Tom Stoppard on Speech and Freedom

British playwright Tom Stoppard says free speech is not a basic human right and never has been. Naturally, a few bloggers don’t agree.

I love it when a good argument erupts on the blogosphere. Enough with the endless recitations of prizes and parties and industry comings and goings; for all its current popularity, the internet is underperforming as a platform for serious debate, and for this reason alone I am really glad to open my browser and find Tom Stoppard’s ideas getting batted around.

I like Stoppard’s work a lot. His trademark play is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a Hamlet send-up that places two of Shakespeare’s most definitively insignificant and powerless characters at the center of a full-length play, just to see what happens (they talk a lot, try to control their fates, and never once figure out what’s going on around them). Stoppard is an enthusiastic intellectual, tossing the likes of James Joyce and Lenin together in Travesties and exploring the hollow spaces inside an acclaimed writer’s mind in The Real Thing. When this playwright talks, I’ll listen, and if the points he’s making are difficult ones, I will listen that much harder.

“We persist in the notion of a ‘right’ as something to be claimed rather than accorded,” Stoppard says. Furthermore, “‘rights’ are a psycho-social phenomenon, and there are no rights more human than others” He’s simply laying the facts down here — whether or not free speech should be a basic human right, it is not one, because many societies both past and present have not managed to provide this freedom. We are all responsible for maintaining our ability to speak freely, and nobody who looks at the history of the world should take this ability for granted.

But Stoppard is wrestling with tough boundaries here. “To St Augustine, religious tolerance would have been an oxymoron. The concept of pluralism as a virtue is a thousand years more modern than St Augustine. To say, therefore, that the right of free speech was always a human right which in unenlightened societies was suspended from the year dot until our enlightened times is surely beyond even our capacity for condescension.” Is he commenting, in part, on the recent uproar over Danish cartoons? He sure as hell is.

Is he also writing this because he’s sick of seeing his peer Brit satirist Harold Pinter generating all the chatter? Yeah, I believe that too. And good for him, because this is the kind of stuff we need to be talking about.

8 Responses

  1. Stoppard is right, you knowI
    Stoppard is right, you know

    I still believe in free speech, anyway, because I’m free to believe in it. Free speech is a good thing, but there’s a hell of a conundrum involved.

    Free speech in the U.S. really came about when enough people who were tired of being told what to do suddenly found an enormous piece of land where they could run around and do almost anything they wanted.

    Unfortunately, they didn’t think God gave the right to Indians and Africans to do whatever they wanted.

    Oh, man, there are a lot of things about this I want to say but I don’t even know where to begin.

    You know what’s weird? All countries suck. What country hasn’t done something bogus?

    But what are you gonna do? Get some Zen going, I guess.

  2. say somethingI think we miss
    say something

    I think we miss the point. Free speech is always available; they may lock you up like Stokely Carmichael, or kill you like Medgar Evers; but if that doesn’t scare you (it scares the hell outta me) you can always say whatever you want. Just gotta have the balls t’do it (I don’t). Lech Walesa and Nelson Mandela are examples of that. Walesa is a good unionist who did more to bring down the Soviet empire than Reagan ever did. Mandela did more to end apartheid in South Africa than anyone in America ever thought of. We’re a great country despite our poor record on human rights, as Mr. Ectric said. But we’ll never again be that shining pseudo-beacon of freedom and equality unless we make it happen (that “we” would actually be “others”). My question has always been – what do people do with their free speech? There are hundred of Olympians, only one, Joey Cheek, said “why don’t we do something to help others?” Wull, why don’t we, huh? (Again, that “we” could be changed to “you;” I’m afraid of our government.)

    PS I saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the New Vic, way back when. Didn’t think it was as good as a contemporary play “State of Revolution” ’bout that Russian 1917 thing.

  3. free speech is like free
    free speech

    is like free food… its only good when you can afford it.

  4. Speak your mind…The thing
    Speak your mind…

    The thing about free speech is, I think, people forget that it comes with a price – something called responsibility. (And we live in a world that doesn’t want to take responsibiblity for it’s actions – talk about a conundrum!)

    Just because something is ‘free’, doesn’t ncessarily mean it’s absolute.

    For example: I can excersize my right for free speech and tell my wife she’s a bitch, but that doesn’t mean I won’t suffer the repercussions for it. And rightly so.

    Free speech doesn’t mean we shouldn’t choose our words wisely.

  5. PragmaticsI have to say I am

    I have to say I am rather rabid about free speech. I do recognize there are limits and therefore a conundrum, though.

    That aside, Stoppard was trying to find a reason “other than pragmatic” to justify inalienable free speech. He couldn’t, except for the pragmatic. It is pragmatic, in order to live in society with others, to play well with others, to allow free speech. Biodiverisity is good because it allows a greater chance for the futherance of a species in a set of environs. So, too, free speech. Heck, a brand new idea is guaranteed this way.

    I got mad when I first read him, but really, he’s looking for a higher, better justification than the God he appears to omit as a viable reason.

  6. Stoppard’s errorHe writes:
    Stoppard’s error

    He writes: “”We persist in the notion of a ‘right’ as something to be claimed rather than accorded,” Stoppard says. Furthermore, “‘rights’ are a psycho-social phenomenon, and there are no rights more human than others””.

    That is true enough in terms of civil rights.

    But there is nothing more intrinsic to humaness that the ability to speak and communicate thought via human language.

    This is true whether it is God-given via special creation or purely atheistically evolved a la Darwiniwan means.

    Stoppard is simply a bit ignorant and it seems a fair bit dumb.

    Humans think and communicate thoughts in speech — it is something no person gave us — it is a human right in that we are all born with it and have it and it can only be taken away not given.

  7. No. Food is not a human
    No. Food is not a human right. We aren’t born with food naturally available. We have to grow it or catch it.

    Thought and speech are intrinsic. No one gives it to us and we do not have to do anything to have it.

    That is why it is a human right. It can only be taken away.

    There is never free food.

  8. Tim, maybe I’m splitting
    Tim, maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but I’m doing so in an attempt to understand your points. It seems to me that you are creating a definition of the word “rights” and then defending the definition.

    We can take 2 scenarios, (1) There is a God, and (2) there is not a God. The first scenario can be broken down even further: Is God described accurately in the Jewish/Christian Bible, or in Islamic beliefs, or the “Higher Power” of Alcoholics Anonymous” or in one of the many other ways people think of God? In almost any of these religions or God concepts, there are restrcitions on speech. I can go back and look up examples if anyone would like me too. Even the examples of God beliefs which do not specifically forbid certain speech, none of them say, “God gives you freedom of speech.”

    The other scenario, which does not involve God at all, has no meaning for the word “rights” except for whatever we make up ourselves. If we evolved, then a wolf has the right to kill sheep, but we also have the right to kill the wolf. Our vocal chords work in an amzing way and we can reason way beyond what other animals can reason, where why does that become defined as a “right”? The reason I said a few days ago that freedom of speech creates a conundrum is this: If we insist on freedom of speech, and someone tries to take it away from us, then ultimately, we may have to resort to violence to keep our freedom. This is disheartening to me because I want us to be non-violent. Perhaps it is even a paradox.

    p.s. – Thank you for your work with serotonin receptors.

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