Private Thought and Public Speech

Essay by David Bromwich: “The past decade has witnessed a notable rise in the deployment of outrageous speech and censorship: opposite tendencies, on the face of things, which actually strengthen each other’s claim. My aim in this essay is to defend the traditional civil libertarian argument against censorship, without defending outrageous speech. By outrageous, I should add, I don’t mean angry or indignant or accusing speech, of the sort its opponents call “extreme” (often because it expresses an opinion shared by a small minority). Spoken words of this sort may give an impetus to thought, and their existence is preferable to anything that could be done to silence them. Outrageous speech, by contrast, is speech that means only to enrage, and not to convey any information or argument, in however primitive a form. No intelligent person wishes there were more of it. But, for the survival of a free society, censorship is far more dangerous.  

Let me try for a closer description of these rival tendencies. On the one hand, there is the unembarrassed publication of the degrading epithet, the intemperate accusation, the outlandish verbal assault against a person thought to be an erring member of one’s own milieu; and on the other hand, the bureaucratized penalizing of inappropriate speech (often classified as such quite recently) which has become common in the academic, media, professional, and corporate workplace. …(More)”.

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