Freedom of Speech: What gives us the right?

33rd Infantry Battalion AIF - Report from April 1918. My Great-Grandfather probably saw this! 

While writing an article for The Spectator on a windy Sunday, I was thinking of the importance of freedom of speech when it comes to airing an opinion that is unorthodox or even utterly crazy. I am human like everyone else, and occasionally I self-censor or double-check when writing for a public audience. I am certain there are times when I have overstepped the mark of polite company, even with years of training in social etiquette and the highest level of education one can obtain in Australia. It wasn't so when I was younger but there you go. But why is freedom of speech so important and what gives us the right?

The growing culture of woke self-flagellation scares me. The global geopolitical situation has changed and Australians seem to be getting weaker and whinier. I often think of the importance of the Australian Army to my family. My great-grandfather, my grandfather, my son and I all served. I take great pride in that family tradition even though there are times I wish I could go back and take down the egotistical fool I worked for in my last two years in the Australian Regular Army. If I'd gone to war with him, I don't know what I might have done to save my men.

But my great-grandfather was the real deal. He served in the 33rd Infantry Battalion in the AIF. He joined up on 21st June 1916 (as soon as he was 18) at Narrabri and was sent to the front, arriving with the Battalion on 28th April 1917. He was wounded during the Messines Offensive on 7th June 1917 where he fought on the extreme right flank with D Campany, 33rd Infantry Battalion. Later, he fought in the First and Second Battles of Villers-Bretonneux. During April 1918 the Battalion suffered heavily from gas shelling and by 1 May 1918, my great-grandfather was invalided to Oxford Hospital.

Reading the 33rd Battalion records puts my daily grind nonsense into so much perspective, to the point where I feel guilty whenever I become self-conscious about public scrutiny. But today I realised that the long tradition I am part of calls for courage. Not because courage is reckless in the way egotistical fools pretend it is, but in the sense of Aristotle's "Golden Mean".

When you read the histories of actions during the Great War, you realise that one must fight or die terribly - not terribly as in the manner of death - but to read of German troops dying in their dug-outs without putting up a fight makes me feel so ashamed. 

Better to die fighting if one has to die. Or perhaps better to escape - is it one's duty to wastefully die for the actions of idiotic leaders? But how many have been put in that position by poor leadership, where one is so disillusioned one simply curls up, already defeated, as if welcoming death? 

This is how the 33rd Battalion recorded the sad wasteful end of demoralised troops:

Only in isolated cases did the enemy show fight and they were easily dealt with. One man, Private J. CARROLL, singlehanded captured a machine gun and killed the crew. In addition, he bayoneted five other Germans during the subsequent "mopping up".

Thinking of poor leadership, I remember being frightened for my men's safety (he'd already proven time and again he was there for himself and nobody else).  But I was so young. I don't regret my time but I do regret not knowing what I know now. Yet when I think about the situations I am dealing with now, I realise I am succumbing to the same issues. 

Is it part of the human condition to experience demoralisation to such an extent that we become paralysed? Even in times of peace, it would seem better to "die" from public humiliation while fighting than to die meekly from a broken heart. The Stoics were on to something when they focused on not leaving our happiness to chance but on our own self-reliance.

Courage, then, rather than emanating from an individual's moral state, can be seen as a deliberate choice. We can choose how we live, and we can choose how we die. But being able to make that choice is not something we should take for granted.

In my article in The Spectator to be published later this week, I state: great-grandfather's service, and the service of the many other Australians since federation, gave us the freedom to air our views and to get to the truth of a matter.

That is what I have been trying to do in recent times. But there is a theoretical aspect to it that is part of my soul: free speech. Like Stoic philosophy, liberty is something that connects me to the philosophers of times past. To paraphrase that great man Harold Bloom, when you have an independent, original thought but later read something and discover that your thought was not original, this is not a time to feel sad about your lack of originality but to rejoice in your connection to humanity. I have experienced so many of these moments but they didn't seem important until I read Bloom.

And to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, that great man who had foibles not unlike my own, even if we have stupid ideas they need to be aired so they can be disproven - if we allow people to air their grievances or state their concerns about an idea, we can use these opportunities to uncover the truth of a matter. Better to prove an idea stupid than to let it fester and take on a life of its own.

So, our forefathers fought so we can exercise our right to freedom of speech. That's why I love The Spectator - unlike The Conversation, it doesn't censor ideas that challenge contemporary orthodoxy. I once thought I could research politics as an independent observer, but that is nonsense. I can do so while remaining aloof from groupthink, but I am a participant nonetheless.

And freedom of speech enables us to arrive at the truth of a matter even if it is through a particular:

...contrivance that allows one to assess one's truth as if one were a "dissentient champion, eager for [one's] conversion.

Or at least that is what Mill said. Thanks, Pop. I wish I had met you. I will continue to do my best to honour your legacy. I take that responsibility seriously. God bless.