Areopagitica – freedom of debate and global Covid challenge

Seventeenth century British writer John Milton famously argued for freedom not just of speech but  also of ideas and argument, as a means to find accommodation between different peoples and to prevent violent conflict. His views find echo in contemporary debates about so-called ‘Cancel Culture’; and they are essential if the countries of the world are to find a collective and multilateral solution to the Coronavirus pandemic, the gravest foreign policy crisis since World War II.

By Matthew Parish

In 1644, at the height of the English Civil War, a renowned treatise was published entitled ‘Areopagitica, A Speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, To the Parliament of England’. This work was a dramatic riposte to those who proposed restrictions upon intellectuals’ freedom of speech. At the time academic institutions, public bodies and private publishers were self-censoring under threat of the damnation by those today we would call the politically correct. Milton himself had written several monologues on then controversial political subjects and had been censured for them, and his tract was addressed to religious fundamentalists who dominated Parliament at the time. The essence of his argument was that free speech should be unlimited by law or custom, because every rational person is entitled to state the grounds for his views. Only in this way can differences between opinions that rational people may hold be resolved.

The truth, or the best course of public policy, as the case may be, requires rational people to consider and analyse the arguments of those with whom they disagree. If people are not able to express both their true opinions and the grounds upon which they hold them, then this process of discussion and debate cannot take place. What happens as a result is that people holding differing views clutch to their opinions still more strongly, resentful that they are unable to express and defend them. In consequence differences of opinion – that exist in every society and at every point in history – may be instead debated using violence and force. This, in substantial part, was the cause of the English Civil War through which Milton was living when he published his essay.

Milton was responding to contemporary personal political and social attacks upon individuals expressing ideas that at the time seemed highly controversial and even extreme. Milton himself had written defences of divorce, something that caused outrage in the seventeenth century but which at the beginning of the third decade of the twenty-first century seems entirely uncontroversial. One might wonder to what degree Areopagitica remains an important text in the current era. Yet a phenomenon known as ‘Cancel Culture’ has recently intoxicated the atmosphere of modern political and social debates, and it is remarkably similar to the notion of cultural censorship against which Milton was struggling. Cancel Culture is the public ostracising of well-known people who express certain sorts of political views. To assert its very existence is controversial. Nevertheless the phenomenon has been alleged to exist as a measure against freedom of speech, and following the logic of Areopagitica, we are entitled to study it.

The origins of the concept of ‘Cancel Culture’ were, approximately, a series of conservative-leaning (but not only conservative) academic sociologists and other academics in US universities writing since 2018 about the ostracism they said that conservative thinking suffered in academic and policy-making circles during the tenure of US President Donald J. Trump. They implicitly argued that some academic ideas were not being taken as seriously as they ought to have been because they were being associated with a conservative US President with whom they may have had little personal or professional sympathy. This was happening for no reason other than because they were conservative. Since then the notion has been associated with the debate as to whether the US and international media has become unreasonably ideologically liberal, to the exclusion of expression of legitimate conservative points of view.

Many of those on the left of the political spectrum say that the phrase ‘Cancel Culture’ is an illegitimate concept used by those on the right of politics, and represents something that does not really exist. If those on the left are to maintain this position, then they must permit those on the right to present their strongest cases as examples of illegitimate ostracism, and explain why those examples are misconceived. With that philosophy in mind, let us consider the prominent case of the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson.

Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. In 2018 he published a book of moral philosophy, ’12 Rules for Life’, that develops his ideas to the effect that much social and even international conflict arises from the way that humans living in society acquire incompatible ideological affiliations they cannot then resolve between one-another using discussion. This leads to resort to violence or force. Instead of society developing its ideological principles in this way, he proposes looking at values common to the great religions as sources of common ethical principles, as a way of defusing ideological conflicts both between persons, groups and nations. The book is written in a popular style and has sold very well globally.

Peterson’s ethical arguments are fairly abstract. But he chose a timely issue about which to take a concrete position in illustration of his ideas. Peterson complained about a piece of Canadian federal anti-discrimination legislation, which he said could have the consequence that if a person or organisation refuses to accede to an individual’s preference about how others describe their gender identity, then there are instances when this might be unlawful. The issue was about sex changes. At its simplest, the issue was this: imagine that a person is born into one gender – for example male – and they later decide that they want to become a transsexual. They then pronounce that they wish to adopt female pronouns. This is not a very common phenomenon, but there has been a handful of well-publicised cases.

A US soldier convicted then pardoned of espionage for disclosing sensitive military and diplomatic documents was born male, with the first name Bradley, and then decided to undergo a sex change and changed her name to Chelsea. She also changed her gender on official government-issued documents and asked to be referred to as “she” rather than “he” in newspapers and other media. Peterson’s complaint was that the Canadian legislation in question might prohibit a journalist or employer, amongst others, from continuing to refer to a person in Manning’s position as “he” or to treat them as male for various legal purposes.

Peterson advanced the view that legislation with this consequence was a bad thing, because it violated freedom of speech and in particular debates about religious and moral attitudes towards people who change sex. Some people, particularly but not exclusively those with deeply held religious beliefs, may be of the view that changing sex is wrong, inconsistent with religious precepts or carries some other negative connotation.

This is not the appropriate place for a debate about whether Peterson’s analysis of the consequences of the Canadian legislation was correct; nor indeed whether, if Peterson was correct about what the legislation entailed, then whether the effect of the legislation was indeed wrong as a matter of public policy. Should Manning have the legal right to insist that she be referred to using female pronouns, and (perhaps more controversially) the legal right to be treated as a woman for example in international sporting competitions? The issues are complex, and in the opinion of this author not all of the answers to all of these questions are immediately obvious. The Canadian legislation is a world-leader in its breadth of the conduct it delegitimises as unlawful discrimination. At the very least, these issues deserve a debate that we cannot have here.

Peterson’s complaint was that, having expressed his views critical of the Canadian statute, he was the victim of ostracisation. Approximately simultaneously he gave a series of lectures on Biblical topics; his critics associated his interest in religious matters as intimately associated with what they perceived as his indefensible hostility to transsexual people. Peterson then complained that in 2019 the University of Cambridge rescinded a visiting scholarship previously awarded to him because, in the words of the university (contained in an official written statement), there was “no place” for a person who could not uphold the “inclusive values” of the University of Cambridge. In In light of the University’s own words there seemed little doubt that there was a substantial causal connection between Peterson’s expression of what had been identified as his quasi-religious views about transsexuality, and the decision of the University of Cambridge to rescind his scholarship.

From a review of numerous media sources and public statements at the time, it is the view of this author that the University of Cambridge should not have done what they did. There are far more conservative views properly expressed in university environments than those of Peterson; consider the formal views of the Roman Catholic Church, expressed by academic faculty in respectable universities across the world. Peterson aside, universities are surely environments in which the expression of a diversity of opinions is to be encouraged and political pressure only to admit faculty members with certain sorts of views should be condemned. There are limits; it would be very hard indeed to condemn a decision by the University of Cambridge to deny the admission to the faculty of history a holocaust-denier. But Peterson’s case was far from that extreme. The worst that can be said about Peterson’s academic work and public opinions is that on occasion they are idiosyncratic, provocative or sometimes downright silly. That can be said of many a successful professor.

If one were to draw up a list of a few dozen cases in the same mould as that of Peterson – and that can be done but we shall not do it here – then one has made a prima facie case for the existence of a ‘Cancel Culture’, that is to say censorship through ostracisation of persons who express certain sorts of political views, in universities. These are environments in which freedom of speech ought to be at its broadest because we hope that universities do more for society than just educate our youth and they also contribute to a tolerant, liberal environment for ideas and thereby promote the resolution of conflicts by intellectual ideas rather than by the alternatives, rage and violence.

To the extent that Cancel Culture exists, it is asserted to be biased against conservative ideas and to favour progressive ones. If that is true (and it is not obviously so), then it is probably a corollary of the fact that places of study more often than not attract as their staff progressive people who are seeking to create and nurture new ideas. Nevertheless the principal lesson of Areopagitica is surely that those seeking to advance progressive ideas should be asked to welcome and engage with the ripostes of the conservative forces whose status quo they are challenging. Not every progressive idea is a good one. Conservative ideas are typically defended with the sentiment that they have stood the test of time and rapid changes embracing ideas untested by being pressed through the demanding mill of tradition might have unforeseen consequences.

The wisdom of Areopagitica cuts both ways. Just as Milton’s then radical ideas about divorce deserved even-handed intellectual confrontation with the religious authorities of the day, so ideas born of religious and cultural conservatism are properly entitled to fair intellectual debate with contemporary progressive ideas, not all of which should a priori be assumed wise. It is possible for progressives and radicals to progress too far, too quickly. The culture of ostracisation, which leads to self-censorship as a means of survival for those wishing to promote new ideas whether conservative or progressive, must be resisted at every stage. Instead, in an environment tolerant of difference, the wisest ideas will rise to the top of their own accord. Those with progressive ideas must not fear or be resistant of criticism or critics. To be so only helps their opponents castigate them as being afraid of genuine confrontation by reason of the inherent weakness of the ideas they propose.

This is a subject far more important than just university faculty members. It feeds into democratic polity and the contemporary issues of the day. Democratic nations in which the transfer of power between parties of differing ideologies occurs peacefully via the ballot box mandates that the persons casting their votes feel that their opinions have been heard and therefore the will of the majority may be comfortably acceded to notwithstanding inevitable political differences of view existing in every society. Still more fundamentally, in the sphere of international relations, so volatile that war and conflict has beset some corner of our world without lapse every single year since the end of World War II, mutual respect for and debate between the differing ideologies each society has might be hoped to encourage the resolution of differences by debate rather than violence.

In international relations, there is always a variety of views about how to respond to a specific foreign policy challenge. Castigatory labels for views different from one’s own abound, and they always have done. More or less fundamentalist views towards such difficult issues as the extent to  which to engage with countries considered troublesome to the western sphere of influence, such as Iran, North Korea or Russia, might be characterised using such labels as realist, neo-realist, liberal internationalist, neo-conservative, unlawful aggression or appeasement, in various cases. Differences in approaches to problems in international relations often transcend domestic ideological distinctions between political parties or between international allies.

There are few countries in the world that do not seek peaceful advancement of their own interests. Yet cordial debate between the world’s ideologies, in the form of peace-seeking diplomacy, is not advanced if there is a bureaucratic or cultural ostracisation of any specific viewpoints about how to achieve that goal. This was perhaps part of the point that Peterson, amidst his admittedly controversial writings about how differing ideologies develop, was trying to make. Where there is no debate, something is wrong because no new ideas are obvious from the very first day. The fault for want of debate typically lies on all sides. The Cancel Culture in foreign policy – censoring minority views via ostracisation of those who propound them – exists in every country in the world.

Yet this is the wrong approach. While the best conclusion to any specific foreign policy debate may be to take a tough response with one’s international adversaries, that does not preclude the importance of listening to those with gentler or more elliptical approaches to the problem in question. In some cases multilateralism may be the best approach, rather than incremental unilateral pressure. In other cases it may be the other way round. In any case it is essential that the internal debate be had by a country, and that to the extent possible such a debate is not personal and voices of all persuasions are heard with respect.

If we are to achieve a modicum of peace across the globe consistently with nation states pursuing their own interests as they seem bound to do, then it is essential in particular that each state seeks to understand the ideology and perspectives of the states against whom it stands as adversaries. This requires experts who may deliver uncomfortable messages. It may require flexibility on the part of diplomats who have very firm views and clear experiences; yet they must give impartial consideration to different opinions if they are to deliver the best advice to their political leaders. In the sphere of international relations, in which the consequences of error in the most delicate of judgments may be war, death or other catastrophe, the importance of not ostracising dissenting voices, and instead welcoming them into the fold of mainstream debate, is particularly compelling.

The foremost global foreign policy issue of our time could not be more illustrative of the axioms of Areopagitica. The challenge of how to reduce the number of deaths caused by increasingly mutant variants of the Covid-19 virus, while at the same time not returning the world’s economies to some shadow of their former selves through self-defenestrating measures of lockdown, is the foremost of all international problems that we face. That is because the world’s economies have not been designed to prevent global transmission of a surprisingly contagious disease that emerged proverbially out of nowhere. Rather our national economies are each premised upon massively complex mutual financial, trade and services interactions between states.

If we close our borders and disregard our neighbours under pressure of the Covid terror, we will experience proportionate disruption then destruction of our international system of trade in goods and services. The globe is as weak in its Coronavirus response towards the weakest country in the system. Notwithstanding this obvious point, there is no international consensus about how to address the global pandemic without unilaterally closing borders, encouraging autarchy and hence causing economic carnage across the world.

There is scant policy debate in most developed economies. Instead there is a tyranny imposed by those who argue for severe lockdown measures pending vaccines that cannot possibly work, presuming a desire to preserve our current global economic mechanisms, unless the whole world is vaccinated. That is because the world’s collective economic model presumes people will travel whether for business, pleasure or family reasons (as travel has become easier, the world has contained ever more international families).

Virus mutations will develop in countries with less effective vaccination programmes and in time those mutations will travel everywhere else. Hence current policy can only pretend to succeed in the event that countries or regions with better vaccine programmes isolate themselves each against other countries or regions. This entails economic armageddon, as well as plunging international travel back decades or more. Travel between London and Budapest is now about as difficult as it was in the early twentieth century, and available only to an equivalent tiny minority of the population.

In closing our borders and each country preserving its own narrow perceived self-interests, in each case locking down its own people and concentrating only upon vaccinating the country’s own citizens, we plough on with a course of imagined progress that will cause inevitable economic wreckage to the system of global trade. That is because the advantages each country imagines it has achieved in the fight against Covid-19, in benefitting their own citizens over those in the rest of the world, can only be sustained if each country shuts itself off from the rest of the world.

There are parallels between what is happening now and the Smoot-Hawley tariff period of the 1930’s. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 was a US government response to the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression, imposing punitive taxes on the import of goods as a protectionist measure for domestic US companies. In theory it would provide relief to US companies and an escape route from the Great Depression. In practice the Act generated retaliatory tariffs from the United States’ allies. The net result of the Act was that the United States progressively cut her economic links with her traditional trading partners using tariffs, and ruined the global trading economy as a result. The Smoot-Hawley tariff regime is considered by a substantial number of respectable historians as being a significant catalyst of World War II. Smoot-Hawley teaches us that if the world’s economies sever their links, the downturn may press us towards devastating war.

Views standing in opposition to the medical consensus – that each country should lock down its people, prevent international travel, and adopt selfish vaccination policies to the disregard not just of traditional allies but the developing world generally – are not being sufficiently discussed. The lesson of Areopagitica is surely that they should be. Where is the United Nations Security Council in adopting measures as a common global response to the Coronavirus pandemic, with the consensus of the five permanent members? What steps are being taken by the Great Powers to understand the policies and interests of one-another in response to the world’s greatest contemporary killer?

Are the Great Powers taking any measures at all to coordinate their assessments of the catastrophic economic damage the Covid-19 crisis may have for each of them and their allies? Has there been any thought given to the geopolitical consequences of this economic damage? Could it be that the progress towards autarchy and the heinous economic depression caused to all societies by Covid lockdown measures might be a catalyst for some new global conflict or other crisis?

Are the Great Powers all locked down in ideological silos of the kind Peterson identified, unable to understand the perspectives of their traditional opponents at this time of unique crisis and failing to comprehend that adopting a common global interest is the only way to prevent further catastrophe? Why are the Great Powers not forming, through multilateral mechanisms, tools to engage with these ideas? At a time when respect for the United Nations in particular and multilateralism in general is at an all-time low, why are we not seeking to re-invigorate our discredited multilateral structures in order to address a problem that genuinely and urgently needs those structures to function?

There are those who are profoundly concerned by these failings. There are many thinkers, activists, politicians and private citizens who consider that the global course being pursued by individually self-interested nations, imposing intolerable costs upon their people and economies through restrictive lockdowns and damaging the global common weal, are matters of the gravest concern. Those people are not being heard. They too are victims of the Cancel Culture, and their concerns transcend the distinction between progressive and conservative. The world is now in so extraordinarily serious an economic crisis that mainstream politicians in large part would prefer to ignore what is going on before our very eyes, out of fear on their part that they know not what to say nor what to do. It is imperative that the minority voices expressing these concerns be heard.

In these extreme times, that is the most important lesson of Milton’s Areopagitica. Each and every one of us must face this bald contemporary truth about the Coronavirus. We bury our heads in the sands of simplistic solutions about ever further restraining civil liberties and economic freedoms and proscribing international travel. Nevertheless there is a critical debate about the consequences this will have for our global future, that has barely yet begun. 

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and formerly Chairman of the Milton Society at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He is the author of four books and over 300 articles in the fields of international law and international relations, and has been named as one of the 300 most influential people in Switzerland and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and Honorary Professor at the University of Leicester. He is the Chief Executive of the Foundation for Development.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

Interested in writing for TransConflict? Contact us now by clicking here!

What are the principles of conflict transformation?



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons