Jacob Mchangama

Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media

Mark Tooley on January 6, 2022

Here’s my interview with Danish human rights expert Jacob Mchangama about his new book on the history of free speech. Among other questions, I ask him about Christianity’s role.

Podcast audio can be downloaded from IRD’s SoundCloud account below:

The IRD · Author Jacob Mchangama on the History of Free Speech

MT: Hello. This is Mark Tooley, President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and editor of Providence: The Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy. I have the pleasure today of interviewing an author in Copenhagen, Denmark about his forthcoming new book. His name is Jacob Mchangama – I’m approximating his name; he can correct me – and his important new book is on the history of free speech. It was called to my attention by our board chairman, the scholar of religious freedom Paul Marshall, as being very noteworthy and worthy of our attention. So I’m delighted to have this conversation with Jacob, and please Jacob, tell us a little bit more about yourself, what you do now and why you wrote this book. 

JM: Yeah, thanks Mark. It’s a pleasure to be here, and please give my best to Paul. I haven’t met him in a number of years, but I’ve had the pleasure of being in touch with him before and I’m a big fan of the work he is doing on religious freedom and also free speech. I’m the founder and executive director of a think tank called Justitia here in Copenhagen, which focuses on human rights and the rule of law. And I specifically spend most of my time on our Future Free Speech Project, which has an international scope where we try to look at the question of why is free speech in a recession, and what can be done to change it. 

The reason I wrote this book is because for more than a decade I’ve been extremely interested in free speech since the whole cartoon affair where Denmark sort of became the epicenter of a global battle of values over the relationship between religion and free speech that many in the West probably thought had been settled. You know, to which degree blasphemy should still be a punishable crime or not. So that sort of brought the issue of free speech to the front and really made me interested in what this value, this freedom actually entails. Is it important? Why is it important? What does its presence in a country mean? What does its absence entail? What are its limits? And then in 2018 I launched a podcast called Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech, where I sought to document the history of free speech. And the book is sort of an attempt to boil down the findings of the podcast, which ran to more than 40 episodes, starting with what I count as the birth of free speech in ancient Athens, in the Athenian democracy with its values of isegoria and parrhesia, so equality of speech and uninhibited speech, which were part of the egalitarian democratic culture that permeated Athens. Of course, egalitarian not so much according to modern standards, given that there it was only free-born male citizens that could participate in the democratic process and that they had slaves, but compared to elsewhere in the ancient world, a quite radically egalitarian political system. 

And of course what I’ve found in the book, and what I at least try to argue is that a lot of the discussions we have about free speech today have very ancient roots indeed. Even in our digital age some of the discussions we have are sort of regurgitating ancient or older debates about free speech. I would say the most prescient one is the one between an egalitarian conception of free speech, which I find has roots in Athens, and a more elitist free speech conception with its roots in republican Rome. Whereas the Athenian conception of free speech is more bottom-up, the elitist Roman model is more sort of top-down, where an elite enjoys free speech, but not so much the commoner. And that is something that I’ve found has presented itself again and again through history. And I think we see a new round of this ancient conflict with social media, where you had established elite institutions and gatekeepers who were used to shaping the debates and what went on in the public sphere, and they have now been challenged by the internet, by social media, and that brings about a lot of conflict. 

MT: It seems like so long ago, another age, but it was not that long ago – please remind us the details of the cartoon affair. 

JM: The cartoon affair was a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten, whose cultural editor Flemming Rose since became a friend of mine. There had been these incidents around Europe where Islamists had threatened people who were thought to have blasphemed against Islamic doctrines, and of course there’d been the actual murder of Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch irreverent movie director who had very strong views on Islam and who was murdered on the streets of Amsterdam. So Flemming Rose, the editor, wrote this piece asserting that free speech was an Enlightenment value and that free speech and equality means that everyone should have to suffer mockery, scorn, and so on. You could not have a a particular group who says “Our taboos have special protection.” But to many people these cartoons were seen as sort of punching down on a vulnerable minority, a form of racism. And so the cartoon really ignited a global conflict, both between Islamists who were willing to use deadly violence, as we saw with the Charlie Hebdo attack, but also among liberals in the West, where some were ready to compromise their previous attachments to free speech because they saw it as furthering values that they thought were regressive. 

I think that conflict is still ongoing. Unfortunately we still have people in Denmark living with police protection. We saw just last year a French teacher who was beheaded by an Islamist jihadist because he had shown cartoons as part of his teaching about free speech and religion in the classroom in France. So unfortunately this conflict is very much still ongoing. And of course what is often missed in these debates when you have people in the West who say “Oh, this is an expression of anti-Muslim bigotry” or “This is punching down a vulnerable minority” – what they overlook is that blasphemy norms are very harsh. And in a number of Muslim-majority countries where both heterodox Muslims and religious minorities, whether they’re Christian or Baha’i, are severely repressed by these blasphemies, and also just secular people who want to live in a country with less explicitly based-on-religion laws for instance, I don’t think you can separate the two. 

MT: Now obviously there’s much conversation in the last couple of years about the seeming retreat of democratic values around the world, the rise of authoritarian regimes, and movements of the right and of the left and then arguably within Western culture increasing threats to free speech by the “Great Awokening” and hyper-political-correctness. And then also at least here in the U.S. we have a small but growing and vibrant movement of religious conservatives, integralists, who would like to have, in pursuit of a more Christian society, resurrection of perhaps the blasphemy laws and other semi-establishment of Christianity. So in the midst of all of these currents against democracy and free speech, how can free speech best be defended? 

JM: Today free speech has become such a polarizing idea in many ways, and it’s become captive to political tribalism. But I think the way that you fleshed out the many fronts in the free speech wars, if you want to call it that, that it’s not only one side that is attacking; it is actually under attack from many sides. And I think the mirror image of that is that you have to be consistent and principled. So to me, I’m not an expert on American affairs, but the integralist movement – I don’t know how big it is. It might be vocal. But the idea that in America you have sort of conservative Catholics who want to build an American society based on very conservative integralist Catholic ideas, it just has nothing to do with conservatism. It’s a radical idea given that America was not based on Catholic ideas, and that religious freedom has played an important role. And for all its potential other merits, integralism does not exactly stress the idea of freedom of conscience, of freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. Fortunately I think a lot of Catholics in the US are very eloquent and principled defenders of First Amendment freedoms, and if you read Tocqueville he actually says Catholics in the United States have become defenders of these values, because they were a minority and they saw the value of religious freedom and freedom of speech for protecting themselves, and so have become much more open to religious freedom and freedom of expression than Catholics in continental Europe at the time when he wrote in the 19th century. And fortunately lots of Catholics in the US are strong defenders of First Amendment freedoms. 

Then you have on the progressive liberal axis, where you’d say that out of good intentions to correct past sins of racism and discrimination against vulnerable minorities, the idea has gained a foothold that you have to limit free speech in order to protect minorities. To me that’s a complete misunderstanding of what history actually shows, both in Europe but also specifically in the United States, where the civil rights movement for instance was instrumental in advancing and expanding First Amendment freedoms and where if you look at the antebellum South, you saw extremely harsh laws against abolitionist ideas. In some southern states there was a death penalty for advancing abolitionist ideas. You could not instruct colored people to read. That was seen as abolitionism. And I think that the principle and practice of free speech has done more than anything else to advance the idea of tolerance, of appealing to a common humanity and diminishing the ideas that certain groups, whether because of the color of their skin or their religious ideas and so on, are inherently better than others and have a right to suppress them. And so that is dangerous, but then you could also point to the current strands among conservatives in the US, for instance Trump supporters who would support Trump’s agenda of cracking down on the fake news media and locking up journalists and others, and his ideas of opening up libel laws to go after the media who wrote nasty things about him. 

And what I think is the big danger here is that ultimately, in my view, free speech depends more on a culture of free speech than the legal protection. So legal protections are extremely important. But they ultimately depend on a culture of free speech, so a critical core of people who accept the idea that in order to live peacefully together, we have to accept that people may have radically different ideas but we can still be neighbors, we can still be citizens, and we don’t have to go to war. We don’t have to punish each other for having different ideas, the way that today in Europe in many places, let’s take Denmark for instance – so until our constitution there was forced baptism. It’s a Lutheran state, and Catholics and Jews were formally prohibited from entering the country. Some were given the right to live here, but today no one would blink or think about it if someone said that they were Catholic. That’s just not an issue anymore. But if you go back some hundred years, these theological differences were seen as a mortal danger to the coherence of society. But that is no longer the case fortunately. And I think if you have a critical core of people who recognize that free speech, tolerance, freedom of conscience is central to a good society, then you’re also likely to have stronger laws protecting them. But if that unity collapses along tribalist lines, you risk entering sort of a race to the bottom where different groups will compete to have political power and use that political power to persecute or at least limit the right to free speech and conscience and religion of those groups that they view as dangerous or less worthy of those rights. 

MT: You recall the role that ancient Greece and Rome played in the history of free speech. What is the role of Christianity in free speech? Obviously during many centuries of Christendom, Christian societies suppressed opposition to church teaching. But later on, Christianity is decisive in developing a theology of free speech and freedom of religion. So how do you track that history? 

JM: It’s such a complicated question. I don’t think you could have one simple answer to it. Obviously the fact that Jesus is crucified for his teachings has meant that a lot of people have identified with martyrdom and the importance of having teaching and speaking truth to power. And of course the word has been extremely central to the spread of Christianity. So Saint Paul writing some of his epistles from prisons is also part of the history of free speech. But Christianity obviously begins as a small sect that is subjected to persecution by the Roman Empire, culminating with the great persecution of Diocletian. But then as Christianity becomes the state religion of the Roman Empire, the tables are sort of turned and Christians start persecuting not only pagans, but also heretical Christians. So already there you see some duality in it. 

And then you have the Middle Ages, where I think again it’s extremely interesting. On the one hand, you have universities for instance – early universities where pious Christian scholars use Greek philosophy and so on to further reason and really develop ideas of natural rights that are absolutely crucial to later developments. So it was not just the dark ages that some people saw it as. But at the same time you also had the medieval inquisition, for instance, which did not execute and torture as many people as was once thought but was still very central in enforcing dogma and instituting practices which were rather more draconian than what goes on at the most woke college campuses in the US. 

And then when we get into early modern Europe, I think Christians, particularly I would say smaller Christian sects, are instrumental in developing ideas of tolerance and free speech. So early Baptists, for instance, you see examples of early Baptists who not only argue for universal freedom of religion but even reject the idea that the secular power has a right to punish blasphemy. Now that’s extremely progressive for someone in the early 17th century. Those Baptists, I think one of them was called John Martin, they would also end up in jail in England. But also you have Unitarians who have been extremely progressive when it comes to freedom of religion and free speech. 

So I think it’s a very complex history, the history of free speech, when it comes to Christianity. But when you look at the world I would argue that of all of the major faiths, Christianity has certainly been the one that has shown itself over time to be most open to freedom of religion and free speech, at least in the Western part of the world. If you look at Orthodox countries in eastern Europe they will tend to be less open to free speech and freedom of religion than Western countries. So that was sort of an executive summary which leaves out a lot of details and developments, but I don’t think that there’s one clear answer. I think there have been great Christian champions of freedom of religion and freedom of speech, and there have been appalling instances of persecution. But luckily it’s very rare, at least in the West, to see Christians who call for persecution. I think most in western Europe, in the United States, have sort of adopted these values (of course there are exceptions). And I think that’s a very good thing. 

I certainly don’t belong to the camp – I’m not a religious believer myself; I enjoy going to church. I think that there’s a lot of social cohesion, and we have sort of a state church in Denmark, where obviously you don’t have to be a member and you can be exempted from supporting it. I used to be more sort of a hardcore atheist, but I’ve found that it provides some sort of meaning, it provides some kind of social cohesion, and solace even though I’m not a religious believer. So I enjoy being in churches at special occasions, even though I’m not a religious believer myself. 

MT: Jacob Mchangama, author of Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media. Thank you for a very insightful conversation. 

JM: Thank you very much Mark. It was a pleasure.  

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