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The Voltaire shtick

By Helen Pringle - posted Wednesday, 7 May 2014


Let's get something straight from the outset: Voltaire did not write 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it'. Nevertheless, a lot of people seem reluctant to let go of Voltaire's association to these words or the sentiments. George Brandis and his followers, for example, have found these words inspiring in their campaign against section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

After I wrote on On Line Opinion in 2005 about the bogus-ness of the quotation, in relation to the Andrew Fraser case, one web commentator chided me that I had not 'done my homework' and that the real source of the quotation in Voltaire was a letter to Monsieur le Riche of 6 February 1770, in which Voltaire allegedly wrote, 'Monsieur l'abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.' And various other commentators and correspondents, some more gracious than others, flourished this 1770 letter as the origin in Voltaire of the ringing declaration.

However, on 6 February 1770, Voltaire wrote only three letters, and none of them says anything vaguely resembling a willingness to sacrifice himself for the expression of ideas by others. The fabulation out of Voltaire's letter to Monsieur le Riche of the phrase 'I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write' was probably the brainwave of Norbert Guterman in his compilation A Book of French Quotations (1963, reprinted 1990, 189).

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All versions of this phrase appear to be fake Voltaire, not to be found in the new critical edition of Voltaire's Complete Works, which runs to over 200 volumes. And in fact the writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall owned up to her invention of the declaration in its most common form. Hall wrote to Burdette Kinne, of Columbia University, on 9 May 1939: 'The phrase "I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it" which you have found in my book "Voltaire in His Letters" is my own expression and should not have been put in inverted commas. Please accept my apologies for having, quite unintentionally, misled you into thinking I was quoting a sentence used by Voltaire (or anyone else but myself). I am surprised my books on Voltaire still find a few readers–I thought I was quite a back number–'. Hall had first used the phrase under her pen name S.G. Tallentyre in The Friends of Voltaire(1906, 199). She liked her invention so much that she recycled it in her 1919 book Voltaire in his Letters (1919, 65), calling it 'the essentially Voltairean principle' of 'I wholly disapprove of what you say – and will defend to the death your right to say it.'

However, the news that the self-sacrificing Voltaire was Hall's invention has disarmed only a handful of those who periodically throw down the declaration in discussions of freedom of speech. For example, in a piece entitled 'The slow death of free speech', of 19 April 2014, Mark Steyn acknowledges the aprocryphal character of the quotation, instead using the term 'the Voltaire shtick' – while continuing to imp the 'shtick' on his own afflicted argument in the hope that it will fly. Steyn's disavowal of Voltaire's authorship is somewhat undercut by the Spectator's inclusion at the head of his article of a rather fetching portrait of Voltaire.

When the declaration began running out of puff in free speech arguments, because deprived of prestigious provenance and instead attributed to 'a back number', it became acceptable to continue using the phrase as a Voltairean 'principle' or 'shtick', if attached to a disclaimer that of course it is not really Voltaire. And this manoeuvre was accompanied by attempts to give the declaration new vitality in the free speech landscape by a discovery of Voltaire's long-lost twin, John Stuart Mill – or Jon Stewart Mill as Q & A has re-named him.

It is this terrible twin of Voltaire-Mill who now inspires the Attorney-General George Brandis in his musings on free speech. Or so Brandis told the editor of Spike, Brendan O'Neill, as they talked about freedom 'over too much booze and amazing food at one of Sydney's oldest political haunts, which is called – wait for it – Machiavelli's.' In a style reminiscent of meetings of leftists with Stalin in the 1930s, O'Neill in his report of the boozy meet-up marvelled at Brandis as 'the most exotic, rarely sighted creature of the twenty-first century', ranking alongside a hopping marsupial in its exoticism. (Too much booze, Brendan.)

'I'm a John Stuart Mill man', Senator Brandis revealed to the wide-eyed O'Neill. O'Neill writes that the climate change debate and the Andrew Bolt case led Brandis to understand 'just what a mortal threat freedom of speech faces in the modern era and that he would have to dust down his Mill, reread his Voltaire, and up the ante in his war of words against, as he puts it, the transformation of the state into "the arbiter of what might be thought".' And before you know it, Brandis has buckled on his sword and is taking a solemn oath to… well not exactly to defend what he disagrees with, but at any rate to go into battle against Penny Wong, aka 'Australia's high priestess of political correctness'.

There is more of this sort of thing as O'Neill wraps up his account of his boozy tryst with Senator Brandis, at times drifting off into a maudlin mix of Tammy Wynette and Edith Piaf: 'They accuse [Brandis] of standing up for bigots. He didn't help himself when he said in the Senate a couple of weeks ago that people do have the right to be bigots. That unleashed a tsunami of ridicule, even from some of his supporters. But he tells me he has no regrets. "I don't regret saying that because in this debate, sooner or later – and better sooner than later – somebody had to make the Voltaire point; somebody had to make the point [about] defending the right to free speech of people with whom you profoundly disagree".' As another bottle of wine arrives, Brandis returns to Mill: '[Mill] said the only limitation on the freedom of the individual should be when he causes harm to others. Hearing views that you find offensive or outrageous or insulting is not a form of harm.'

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However, what makes this conversation so bizarre is not merely the silliness of O'Neill's style in recounting it. Nor is it the misquotation of Voltaire, or the misconstrual of Mill's work (it appears that Brandis got stuck at chapter 2 of On Liberty). What is so very bizarre is that this conversation about Voltaire-Mill has nothing at all to do with defending those with whom Senator Brandis profoundly disagrees. Brandis has made it quite clear that his project in the reform of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is the defence of Andrew Bolt. Both Brandis and the Liberal Party more broadly have taken to calling 18C the 'Andrew Bolt laws'. And for Senator Brandis, the central problem at issue is that 'Australia's most popular commentator was dragged before the courts for expressing what I thought to be a perfectly commonplace opinion about a matter of general public discussion.'

So sure, go ahead and misquote Voltaire, with perhaps a coy nod that you know it isn't really Voltaire who said it or in fact anything like it. And go ahead and twin Voltaire and Mill on the basis that you have read neither of them very deeply. But at least be honest. To many people, the Brandis shtick reads like this: 'I approve of what you say, and I will defend your right to say it'. Somehow it just doesn't have the same derring do.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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