Of Freedom of Speech and Toleration

In the light of the recent tragic events in Paris and the alarming growth of intolerance and violence in the Middle East, open class debates can only prove a stimulating and rewarding exercise for all IB Philosophy students. After all, to see Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, first published in 1764, appear in the list of top ten French best sellers, gives us some reassuring sign that maybe, just maybe, a strong glimmer of hope still persists among our contemporaries. Short of making the reading of this sobering classic compulsory for all students (thus defeating its original purpose), discussions around the concepts of tolerance and freedom of speech should be fruitfully explored through the critical analysis (and possible ‘deconstruction’) of major texts such as Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) or Locke’s Letter concerning toleration (1689), within the context of American or British democracies.

As the first of our civil liberties, freedom of speech can no longer be taken for granted in a Western world obsessed with the security of its citizens and leaning dangerously towards self-censorship. Debates on the concept of ‘toleration’, first discussed during the sixteenth-century religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, should therefore enable students to identify and clarify the legitimate respect due to individual autonomy, the dangers of civil strife and the value of cultural diversity. Liberalism was deeply influenced and informed by the arguments for toleration and the views of Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire and Mill could be compared and contrasted most profitably with those of Rousseau, Comte and more contemporary theorists.

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