Stop abusing Voltaire.

I forget why – something probably riled me on Twitter – but I was thinking about that quote widely, if erroneously, attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

It makes for a very poor argument. We can do much better. Hardly one to whom hubris was unknown, Voltaire would nevertheless, on the back of his truer if more ironic comment – that “a witting saying proves nothing” – have known how flippant that dictum is; why it has become the most lubricated quote on liberal matters completely eludes me.

Firstly, how many people say things that they really believe? To me it doesn’t matter; arguments don’t change. But there is a problem in “Voltaire’s” suggestion, perhaps reminiscent of Milton’s statement in Areopagitica that the vocalising of injustices may undo them, that an individual’s emotional engagement matters. It’s very easy to understate another person’s intellectual integrity, however high-minded you might be of your own. It allows, for example, the religious to prioritise their “genuinely-held beliefs” (as that semi-literate report from Universities UK put it) over secularists, whose views apparently lack divine sanction.

Matters of deeply-held beliefs shouldn’t matter, but when this part of the quote is challenged it leads on to part two:

Will you really fight to the death to say something of which you disapprove? A few minutes on Twitter, with all the virtual safeguards afforded to the cowardly guttersnipe intelligentsia, and their bitterness, provides a rough glance into what people think when they are without their social mannerisms and inhibitions. They (or we, I guess) hide behind keyboards because we want people to know that they are wrong, and they must, at once, alter their views. I for one, I suspect like most others, do not tweet out of a desperate urge to laud pillocks and their faceless avatars.

It is necessary, in other words, to be a political masochist in order to defend freedom of expression. And I am not sure whether it is a positive or negative corollary that this means most people will not, by instinct, want everyone to say what they want. So the statement entirely fails to convince; freedom of expression is all about legal safeguards, not the curious system of liberal fealty that Voltaire supposedly cherished.

No, no. This over-worn cliche – however succinct – is weak; detach it from Voltaire and throw it away. In our fight for pithy principles I’d much rather turn to my favourite heroine; the greatest rebellion against the classical view of human liberty – see Dryden’s stale remark that “slaves are made citizens by turning round” – was dreamt in a single line by Rosa Luxemburg: “Freedom,” she said, “is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.”


Now stop filling Voltaire’s mouth with garbage.


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