George Walford: Don’t Talk While I’m Interrupting

There is a paradox built into freedom: We can have it only while we don’t use it. At any given moment there is a wide range of possible actions open to us, but by performing any action, realising any one of these possibilities, we eliminate all the others. We can avoid limiting our freedom only by not exercising it.

This can equally well be put the other way round. If action, rather than the possibility of action, be regarded as the sphere of true freedom, then real freedom (action) depends upon the repression of illusory freedom (the possibility of other actions). Whichever way it be taken, freedom and repression are indissolubly connected.

The connection applies not only to individual behaviour but also to the social freedoms, for example the freedom of speech. We all know people who seem to talk without pause, and our response is not one of warm approval, we do not feel pleasure at seeing the right of free speech so generously exercised. On the contrary we feel It as a form of oppression; they are preventing us from talking. We could, of course, talk at the same time, but this is unsatisfactory, for talk requires a listener. Freedom of speech, if it is to be more than an empty abstraction, requires that somebody should listen. That is, should restrict their own freedom of speech.

Every person in the world, without exception, possesses and always has possessed the inalienable right to talk freely when nobody is listening. The term “free speech” does not mean what it says; it means freedom to address an audience.

It is often pointed out that those who control the newspapers, television, radio, cinema and printing press enjoy a freedom of speech denied to the rest of us. We may have freedom of private speech but we are not free, as they are, to address the public. This is not to be corrected by each of us operating our own newspaper, television and radio station, film studio and printing press; that would bring not more freedom but less. If we were all busy printing, broadcasting and so on, and none of us listening or reading, then there would be no public audience for anybody to address. Nobody would enjoy freedom of effective public speech. In public affairs as in private life, effective free speech requires an audience, and an audience consists of people who are repressing their own freedom of speech.

If this be so then the audience is not, as we usually take it to be, merely passive. The audience is just as much a part of free speech as the speaker. The presence of an audience, just as much as the activity of a speaker, constitutes freedom of speech.

The absence of an audience limits the speaker’s freedom, but so does its presence. An audience is not merely people, it is listening people; anybody who desires to exercise freedom of speech has to induce an audience to listen. The speaker has to accept this limitation imposed by the audience, and this is so even if we think of a forced audience; force is one way of inducing people to listen, the need to use force is a limitation imposed by the audience on the speaker.

It is possible to buy control of a newspaper, a television or radio station, but to do this is not to be assured of an audience; there is a further condition: what is printed or broadcast must be adapted, both in form and content, to the requirements of the intended listeners. If this is not done it will remain unread, unviewed, unheard. This is why all the mass media, without exception, speak mainly of incidents of personal life (real or fictitious) rather than abstruse theories, and of immediately dramatic public events rather than those that produce broad and enduring results. It is “man bites dog” that is news; only a few animal psychologists take up the more important question of why dogs bite people. Not everybody who appeals to mass interests will gain a mass circulation, but everybody who does not do this will not get one.

To exercise freedom of speech is to communicate with an audience, and in order to do that what is said must be adapted to the interests of the intended listeners. The interests of any group are determined by its ideology. It is not the capitalists, or the system, or shortage of resources, but their ideological separation from the general body of the people that restricts the effective freedom of speech enjoyed by the more intellectualistic groups.

Yes, that does apply to IC too; we do not claim to enjoy freedom from ideological limitations, only to be seeking it by trying to understand them.

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THE GLC TELL us they are “Working for London.” There now seems to be little chance that they will get it.

from Ideological Commentary 20, September 1985.