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An Indivisible Principle
beware geeks bearing riffs
One of the architects of Brexit - you know, that thing that was supposed to make everything better that was never going to and hasn’t that they now claim they said might not but they didn’t - has just proposed that free speech is “an indivisible principle”.
And I thought:
I don’t actually know what that means.
I know what it sounds like it means. But I don’t actually know.
And then, because I’m an arrogant jackass, I thought:
I wonder if he does?
It’s interestingly difficult to find a solid hit on the Internet. Google throws up the 1902 encyclopaedia, which uses the expression in reference to the Amalrican doctrine:
Omnia unum, quia quicquid est est Deus
All things are one, because whatever is is God
Essentially (ho ho ho) this is a kind of theological cul de sac:
“David of Dinant, in a book De Tomis (rendered by Albertus De Divisionibus), taught the identity of God with matter (or the indivisible principle of bodies) and nous (or the indivisible principle of intelligences)—an extreme Realism culminating in a materialistic pantheism.”
Trying to track down more about Amalrich led me to a 1960s journal article on JSTOR about Taborite Chiliasm and its antecedents which was gloriously like reading something Borges would have written. What’s a Taborite? What’s Chialism? Great material, is what, but at this point I have to break off and say I’m not finding out anything about what I started looking for.
It also crops up in the 2nd Edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Though the work of creation is attributed to the Father in particular, it is equally a truth of faith that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit together are the one, indivisible principle of creation.
So whichever way I turn it this “indivisible principle” seems to be a religious concept. The weird thing about it is that even in that context there’s an argument about just how “indivisible” it is. The Amalrican doctrine says God is literally everything - you, me, the sky, Dominic Cummings, a cow, the planet Venus, even rhubarb crumble. The catechism doesn’t go that far - it restricts itself to the Trinity. And so it is with free speech, as it turns out:
“I believe that there are rightly some legal limits and exclusions to free speech - including fraud, libel, and so on.”
That’s self-described “free speech fundamentalist” Professor Teresa Bejan talking to Ian Leslie. Fraud is a really interesting one that I hadn’t considered. That made me think about plagiarism or the act of revealing scientific and military secrets, or the details of ongoing criminal cases. When you get right down to it - as is so often the way - really thinking anyone should be allowed to say anything is a hard road. I’d have some respect for the intellectual integrity it implied, but I’d still think it was an outlier position.
So what’s an indivisible principle? Given the repeating association with the totality of God in one form or another, the only reasonable parsing I can come up with is that it is a principle which is by definition and of its fundamental nature incapable of being bounded, qualified or reduced. In other words, in the case of free speech, it has to be the position I outlined in the previous paragraph: the assertion that no act of the transfer of information from one person to another is inappropriate, no matter the context or consequence. It’s a sky-high bid which in practice would border on functional incapacity. A lot of human interaction is about what we don’t say at what moment. If you really lived according to this idea, you’d very quickly fall foul of that even in basic social settings, never mind in areas with high level consequences.
And once you’ve stepped back from that, you’ve lost your indivisibility. Now we’re just arguing about where it’s appropriate to stop the slider, which is a perfectly sensible and democratic process in which various needs and histories can be given due weight.
So, while there is an iteration of free speech as an indivisible principle, it’s not one that really makes any practical sense. What that means for the original statement is - alas - self-explanatory.
And no, I’m not quoting it here. Free speech also does not require me to promulgate offensive bunkum. Trust me: you’re better off reading the piece about the Taborites instead.
Obscure theology of Bohemian sects! I am all about the 24 hr news cycle.