soon depart from the world of 2008 and enter the new world of 2009, the question
for writers around the world is: how much truth will the people and authorities
tolerate? Are modern times less tolerant than before, or have we always lived
side by side with the forces of intolerance circling thinkers and writers,
banishing writs and decrees, threatening punishments, exile and disappearance
from words that speak of things that are decreed to be unspeakable.
On Maud Newton’s literary
blog, I came across the excerpts from
Mark Twain’s “The Privilege
of the Grave”
which can be found in the New Yorker archives.
Its occupant has one privilege
which is not exercised by any living person: free speech. The living man is not
really without this privilege — strictly speaking — but as he possesses it
merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it, it cannot
be seriously regarded as an actual possession. As an active privilege, it ranks
with the privilege of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to
take the consequences. Murder is forbidden both in form and in fact; free speech
is granted in form but forbidden in fact. By the common estimate both are
crimes, and are held in deep odium by civilized peoples.
* * *
Sometimes my feelings are so hot
that I have to take to the pen and pour them out on paper to keep them from
setting me afire inside; then all that ink and labor are waste, because I can’t
print the result…. It does my weather-beaten soul good to read it, and admire
the trouble it would make for my family.
Mark Twain would fully
understand that free speech in many parts of the world during our times has not
advanced beyond the speech restriction he lived with inside his own world.
Indeed an argument might be advanced that Mark Twain’s pre-technological world,
had more tolerance for dissenting views than our own. But an argument can be
made that with the Internet the floodgates to carry expression of all sorts have
opened and to contain the roaring rage of words swirling around the earth can no
longer be successfully tamed. But for every technological tool that increases
the reach of speech, there are new tools to restrict, control, monitor and
censor. It is unclear how the tension between the freedom to discuss and dissent
and the urge to restrict the scope of discussion and stifle dissent will play
out. Like any cat and mouse scenario, we will likely find that the mice continue
to take more than their share of causalities.