Thursday, February 15, 2007

 

On Not Being Quiet

We are, of course, mightily concerned about the protection of our right to freedom of speech. But we should remember that suppression of speech starts at home, in the sense of choosing not to speak. Nor are the reasons necessarily political. We are more often silent for fear of embarrassment than fear of reprisal.

I should like to suggest that, when we have some reasonable understanding of things, it is better to speak of them than to be silent. We may be wrong, but we should be confident that correction will come with no great harm done. As John Stuart Mill points out in On Liberty, we will be serving more than ourselves.
[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.

One of the things that perpetually endears Moby-Dick to me is Melville's deep analysis of the story of Jonah, as vividly presented in Chapter 9 (The Sermon). Father Mapple's argument is that it is never enough to know the truth; we must also be tellers of the truth. I excerpt from the end of the sermon:

... and Jonah, bruised and beaten--his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean--Jonah did the Almighty's bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was
it!

"This, shipmates, this is that other lesson; and woe to that pilot of the living God who slights it. Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonour! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who, as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!"

He dropped and fell away from himself for a moment; then lifting his face to them again, showed a deep joy in his eyes, as he cried out with a heavenly enthusiasm,--"But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the kelson is low? Delight is to him--a far,
far upward, and inward delight--who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges.
My thanks to Gutenberg for the text.

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