For all his smart, merciless and often polarizing diatribes on the tyrannical nature of organized religion, there is a spot amongst the vast and scathing rhetoric of Christopher Hitchens we’d all do well to explore in wake of his passing. With SOPA closing in on the internet, Bradley Manning and Wikileaks on trial and provisions of the recently-signed NDAA making the idea of indefinite military detention for dissenters more conceivable than ever before, Hitchens’ past comments remind us that the most effective enemy of free speech is often not some mythical all-seeing ‘big brother,’ but ourselves.
“What on earth is the point of a newspaper of record,” asked Hitchens in one article before the days of Wikileaks, “that decides that the record itself may be too much for us to bear?” His answer suggests that free speech’s most insidious enemy is not the cliche of the invisible hand of the ‘censor,’ but rather “the cowardly journalist and editor who doesn’t need to be told what to do” because they’ve already been conditioned to make decisions based on the sensitivities of the public, which I’d argue would include governments and their various sponsors.
It’s easy to see where the cowardice stems from. Whether it’s excessive police action during Occupy protests, the cultural and religious backlash of printing a controversial cartoon or the infiltration of anti-war groups by federal agents, Hitchens would argue that the nurturing of fear and cultural taboo to elicit instinctual acquiescence is now the de facto standard for stifling free expression.
Even with his alienating views on issues like the U.S. war in Iraq, Hitchens owned the role of the heretical dissenter. He argued that the views of such individuals, however crazy they might seem, should be given equal or greater attention than those of the masses. This is the very core of free speech, he says — to have not just speakers, but listeners equally freed from the pressures of authoritarian and societal dogma.