Thursday, January 14, 2021

Bertrand Russell's Free Thought and Official Propaganda Has Much to Say about the Current State of Cancel Culture

Bertrand Russell, 1955. (public domain)
On March 24, 1922 Bertrand Russell delivered a speech at South Place Institute on the subject of Free Thought and Official Propaganda. The speech was then put into book form and by August was in its second printing, which is the copy I have here in my possession.

I've now read this little volume at least three times in the past year, somewhat amazed by its clarity of thought and powerful relevance nearly a century later. Ironically, those who were being repressed by the system a century past have now become the oppressors, and we seem to be no nearer to the ideal of free thought and free expression that Russell argued for in the first place.

Russell opens his lecture by attempting to define what he means by "free thought." The narrow sense of this idea is laid out, and then gets expanded thus.

To begin with the most obvious. Thought is not “free” when legal penalties are incurred by the holding or not holding of certain opinions, or by giving expression to one’s belief or lack of belief on certain matters. 


In England, under the Blasphemy Laws, it is illegal to express disbelief in the Christian religion, though in practice the law is not set in motion against the well-to-do. It is also illegal to teach what Christ taught on the subject of non-resistance. Therefore, whoever wishes to avoid becoming a criminal must profess to agree with Christ’s teaching, but must avoid saying what that teaching was. 


In America no one can enter the country without first solemnly declaring that he disbelieves in anarchism and polygamy; and, once inside, he must also disbelieve in communism.


In Japan it is illegal to express disbelief in the divinity of the Mikado.


It is clear that the most elementary condition, if thought is to be free, is the absence of legal penalties for the expression of opinions. No great country has yet reached to this level, although most of them think they have. (emphasis mine)

Russell is only getting started here. He continues:

Legal penalties are, however, in the modern world, the least of the obstacles to freedom of thoughts. The two great obstacles are economic penalties and distortion of evidence. It is clear that thought is not free if the profession of certain opinions makes it impossible to earn a living. It is clear also that thought is not free if all the arguments on one side of a controversy are perpetually presented as attractively as possible, while the arguments on the other side can only be discovered by diligent search. 

Russell wrote this in 1922, and when I see what is happening today with people losing their jobs for having attended a rally in Washington, it is apparent that we've still not achieved the freedom Russell fought for. The difference now is which ideology is in the ascendency.

Russell briefly details three incidents in his life that brought this home to him. The first was while he was still very young. His father, who was a Freethinker, died when he was three. Because his father believed religion was essentially superstition, he wanted his son brought up by parents less tethered to the church. He thus appointed two Freethinkers as his guardians. "The Courts, however, set aside his will, and had me educated in the Christian faith. I am afraid the result was disappointing, but that was not the fault of the law."

Again, the times have changed dramatically. Instead of Christian values being in the ascendency, Political Correctness now reigns. As a result, the state of Washington banned a couple from fostering their great-grand-daughter because their beliefs as Seventh Day Adventists were politically incorrect. (Story here.)

In two other situations as a young adult he encountered barriers to advancement or opportunities because he was an Agnostic. On one occasion, they were willing to "accept" his agnosticism as long as he pretended to be a Christian and go to church once in a while.

The blatant hypocrisy in that story is almost comical. To his credit, Russell maintained his integrity.

* * * 

Bottom line here for me is that I think everyone should read Bertrand Russell's Free Thought and Official Propaganda. It's available here on the Gutenberg Project

The ideal of Freedom is embedded in the U.S. Constitution, even if badly applied (as history has painfully proven, beginning with slavery, and in many other moments in our history from the Trail of Tears to WWII Japanese internment camps under FDR.  

From what I hear, sales of George Orwell's 1984 are going through the roof. Any guesses as to why?

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