In these times of high anxiety, battles over “free speech”—on college campuses, in corporate offices, on airwaves and the internet—can seem extremely myopic from a certain perspective. The perspective I mean is one in which a disturbing number of messages broadcast perpetually to millions of people bear little relationship to scientific, historical, or social facts, so that it becomes increasingly difficult for many people to tell fact from fiction. Debating whether or not such speech is “free” outside of any consideration for what purpose it serves, who it harms, and why it should drown out other speech because it appeals to widespread prejudices or powerful, monied interests seems grossly irresponsible at best.
Most philosophers who have considered these matters have stressed the important relationship between reason and ethics. In the classical formula, persuasive speech was considered to have three dimensions: logos—the use of facts and logical arguments; ethos—the appeal to common standards of value; and pathos—a consideration for the emotional resonance of language. While the forceful dialectical reasoning of Plato and his contemporaries valued parrhesia—which Michel Foucault translates as “free speech,” but which can also means “bold” or “candid” speech—classical thinkers also valued social harmony and did not intend that philosophical debate be a scorched-earth war with the intention to win at all costs.
Bertrand Russell, the brilliant mathematician, philosopher, and anti-war activist, invoked this tradition often (as in his letter declining a debate with British fascist Oswald Mosley). In the video above he answers the question, “what would you think it’s worth telling future generations about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned from it.” His answer may not validate the prejudices of certain partisans, but neither does it evince any kind of special partisanship itself. Russell breaks his advice into two, interdependent categories, “intellectual and moral.”
When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts.
The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple. I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way. And if we are to live together and not die together, we should learn the kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.
The gist: our speech should conform to the facts of the matter; rather than wishful thinking, we should accept that people will say things we don’t like, but if we cannot love but only hate each other, we’ll probably end up destroying ourselves.
The video above, from the BBC program Face-to-Face, was recorded in 1959.