Freedom of Opinion – Thinking on Behalf of the State Ruthless Criticism

Freedom of Opinion – Thinking on Behalf of the State

[Translated from Sozialistische Gruppe]

1. With the universally revered principle of freedom of opinion, the bourgeois state does not keep itself out of the sphere of thinking and judging, but subjects its citizens’ opinions to its conditions.

Freedom of opinion is one of the quality seals of democracy. It is highly esteemed that it emphatically permits the forming of opinions and expressing them.

It’s already a bit stupid that this is supposed to be a plus for democracy. It is stated so plainly, as if this marvel would be a service to the people, as if before the invention of democracy and its generous permissions humanity was stumbling through the world without opinions or speech. But everyone had opinions because they had will and intellect, even in the “darkest” days of the Middle Ages and under the most “totalitarian” rule, and they expressed their opinions at home and probably even in the tavern. The ruling authority may have sometimes not welcomed certain statements or even completely forbidden them; but this is still no reason to celebrate one's own state for not doing this, and because something as natural as forming and expressing opinions is specially permitted.

By permitting the expression of opinions, the democratic state doesn't simply let them be, keeping itself outside the realm of thought and declaring its lack of jurisdiction. It makes the rather banal fact that everyone always thinks whatever he thinks into a legal question, and thus its concern. It does not let the forming and expressing of opinion simply take its course, but meddles in it and indeed in its interest.

But then that's what the right to free speech and opinion is all about: it does not serve to facilitate thinking and expressing opinions, but on the contrary it serves to regulate them. By permitting the free expression of opinion, it licenses it under its terms and conditions.

Therefore, it is also no surprise that the state sometimes feels defied and so uses a lot of force against the abuse of this right and forbids opinions.

It is quixotic to reproach the bourgeois state for infringing on the right to free opinion because it acts against opinions. If it proceeds to take action against an opinion, then it applies this right, declaring which opinion is free and which opinion violates this right. The state's action documents that it means something quite different by the principle of free opinion than what the critic means; this shows that the critic's concept of free opinion has very little to do with it. Instead of insisting that freedom of opinion should be the way one imagines – which is always an acknowledgement that it isn’t that way – it would be appropriate, on the contrary, to look at freedom of opinion and its logic and to learn why the state decrees it. It is unreasonable to regard the deviation of something from one's own good opinion of it as criticism; such criticism, no matter how harsh, gives credit in principle to the subject matter under review.

2. With the right to freedom of opinion, the state prescribes an attitude one is to take towards one's own thoughts: one is to regard them as purely subjective opinions with which one adapts in theory as in practice to being ruled.

The right to free opinion is an order to respect others’ opinions. On the one hand, it is the state's guarantee that nobody may come along and dispute what one thinks. On the other hand, it is the state's ban on challenging and dissuading others’ beliefs about God or the world when one regards them as nonsense. By demanding respect, the content of an opinion – one's own as well as others’ – is not to be taken seriously, since then one would have to refer to the thought and argue about its quality; rather, one is to accept opinions in principle, regardless of what they believe and how contradictory they may be.

With the tolerance demanded by the freedom of opinion, the content of an opinion doesn't matter. What matters is only that whoever has an opinion may have it, regardless of its content. People's opinions, their judgments about God and the world, are explained as their very own, as something that pertains and belongs to the person who expresses them. In this way, the right to free opinion makes thoughts into a purely personal affair. They have no obligation to be given respect apart from – but rather only because of – the person who expresses them.

The right to free opinion is the requirement to treat all opinions as purely personal expressions. Thus what is expressed is reduced to a purely subjective statement: one no longer clarifies the content of the thought and the statement, judges what it says, what it deals with, what it is all about, but what the thing means to someone, what one can get out of it, because the opinion is valid only for and to the individual. Freedom of opinion is the state's order to practice modesty, to refrain from learning about the social relations in order to draw practical conclusions from them, and instead to use thinking to attach significance to everything and everyone.

Clearly, this destructive act in the realm of thought by the state is a direct result of its commandment to be tolerant: if all opinions are to be equally respected, then nobody may raise thoughts that are more than merely his, and everybody has to retract them as mere opinions from which nothing follows – for or against other opinions. In this way, one has to abstain from taking seriously one’s own thoughts about what one has to do and consequently what is to be put into action. Then thinking has the duty of not disturbing order, but arranging itself according to it. One presupposes in thought whatever one comes up against and, as a result, asks only what’s in it for oneself. In this way, one has always already theoretically as well as practically accommodated the criteria to apply to one's own living conditions, .

Free speech is nothing other than the state duty – in thinking as in action – to adapt.

If the social reality is taken for granted, and the thoughts and actions of the people have to adapt to it, then it is clear that the people are not the active subjects who create their social conditions with their knowledge, according to their intentions. Rather, they are subjected to social conditions whose yardsticks they have to keep to in their actions. They experience their own social conditions as an incomprehensible and uncontrollable force that includes purely “objective” necessities that must be respected and obeyed. This whole circus is only possible if there is a power enthroned above and beyond all interests which sets up this relation of subordination and, as the guardian of these “objective” necessities, legitimates them.

3. The right to free opinion is an absolute prohibition of criticism which makes further censorship is unnecessary.

As everyone knows, “there shall be no censorship” in a democracy, as opposed to other forms of rule. This gives democracy a big plus in the public mind and gives other forms of government a big minus. Hence in the US media, e.g. Cuba is made into a stronghold of totalitarianism because it refuses to tolerate so many spokesmen for divine edification of the word and excludes “dissidents” from public life. When Cuba censors opinions, it places itself in opposition to the represented matter: it overrules certain incriminated opinions with force and in this respect has to account for why it judges the persecuted statements as wrong. As twisted and outrageous as these justifications may sometimes be, Cuba’s use of force in dealing with its critics takes the deviating opinions as serious judgments.

It is different in a democracy. It decrees freedom of opinion for its society and doesn’t censor opinions for their content. Rather, it generously grants its subjects permission to maintain anything, provided they do not insist it is true, and hold no commitment to their views. By not censoring a single judgment but rather forbidding judgment itself, the democratic state decrees a truly totalitarian ban on criticism: every opinion must announce that it does not want to shake up the existing order.

When citizens follow the order to free speech in a democracy, they may grumble about anything, as well as get publicly excited about anything they are discontent with, and need not observe any requirements regarding content in the process. Because all this yapping makes clear that they presuppose the rules that apply in the society, that they don’t scratch but assume existing standards, they also look to this effect: discontent always expresses itself in the name of what is legitimate, and mulls the eternal problem of whether something corresponds to the existing standards or whether people themselves are not guilty of neglect. Democracy need not fear the discontent of its citizens: by permitting its subjects free speech to publicly express their discontent, it separates discontent and criticism and thereby makes the discontent of its citizens functional for itself.

Democracy recognizes its enemies and publicly stigmatizes them for adhering to a methodological offense, regardless of the represented content: anyone who doesn’t take part in the democratic assignment to think opinions without consequences, and even insists on his opinions and their validity, is immediately taken to want to insist on practical consequences. A democracy does not tolerate such a thing; that is not a permitted idea, but revolution! “No freedom for the enemies of freedom” is the motto of democracy when it uses its entire force apparatus to shut down this unseemly intolerance. Only one means occurs to democracy to counter arguments – whether they are simply correct or downright nonsense, it’s all the same: force.