I have been meaning to write this post for quite some time now, but something has always gotten in the way. The reason for my interest in Weil and free expression is that I re-read The Need for Roots last summer and was struck by how modern the paradox of free expression in Weil’s thinking is. And her obvious frustration with the law and its inability to handle the tensions she thinks free expression creates is also instructive in many ways of how we in our age are struggling with the very same issues. Weil notes how important it is to be able to think freely and how liberty of thought is fundamental, and:
That is why it would be desirable to create an absolutely free reserve in the field of publication, but in such a way as for it to be understood that the works found therein did not pledge their authors in any way and contained no direct advice for readers. There it would be possible to find, set out in their full force, all the arguments in favour of bad causes. It would be an excellent and salutary thing for them to be so displayed. Anybody could there sing the praises of what he most condemns.
It would be publicly recognized that the object of such works was not to define their authors’ attitudes vis-a-vis the problems of life, but to contribute, by preliminary researches, towards a complete and correct tabulation of data concerning each problem. The law would see to it that their publication did not involve any risk of whatever kind for the author.
On the other hand, publications destined to influence what is called opinion, that is to say, in effect, the conduct of life, constitute acts and ought to be subjected to the same restrictions as are all acts. In other words, they should not cause unlawful harm of any kind to any human being, and above all, should never contain any denial, explicit or implicit, of the eternal obligations towards the human being, once these obligations have been solemnly recognized by law.
The distinction between the two fields, the one which is outside action and the one which forms part of action, is impossible to express on paper in juridical terminology.
But that doesn’t prevent it from being a perfectly clear one.
And here her notion is quite clear. She wants to have two spheres of free expression – one where you explore arguments without holding the views you express, and one where you hold the views you express and can be held to account for them. In the first she wants completely free thought, in the other extreme responsibility.
You can express whatever you want as long as you do not mean it.
It is easy to ridicule this notion, but there is something very fundamental about this thought that I think permeates also how we think about free expression today. And why is this the case? I think we intuitively realize that we should be free to explore all arguments, but that convincing people or persuading them is a different act than expressing a thought as clearly as possible. Noone would oppose a book that explained the reasoning and thought-processes behind, say, revisionism – but we all feel at some level that an attempt to convince us of a revisionist account of history is different.
There is an emotional gap between expression and persuasion that we are bothered by.
The genius of Weil’s solution is to create a frame, an environment in which there can be only expression and where persuasion is impossible per se. And then to allow anything in this environment. The early cyber-libertarians would have argued that the “new home of mind” was exactly that – that the Internet was this realm of abstract expression where complete freedom should reign. Now we know of the persuasive powers of social media, and we are much more wary of designating the web a separate domain.
At the end Weil acknowledges the tricky challenge of trying to frame this in legislation. It is clear that she realizes that if we want rule of law, we need legislation that expresses the limits of our rights and obligations, but this particular pair of rights and obligations is truly hard to frame in law. Yet still, she argues that it is completely clear. This is where I think she is wrong. Our inability to frame something in legislation actually shows us something about the clarity of the notions in our argument. Sure, there are things that are clear, but hard to frame in law — but when it comes to liberty we are probably wise to assume that if we cannot find the legal form of an argument, then the argument is just half-baked.
Finally, there is a wider point in Weil’s thinking here that I think is sometimes lost in the debate today, and a point that I think actually echoes Hayek in some sense, and that is the connection between a right and an obligation. Weil writes in the beginning of her work that duties or obligation precede rights, and that a sole human being in the universe would have obligations but no rights. Her concept of rights is a complicated one, but essentially she argues that all rights are dependent on obligations of different kinds, on an individual level. The right to express ourselves freely, in her argument, corresponds to the obligation to not try to persuade anyone of what is fundamentally immoral – and she assumes that this is evident for anyone that honestly examines an issue. This of course is an impossibly optimistic view of human nature, but at the same time a sympathetic one to a degree — if we did not know what it could actually lead to.
We could imagine other corresponding obligations, that to me seem more interesting. I had a chance to speak about this a year ago at a TEDx thing in Almedalen, and my thesis there was that the corresponding obligation to the enormous expansion of our individual rights of free speech is an obligation to listen to the growing silences of the growing number of people who are oppressed, quieted and censored – and act to dissolve these silences, as an individual obligation.