Persecution and the Art of Writing the return to an ancient problem

"Save Freedom of Speech" - NARA - 513711

“Save Freedom of Speech” – NARA – 513711 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story of the Bangladeshi writers who were hacked to death has not drawn as much attention as the Charlie Hebdo attack even though they share some similarities. The Bangladeshi writers wanted to write about atheism and to question the dominant religious views within their country.[1] They believed in the right of free speech and thought they should be able to speak freely and openly about the issues. Despite death threats, the writers continued to publish on the topic and were killed.

Some commentators have expressed concern about the attack on the freedom of speech; a freedom they believe is sacrosanct for decent liberal democratic politics.[2] In the West, there is wide acceptance that writers should be free and are free to write on a variety of topics without fear of government censorship or persecution. For the most part, the market decides whether the public will read what is written not the government. The market does not keep people from writing and publishing, especially on social media, if they want. The constraints that do exist are relatively limited as few topics, such as national security, are off limits. Thus, there is a widespread belief that the only alternatives are free speech or suppressed silence. The Western writers, long indulged with near unlimited freedom, have lost any sense of restraint or moderation. They forget that writers were able to flourish in earlier ages where persecution and censorship was widespread. By contrast, writers face being ignored more than they face being persecuted. However, this was not always the case.

Liberal governments and repressive societies

The demand for and acceptance of freedom of speech is a relatively recent idea. The idea of free speech is not one that had complete or even extensive acceptance around the world. Even though states may sign up to its ideas as part of UN membership[3], many contain societies that only pay lip service to those ideas. In these cases, the government acts hesitantly or is passive when a writer is attacked or threatened. The government might act to track down the attackers but that is tempered by a societal willingness to accept cultural codes of behaviour will be enforced. In this behaviour, we see that the government condones persecution without officially sanctioning it.

A public domain safe for discussion is rare

What we find in these states is that instead of a government censor, the community is the censor. The state continues to be arbiter or judge as it does in the West without taking a strong position for the individual rights over the community’s wishes. The Western democracies have accepted religion and politics are separated and have made the public domain safe for citizens to criticise religion and the government. Other states have not followed this path even if they ascribe to liberal democratic principles. Thus, religion and traditions continue to play a dominant role in the public domain, which limit the right of freedom of speech as understood in the West.

Is it brave to act rashly in the face of threats?

In such a society, it would seem foolhardy to demand they display and encourage Western liberal democratic freedom of speech. The society has neither the western liberal democratic background nor culture that values individual rights and freedom of expression. However, some will consider these writers brave. I would suggest that they chose to be martyrs. They knew the risks and did not seek to moderate their writings. They could have continued to write and still discuss the issues they wanted to discuss. Instead, they chose an immoderate path by insisting society and culture change to accept their beliefs or at least tolerate their beliefs openly.

Persecution in the past did not stifle all writers

In the past, writers who faced such persecution found a way around it. To do this, though, they chose a moderate path. In liberal democratic societies, the moderation is imposed by other means. When faced with persecution, the ancient writers chose topics and styles that would avoid the censors. They wrote in a way that the community accepted their writings. What they used to avoid persecution was to write esoterically. In the West, writers have lost touch with this moderate writing as they are allowed to write openly and aggressively on all topics.[4] They have no need to write moderately and yet they do write moderately. By contrast, the Bangladeshi writers needed to write moderately yet they chose an immoderate path. They confused rashness with bravery. What they failed to understand is that persecution need not stop the public expression of their views. As Leo Strauss argued, writers can escape persecution if they are willing to write carefully or between the lines

“Persecution cannot prevent even public expression of the heterodox truth, for a man of independent thought can utter his views in public and remain unharmed, provided he moves with circumspection. He can even utter them in print without incurring any danger, provided he is capable of writing between the lines.”[5] PAW p. 490.

Do we encourage others to be brave so we can feel good about our freedoms?

Perhaps it is time for writers to revisit Leo Strauss’s work. There they can find an introduction into methods to avoid persecution.[6] We can encourage states to defend freedom of speech yet it is our responsibility to encourage writers to act prudently in the face of threats. To encourage their immoderate behaviour seems to be irresponsible when other paths are available. We appear to encourage others to be martyrs for our beliefs so we feel better about our freedoms.

[1] (accessed 23 April 2015) and (accessed 23 April 2015)

[2] See for example George Packer’s article. (accessed 23 April 2015)

[3] See the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (accessed 23 April 2015)

[4] (accessed 23 April 2015)

[5] (accessed 23 April 2015) Strauss, Leo, Persecution and the Art of Writing , Social Research, 8:1/4 (1941) p.488-504

[6] (accessed 23 April 2015)

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
This entry was posted in censorship, education, philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Persecution and the Art of Writing the return to an ancient problem

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on TRILCon15: The Privacy Arms Race | Thoughts on management

  2. Ian says:

    You speak as if speech should be ameliorated to a level where it becomes acceptable to certain groups (I hesitate to say or use the term power brokers) as a means of safeguarding freedoms. Some years ago the Criminal Cases Review Commission had a media headline of Helen Duncan’s pardon displayed in their foyer. ( or similar)
    It seems to me her verbal communications of the more acceptable media methods were silenced in a way which mimics that being advocated by your article, an acceptable method hiding something considered secret. Self censorship and communicating between the lines can become a norm which appears as a slippery slope when it comes to matters regarding individual freedoms because it allows the most adept a greater flexibility and use afforded by the plausible deniability of misunderstanding. Whilst agreeing that political flexibility may often be required in some areas, what do you perceive as providing those protections of individual freedoms in a nation state lacking more formal constitutional protections.

    (Old email used as have no current one)

    • Thanks for the comment, it is good to hear from you. I think that we all moderate or modulate our speech to the audience. One would not speak of revolution and democratic mandates to the Queen just as we would not discuss hereditary rule to the Daughters of the American Revolution. I am not suggesting that communication be silenced. I am suggesting that there are ways to write that allow ideas to be communicate that protect the writer. The writers who were killed operated under a mistaken belief that they could say what they wanted without consequence and that the state would protect them. Both of these are modern liberal ideas that do not reflect history and are predicated on underlying assumptions or settled conclusions to certain issues.
      I would not suggest that what the writers hide is secret which is a binary issue (I presented a paper at this conference on the comparison of encryption and esotericism. ). The method served ancient writers well who lived in less constitutional times and more turbulent times when it was more likely that someone would be killed for heretical beliefs or even the suspicion of heretical beliefs.
      We forget too easily the amount of persecution and censorship to create conformity that occurs in liberal democracies. We assume it has to be as bold and blatant as that in non liberal democraciess. It is as bold and blatant, just not in the ways that people see as easily as they think it is just “politics”.

Comments are closed.