When a government curbs the freedom of expression, speech and assembly so that it almost non-existent, this is usually interpreted as a fear of upheaval. But sometimes it adopts this policy out of elitist considerations: giving too much freedom to people merely promotes “vulgar oratory” and gives undue power to the inept. It seems that England does not fall in any of these categories: in Hyde Park, Speakers’ Corner exists as a venue to express oneself freely, as if one belonged to a society that respected human rights and that had earned the right to call itself democratic.
But let us be honest: Who goes there? What do they talk about? What effect do those speeches have on the speakers themselves? And finally, is Speakers’ Corner truly reflective of a democratic society?
Here are a few observations during my visit some time ago:
- Speakers’ Corner assembles people with a wide variety of views: an African speaker who believes that God lives in Nigeria and that we should all migrate to that country if we wish to save our souls; a Pakistani who contends that Atheists have missed the whole point of existence, by focusing on the fact that Muslims outnumber them; another so-called soothsayer preaches that women who wear trousers instead of skirts, dye their hair or wear make-up are indubitably bad in bed; a woman who seems to have only read Nietzsche and insists on the superiority of Anglo-Saxons. The differences that exist among the speakers are perhaps clear, but the similarities are clearer: everyone wants to be heard and everyone wants to convince another.
- Without any doubt, we have come a long way from the time when Socrates was tried and convicted for exercising the freedom of speech. He was known for destroying clichés and dogmas through the questions that he asked. The changes he was making to society posed a threat to the ruling government and annoyed them. In 399 BC, the philosopher was charged with the crime of “corrupting the minds of the youth” in Athens and put to death for this seditious act. Can the nature and quality of speeches and debates in Speakers’ Corner match those of Socrates, and if not, then at least the effect that the philosopher had on his audience? The government of the United Kingdom does not seem to be worried about what goes on every Sunday in Hyde Park; and this fact probably answers my question.
- But what is the legal position on the freedom to voice the opinions mentioned in (1) in public? The freedom of speech has always been limited, even in the UK. Contrary to popular belief, the law in force at Speakers’ Corner is no different from the law prevalent in other parts of the UK: thus, speeches which include obscenity, blasphemy and insults to the Queen among others, for a long time, were deemed to be prohibited. Even if these rules were sometimes violated, the police hardly interfered, leaving the Speakers’ Corner to be an idyllic place for free speech. There was however a change which occurred because of the case of Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions (1999). The ruling in this case formalized the extent to which this freedom could be enjoyed by speakers: article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, guaranteeing the freedom of expression was interpreted by the court in such a way that the scope of freedom of speech in the UK was broadened. Lord Justice Sedley described Speakers’ Corner as demonstrating “the tolerance which is both extended by the law to opinion of every kind and expected by the law in the conduct of those who disagree, even strongly, with what they hear”. Freedom of speech could from then onwards, be extended to include “the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome, and the provocative, as long as such speech did not tend to provoke violence”. This would mean that the speeches I mentioned in (1) above would be deemed perfectly legitimate under English law. But a law that empowers you to indulge in an act, albeit one that is without purpose, is an echo of Mr Bumble’s words in Oliver Twist that “law is (indeed) an ass”.
- What I saw at the park was merely low-level political propaganda. The shepherd wins the trust of the flock by convincing them to trust the Truth proposition that he presents to them. Speakers were there to convert others through appeals and urges aimed at their audience so that the latter could change, apparently for the better. It is probably necessary to insert this thought at this juncture: “The Truth” is known to be a mere linguistic construction which philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault say is a necessary fiction introduced in language. Why? Merely because we have been trained to think in a logical sequence which necessarily culminates into answers, solutions or conclusions to every problem. This method of systematic reasoning is believed to be flawed for many reasons, but one that is relevant to this essay is that it forces us to concoct artificial notions such as “The Truth” that actually represent a conclusion. Conclusions can often be dangerous because they do not prompt thinking and can give an illusory feeling of satisfaction to the thinker. Perhaps an apt maxim in summary of this particular idea is: “When we tire of thinking, we draw conclusions”. “The Truth” is also a very convenient linguistic construction, because it possesses the primary quality that allows just about anyone to adopt it: vagueness. “The Truth” is a term which is vague enough for a Christian, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Buddhist or even a Scientologist, to adjust to and adapt, and use in everyday language according to what fits their beliefs. In other words, “The Truth” sits well with any philosophy, however ludicrous it may be, and like water, takes the form of the receptacle in which it is placed. That is why the notion of “The Truth” continues to attract people to the point that most of them are caught up with wanting to wonder “What is The Truth?”, rather than taking a step back, and in the manner of an incisive thinker, ask: “Does it make sense to even look for something called ‘The Truth’?” Those who care to proceed in the latter manner soon realize that “The Truth” is no more than a mirage. Unfortunately people continue to fall victim to preachers, prophets and charlatans who have been known through the tides of time to claim that they hold the ultimate sceptre of truth.
- Speakers in forums such as Speakers’ Corner sound like “pamphlet-readers”. They seem to have engaged in the cursory reading of a text or merely an excerpt from an isolated passage of a book, and having been so easily persuaded, decided to persuade others of it. They are not there to test their ideas, which would perhaps be a nobler objective, but to convert others to their beliefs. If they manage their task successfully, it would only serve in proving their newly found ideal to themselves. Their existence is not autonomous; their beliefs are profoundly dependent on the approval and consensus of others. In other words, speakers/preachers (of just about any political ideology) who are not convinced of their own values need the validation of future “convertees” to reinforce their thoughts. This hints at the inherent instability of their philosophy because had their thoughts been firmly and definitely ingrained in their minds, they would have been contented with their personalized version of “The Truth”. If their research in human knowledge was profound, they would know that choosing a path is an individual expedition; that it takes a long time and is a tedious process that requires considerable mental and emotional energy. They would have learnt to respect individual autonomy by respecting each individual’s path in finding his own Truth, like Siddhartha, the eponymous hero of the novel by Hermann Hesse, did.
- The formula of Speakers’ Corner invariably promotes superficiality of thought. Is it possible to convert reasonable people by the sheer power of argument? This passage probably answers the question: “After all, what goes on in the mind of a person who seeks something more than an unexamined life? What thoughts get appended to other thoughts? Which ones compel him to redefine his life? What part of his past and which of his desires influence his ultimate decision to take a leap? And finally, if he must recount this process thoroughly to another, would he be able to paint an adequate picture of those major and minor revolutions, bearing in mind that Reason, the needle-and-thread of language, is a convenient creation that restricts and redirects the outpours of Mankind? The daily questions, the daily conflicts, finding oneself perpetually standing on the rims of abysses; daring to take leaps, falling, going back…who else knows these struggles but the one who seeks and the one who is eternally restless?” (Extract from the novel Semi-apes). When one engages in a debate, one only touches on the superfluities of an argument. Nothing equals the depth reached through a careful study of literature; when one engages in a debate, an atmosphere of antagonism sets in and the speaker’s ego interferes with the genuine search for knowledge—one then starts caring more about winning than finding palpable ways to deal with the controversy that gave rise to the debate. Arthur Schopenhauer in a thesis called “The Art of Controversy” divides debates into two categories: Logos and Dialectica Eristica. Logos is the search of truth, which can only happen when people with the same intellect get together and engage in a debate with the sincere wish to reach a dependable conclusion through an authentic process of “meeting of minds”. Dialectica Eristica (or “stubborn dialect”) refers to the exhausting battle of egos that rages between parties who are more mindful about proving themselves right to the other party than seeking an answer. In this situation, debaters may even be aware that what they are saying is wrong and misleading, but the desire of winning triumphs over every other consideration. The most common scenario where one can observe the display of Dialectica Eristica is ironically in a court setting.
- At the end of the day, judging from the quality of speakers that the place attracts, I felt that Speakers’ Corner gathered the idle, the unemployed, and the misfits so that they could vent their frustration and air their half-baked conceptions to the world. I am reminded of Thomas Mann’s words in Confessions of Felix Krull: “Almost anything is becoming to a human being except the perverse, the stupid, and the half-baked.”
- Interestingly, most people present at Speakers’ Corner were tourists. Like me, they were probably curious to know what went on at Speakers’ Corner. I often heard their protests and was party to casual exchanges where they too seemed to decry the ludicrousness of speeches. Is Speakers’ Corner therefore more of a tourist attraction than a genuine pulpit? Is it instead a circus of talking clowns set up merely to entertain London’s tourists?
- This is the Quietist Manifesto because it condones the philosophy of Quietism over the war of words of Speakers’ Corner. The Quietist movement began because the primary remark made by its advocates was that Language is a double-edged sword: while it creates a bridge of communication among human beings, it also limits them. Language is after all a system and like any system, confines the user to following its hard-and-fast rules. Quietists believe that there is more to this rather simplistic system called Language and that most of our debates, our thoughts and our worries are problematic or unsolvable because the Language system does not allow the thinker or speaker to rise above it. Quietists aver that the best alternative is therefore silence. In Wittgenstein’s famous words: “Whereof one cannot speak one should be silent.”
September 2014- London
Image Courtesy: Sabah Carrim © All Rights Reserved