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Diacritics 31.2 (2001) 71-84
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Freedom from Speech (or the Silent Demand)
Speak, you also,
speak as the last,
have your say.
—Paul Celan, "Speak, You Also"
The language of awaiting—perhaps it is silent, but it does
not separate speaking and silence; it makes of silence
already a kind of speaking; already it says in silence the
speaking that silence is. For mortal silence does not keep still.
—Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster
Whereas ethical questions have challenged concepts of self, identity, and society, the concept of freedom of speech—and its place in recent discussions on pluralism and multiculturalism—has remained largely unproblematized. The challenge I wish to propose here does not touch directly on the positive right to speak, nor on the limitations impeding free speech, but rather on the other side of speaking, on the Other's side of this freedom. Does the concept of freedom of speech carry in itself and as such an ethical significance?
Freedom of speech has been an important element in modern social philosophy, occupying the works of traditional liberalists such as John Stuart Mill, progressive thinkers like John Dewey and Walter Lippmann, as well as the critical pragmatist Jurgen Habermas, to name but a few. Such accounts regarded the freedom of speech as a social practice based on the stature of the speaking self, on its innate right to speak and to be heard. It is the right to a "podium"—a space and a time in the public sphere—and the right to declare a priori: "I have something to say important enough for others to hear." Hence, the first word of this speech is an assertion of importance, not only of the speech per se, but also the importance of the speaker: self-importance. Is this kind of speaker interested in something beyond his or her fully legitimate right and ability to perform as speaker? Is there any room for the silent Other? Moreover, doesn't the practice of freedom of speech tacitly presuppose that someone else is already relegated to listening, to the passive side of this action? If this is indeed true, such a way of communicating would be, to use Gemma Corradi Fiumara's thoughtful insight, a reduced-by-half notion of logos—an address by the one who knows how to speak but does not (need to) know how to listen [54-55]. A halved model of speaker and address would thereby constitute only half of an ethical discourse. The remaining half would lie where speech does not eclipse the Other's silence, where the Other's silence has its "say." How can [End Page 71] one speak and still hear the Other's call, whether silent or audible? And even more importantly, what is the Other's silence "saying"?
It is my contention that free speech is never carried out in an "Otherless" sphere, that is, untainted by the Other's demand to be responded to. It follows that the moral veneration invested in the concept of free speech implies a certain heedlessness of otherness, and that radically free speech is self-absolved from its fundamental response-ability rather than rightfully free. A responsible speaker (or writer) may then be viewed as the one whose freedom to speak is exposed to the Other's demands, and for whom this freedom is his or her onus to respond to the Other's call. The witness speaks for someone who cannot speak for him- or herself; the witness's freedom of expression is subjected to the responsibility for Others. One remarkable witness was the writer Primo Levi, who devoted his life to responding to the living and to the dead: his greatest burden was his freedom to speak. Perhaps delaying or deferring the emergence of the speaking self might thereby allow the Other's call to emerge and summon witnessing.
Acknowledging the existence of Others in every address depends upon developing a sense of otherness, that is, sensitivity to the Other. It requires an awareness of the fundamental setting in which an...