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Wood carving of a man operating a printing press (source)

Why Is the West so Concerned With Free Speech?

Philip Dhingra
Feb 5, 2020 · 3 min read

The West’s concern with free speech is both the cause of its success for the past 500 years, but also potentially its limiting factor for the next 500. The reason we have become obsessed with free speech has to do with the when and the how of the printing press. Even though the printing press was invented first in Asia, its growth was stifled by the capital investment required to produce 100,000 Chinese blocks. In other words, the smaller character set of the Western alphabet happens to be responsible for the early adoption of the printing press in the West. With the rise of the printed word came a whole host of Western staples, including share corporations, contract law, constitutions, and mass media, all of which have become essential to liberal economies and democracies.

As a result, I’d argue that the success of Western empires (Spanish, French, Dutch, German, British, and American) inherently justified their commitment to not just producing text, but also obeying text.

Every civilization needs a form of control, and the most fundamental lever is religion. The first thing Gutenberg printed in the 1440s were Bibles. But it wasn’t until 1517, that the German priest Martin Luther seized on this invention to become a religious text master:

As the legend goes, Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Palmer says that broadsheet copies of Luther’s document were being printed in London as quickly as 17 days later.

Thanks to the printing press and the timely power of his message, Luther became the world’s first best-selling author. Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German sold 5,000 copies in just two weeks. From 1518 to 1525, Luther’s writings accounted for a third of all books sold in Germany and his German Bible went through more than 430 editions.

The West’s obsession with free speech is now deeply embedded in its culture. Think of the American Tea Party, whose members carry copies of the Constitution in their pocket. Or, consider Star Wars fans arguing over which obscure character is “canon.” The Abrahamic religions also all have core texts, whether it’s the Bible or the Koran. Whereas the Dharmic or Taoic religions, while having sacred texts, do not require their adherents to stick to a “definitive canon.”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

The downside of all this is the endless debate in city council meetings or courtrooms, where the minutiae of written laws and procedures are argued ad nauseam. As a result, Western cities can’t evolve and scale. For example, while San Francisco (pop. 884,000) is the model American city for innovation and tolerance, it’s been stuck in a housing crisis. It’s politically impossible to get anything built here. Here you would have to expend 10,000 times the number of words to accomplish the same things as you could in China.

When I rank the densest cities in the world by how functioning they are, the top six are all in Asia: Shanghai (pop. 24M), Beijing (22M), Shenzhen (13M), Tokyo (9M), and Singapore (5.6M). I’m not suggesting that Americans roll back their interest in free speech. And I’m not suggesting that ordinary people in China don’t already share our folksy, Thomas Paine-like, interest in free speech. However, cultures are re-enforced by success. If success is defined by the ability to sustain billion-level populations with low levels of friction, then all signs in the East are telling them that what they’re doing is right.


Complete essays from Philosophistry: The Love of Rhetoric

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