The Prevention of Literature (Free Speech essay by Orwell)

“About a year ago I attended a meeting of the P.E.N. Club, the occasion
being the tercentenary of Milton’s AEROPAGITICA–A pamphlet, it may be
remembered, in defense of freedom of the press. Milton’s famous phrase
about the sin of “killing” a book was printed on the leaflets advertising
the meeting which had been circulated beforehand.

There were four speakers on the platform. One of them delivered a speech
which did deal with the freedom of the press, but only in relation to
India; another said, hesitantly, and in very general terms, that liberty
was a good thing; a third delivered an attack on the laws relating to
obscenity in literature. The fourth devoted most of his speech to a
defense of the Russian purges. Of the speeches from the body of the hall,
some reverted to the question of obscenity and the laws that deal with
it, others were simply eulogies of Soviet Russia. Moral liberty–the
liberty to discuss sex questions frankly in print–seemed to be
generally approved, but political liberty was not mentioned. Out of this
concourse of several hundred people, perhaps half of whom were directly
connected with the writing trade, there was not a single one who could
point out that freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means
the freedom to criticize and oppose. Significantly, no speaker quoted
from the pamphlet which was ostensibly being commemorated…..

…almost nobody in our own day is able to speak out as roundly in
favour of intellectual liberty as Milton could do 300 years ago–and this
in spite of the fact Milton was writing in a period of civil war.

…In the past, at any
rate throughout the Protestant centuries, the idea of rebellion and the
idea of intellectual integrity were mixed up. A heretic–political, moral,
religious, or aesthetic–was one who refused to outrage his own
conscience. His outlook was summed up in the words of the Revivalist hymn:

Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone
Dare to have a purpose firm
Dare to make it known

To bring this hymn up to date one would have to add a “Don’t” at the
beginning of each line. For it is the peculiarity of our age that the
rebels against the existing order, at any rate the most numerous and
characteristic of them, are also rebelling against the idea of individual
integrity. “Daring to stand alone” is ideologically criminal as well as
practically dangerous. The independence of the writer and the artist is
eaten away by vague economic forces, and at the same time it is
undermined by those who should be its defenders. It is with the second
process that I am concerned here.

Freedom of thought and of the press are usually attacked by arguments
which are not worth bothering about. Anyone who has experience of
lecturing and debating knows them off backwards. Here I am not trying to
deal with the familiar claim that freedom is an illusion, or with the
claim that there is more freedom in totalitarian countries than in
democratic ones, but with the much more tenable and dangerous proposition
that freedom is undesirable and that intellectual honesty is a form of
anti-social selfishness. Although other aspects of the question are
usually in the foreground, the controversy over freedom of speech and of
the press is at bottom a controversy of the desirability, or otherwise,
of telling lies. What is really at issue is the right to report
contemporary events truthfully, or as truthfully as is consistent with
the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer
necessarily suffers. …

The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a
plea for discipline versus individualism. The issue truth-versus-untruth
is as far as possible kept in the background. Although the point of
emphasis may vary, the writer who refuses to sell his opinions is always
branded as a mere egoist. He is accused, that is, of either wanting to
shut himself up in an ivory tower, or of making an exhibitionist display
of his own personality, or of resisting the inevitable current of history
in an attempt to cling to unjustified privilege. The Catholic and the
Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest
and intelligent. …The familiar tirades
against “escapism” and “individualism”, “romanticism”, and so forth, are
merely a forensic device, the aim of which is to make the perversion of
history seem respectable.

… any writer or
journalist who is fully sympathetic for the U.S.S.R.–sympathetic, that
is, in the way the Russians themselves would want him to be–does have
to acquiesce in deliberate falsification on important issues…..Forgeries almost as gross as this have been
committed in recent years. But the significant thing is not that they
happen, but that, even when they are known about, they provoke no
reaction from the left-wing intelligentsia as a whole. The argument that
to tell the truth would be “inopportune” or would “play into the hands
of” somebody or other is felt to be unanswerable, and few people are
bothered by the prospect of the lies which they condone getting out of
the newspapers and into the history books.

…This kind of
thing happens everywhere, but is clearly likelier to lead to outright
falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any
given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration
of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very
existence of objective truth. ”

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