble finding one positive word about religion. Russell, especially skilled at invective, reserved his harshest attacks for the church and its representatives. I have no doubt he felt as strongly about abolishing ‘superstition’ as his opponents felt about abolishing ‘immorality.’ Russell, in his own manner, was a moral crusader. In the world toward which he laboured, there was no place for God and religion. And yet among the people who defended his right to speech as well as to teach were Rabbi Jonah B. Wise, Professor J.S. Bixler of Harvard Divinity School, the Reverend John Haynes Holmes, and the Episcopal Reverend Guy Emery Shipler, the last of this list even disputing Bishop Manning’s right to speak on behalf of the Episcopal Church. Given Russell’s opinions, the public support of these individuals was quite generous.

You may also say this support was self-interested, but that does not diminish the gesture. Democracy itself is founded on, among other things, self-interest. When certain people are no longer willing to have their sentiments outraged, and seek to alter social arrangements on that account, the freedom of all is endangered. Russell, a logician, used words with great precision. Note that he did not write, ‘In a democracy, it helps when people learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.’ His view of freedom was self-interested, but it also considered the public interest. Follow Russell’s argument to its logical conclusion (he would be gratified by this approach) and you find the proposition that in a healthy democracy one finds, not only personal liberty, but people who’ve learned to endure being pissed off. One’s self-interest in liberty is easy to identify, and yet there is an equal self-interest in tolerance of others which tends to feel less compelling when you’re hot under the collar.

I’ve been considering freedom and democracy in abstraction, removed from the messiness of real life. Almost no one would argue against freedom in principle. And yet there are cases every day where freedom seems to many an intolerable burden. What do you make, for instance, of the freedom to publish Nazi tracts, kiddie porn, and hate literature? Here is a question that invites us to draw our personal boundary around freedom, something each of us does. In my case, I almost wrote in the above sentence: “What do you make, for instance, of the ‘freedom’ to publish Nazi tracts, etc.” The quotation marks around ‘freedom’ are a dead give-away; they tell you that, deep-down, I don’t think freedom ought to be extended to the hateful acts of creeps. Thus, when it’s Their speech under question, the issue is not Freedom, but rather Combating Racism, Violence, and Hate. That’s how I feel deep-down. Somewhere presumably higher-up however I suspect that racism and violence don’t go away just because you’ve told them to. Banishing unpleasantness from the public domain was the solution (or ‘solution’) of the Times editorialist, who presumably conceived the ideal public domain as a kind of smooth elevator ride, and ideal public debate as a kind of Muzak. The Times offers us comforting illusions of an easy peace, and although most of us believe peace is what we ought to have, our experience shows us Russell is closer to the truth of things.

By peace I mean the absence of controversy and dissent. We often complain that politics is nasty, that there should be bipartisanship, that people should put aside their differences and get things done, and that the government is too inefficient. To a degree I think the complaints are well-founded. Yet I also find it curious that dissent, controversy, and inefficiency should be regarded in this case as negatives. All of these could be eliminated through the institution of a fascist dictatorship, but few if any of us want this because we cherish the freedom of speech and the right to representation. In practice however these translate roughly into dissent, partisanship, and inefficiency. The trouble-free democracy advocated by the Times editor turned out not to be democracy at all, but instead the right of the raucous to their peace and quiet. In the end they got it, too. [October 1998.]

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