Voltaire Didn’t Say It And You Shouldn’t Do It

Not all speech deserves “defending to the death.”


In a common misconception, people often “quote” Voltaire with the phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This was not, in point of fact, written at any time by Voltaire, but rather by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

And anyway, it’s a damned foolish statement to begin with, mostly because it’s almost universally a lie.

No country on Earth pays such slavish devotion to the idea of completely unregulated, unrestricted speech as America. You can picket a soldier’s funeral with “god hates f***s* signs, credibly threaten a country with nuclear annihilation, and support a political candidate with unlimited sums of money, all in the name of “freedom of speech.”

But despite this, there are many kinds of speech that US law does not protect, and if you think about it for even a moment, you don’t even want it to.

Perjury—that is, lying under oath—is not protected. If it were, witnesses could just lie with impunity on the stand and it would deal a major blow to the rule of law. Defamation isn’t protected, either, in both the written (libel) and spoken (slander) forms, on the premise that if you’re going around lying about someone else in an effort to ruin their character, that too is bad for society. Blackmail is speech, too, but again, of the unprotected variety. Once again, this is because if it were legal it would be bad for society—are you getting the connection yet? Solicitations to commit crimes, incitement to “imminent lawless action” (whose definition is still up for debate), “fighting words” (again, it’s weirdly undefined), and “true threats” all make the unprotected list in this country. America does not protect a lot of harmful kinds of speech, and for damned good reasons.

So why do people keep using this fake quote? Why would you defend someone’s right to say literally anything “to the death”?

Well, many countries have problems with censorship, so in part there’s a fear of that. But a large part of it is something else. Something I talk about a *lot*. Are you with me yet? If you read my tweets you’re probably there by now. You got it: social hierarchies of power, otherwise known as “privilege.”

When someone quotes Hall (thinking they’re quoting Voltaire) what they’re mostly saying is that they’ll even defend speech that offends them. They’re not (usually) saying they’ll defend speech that harms them—I haven’t seen any perjury legalization rallies lately, but you let me know if you do—they’re just saying that “people shouldn’t get so offended.”

And here’s the thing: mistaking harm for offense is all about power.

If you’re white and male and straight and all the majority demographic categories in this country at once, it is almost impossible to use protected speech to harm you. You have, at this moment in 2018, so much social capital that, say, if you’re a man who gropes women and who thinks he can get away with it because he’s rich (say), and people go tell everyone about it, you can still be elected president of the entire goddamned country. Remember, it’s not libel or slander if it’s a real true thing you yourself have been caught on tape bragging about. Telling everyone “hey that guy grabs women by their genitalia without their consent” is protected speech, and no matter how egregious, it doesn’t seem to do harm. Because that’s the privilege of power.

Now think of hate speech. Not the kind that explicitly endorses violence, which many legal experts do consider unprotected (but which is still up for debate because people are terrible), but the kind that doesn’t. The kind that gradually dehumanizes a minority group, the kind that calls for legal but unjust actions, that has a cumulative effect of diminishing the social capital of an already marginalized group.

To someone from a group with a lot of social capital, this might be offensive, but to someone from a group struggling to achieve equal rights, it is actively harmful. Until a majority of the population considers a marginalized group worth standing up for, change does not happen. Gay marriage didn’t happen until a majority of the American population came on side. And that kind of achievement was held up for decades by legally-supported anti-queer speech.

So if you’re straight and some noxious human windbag says queer people are subhuman and don’t deserve the right to marry, and you’re not a completely unforgivable bigot, you’re offended by that speech. But if you’re queer and gay marriage isn’t legal yet? Especially if there’s an ongoing debate as to whether you should have rights? That speech harms you.

And now’s the point where I have to say “no, I don’t think being a completely reprehensible human being should be illegal, per se,” because someone’s going to come along and interpret my explanation of power, speech, offense, and harm as a call for the criminalization of being Ricky Gervais on any given Tuesday night in public. No.

What I’m here to do is to point out that if you say “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” you’re probably lying to yourself. There are plenty of kinds of speech you wouldn’t defend to the death, because those kinds of speech would cause you yourself harm rather than simple offense.

What I’m here to do is to ask you, the next time you think about saying that, to instead ask yourself exactly how much harm you think speech should be allowed to do, to whom it should be allowed to do that harm, and what your justifications are for where you draw that line.

Because all societies have to draw a line, and all individuals have to draw a line, and nobody draws that line without reference to their own positions of privilege and power.

Signed: The Remixologist.


Featured image of a statue of Voltaire is CC0 (Public Domain).

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