Freedom of Speech, under a Cloud

I have heard many inspiring lectures about the heroes of freedom of speech – great men like Thomas More, Vaclav Havel, George Orwell, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. After one such lecture, a questioner asked the speaker whether he thought we had similar problems today. “Well, yes, I think we do.”  With that, he stopped and said no more. A friend turned to me and said, “He dodged the question.” Of course, he had to. This speaker speaking about freedom of speech knew the topics he wasn’t allowed to speak about in the modern university.

Talking about freedom of speech at a conference in a modern university is like talking about the freedom of religion at a conference in the old Soviet Union. Many inspiring phrases may be uttered, but no one wants to point out the 300-pound gorilla in the room. We’re talking about a certain freedom as though we possessed it, when everyone present knows we don’t. And the fact that we can’t say openly that we lack the freedom is the most obvious evidence of its absence.

I don’t blame this lecturer.  He was an invited speaker giving at talk at someone else’s university.  Why make trouble, especially if the trouble would come down on the heads of others?  He would leave the next day. And what kind of mess would he be leaving behind for others to have to clean up?

But in his famous essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Czech writer and dissident Václav Havel uses the example of a greengrocer who refuses to put up a sign in his store window that says, “Workers of the world unite” as a model of a crucial form of resistance to ideological totalitarianism.  The state functionaries will punish this man, says Havel, not because they care about the workers of the world. They will punish him because of his refusal to show obedience to the reigning ideology. It is for this reason, says Havel, that ideology is a “specious way of relating to the world.”

Notice, however, that the anger expressed against this man is likely to come not only, and perhaps not primarily, from state authorities – but also from his neighbors, either those who are eager to show their solidarity with the ideological elites, or those who simply wish not to have “trouble.”  And so this one grocer who refuses to put up the required sign, the one who is “living the truth,” in Havel’s words, will be asked repeatedly, even by some of his closest friends and neighbors, “Why are you making trouble?”

I have no wish to compare the courage it would have taken to be this greengrocer in a communist country with the courage it would take to exist in a modern university.  The comparison I wish to make is between the greengrocer’s neighbors and the colleagues of that one person in the university who refuses to use the approved pronouns or the gender-neutral language according to which “she” must be referred to as “he,” “xe,” or “they.” Or of that one cranky colleague who says publicly that the “inclusion and diversity” training required by the administration is silly and a fraud.

We all know such people.  They are an irritant.  We might admire them, but they cause trouble.  We fear for them.  We want to protect them.  And yet, we want them not to make trouble for the rest of us who have resolved to “go along and get along.”


I can imagine the friends of Havel’s greengrocer asking him, “Is this really the hill you want to die on – this business with the sign about the workers? Look, we will sacrifice with you,” they will likely say, reasoning calmly, “but when the time is right; not on something silly like this.  Let’s wait for the right thing.” What the “right” thing would be is rarely clear.

How often are people like Havel’s greengrocer told by friends and confidants – sometimes sternly, usually under the pretense that the person scolding them is “caring for their welfare” – that they should “stop making trouble” or that their comments were “not helpful” and that it would be best to deal with these matters “quietly,” “in negotiations through the proper channels”?

If there is one touchingly naïve faith that you can guarantee will be shared by nearly all those associated with a bureaucratic system, it’s that petty injustices by those in power are best handled “quietly,” “behind the scenes,” despite repeated evidence that people in power have little patience or use for “dialogue.”

And what if Havel is right, that the power of the powerless must come from insisting on speaking the truth and living in the truth in numerous small ways every day? Perhaps we ourselves don’t have the courage, but if someone else does, what should be our response? All it takes for evil to dominate is for good people to do nothing.

Perhaps we must finally face up to the fact that the ones really “making trouble” are those who insist on forcing everyone to live a lie, and that we have the responsibility to protect the people with the courage to do what should be done. Will we choose to “live in the truth” or remain quislings?

Speaking of quislings, the major guilds of the academic disciplines – groups like the Modern Language Association, the American Philosophical Association, and the American Academy of Religion – have done their part to enforce the fads of the new linguistic fascists, but they have yet to do anything serious to bring about basic justice for adjunct faculty or to stem the tide of the corporatization of the academy, bloated bureaucracies, ever-increasing tuitions costs, and the ever-increasing use of non-tenure track faculty.

This makes them worthy of the sort of contempt with which we now view the bureaucracies of the former Eastern European communist governments. The sooner they are dissolved in favor of something like Poland’s Solidarity labor union, the better.


*Image: Václav Havel (1936-2011) waves to supporters in Prague in 1989. Havel, who had been jailed by the communists, led the “Velvet Revolution” and became the Czech Republic’s president in 1993. [Photo by Petar Kujundzic/Reuters]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.