Brain Pickings

Censorship and What Freedom of Speech Really Means: Comedian Bill Hicks’s Brilliant Letter to a Priest

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“‘Freedom of speech’ means you support the right of people to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with.”

In early June of 1993, several months before cancer took his life at the age of thirty-two, beloved comedian Bill Hicks received a letter from a priest, bemoaning the “blasphemous” content in Hicks’s live television special Revelations and reprimanding British broadcaster Channel 4 for having put it on the air. Writing a mere eight days before his fatal pancreatic cancer diagnosis — a young man still oblivious to his imminent tragic fate — Hicks decided to respond to the missive personally, in what became one of the most lucid and beautiful defenses of the freedom of speech ever articulated, on par with Voltaire’s piercing admonition about censorship and Madeleine L’Engle’s timeless words on the subject.

From Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) — the same wonderful compendium by Shaun Usher that gave us young Hunter S. Thompson on how to live a meaningful life, E.B. White’s heartening response to a man who had lost faith in humanity, and Eudora Welty’s impossibly charming lesson in how to apply to your dream job — comes Hicks’s brilliant, thoughtful, and immeasurably important response.

Hicks writes:

Dear Sir,

After reading your letter expressing your concerns regarding my special ‘Revelations’, I felt duty-bound to respond to you myself in hopes of clarifying my position on the points you brought up, and perhaps enlighten you as to who I really am. Where I come from — America — there exists this wacky concept called ‘freedom of speech’, which many people feel is one of the paramount achievements in mankind’s mental development. I myself am a strong supporter of the ‘Right of freedom of speech’, as I’m sure most people would be if they truly understood the concept. ‘Freedom of speech’ means you support the right of people to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with. (Otherwise, you don’t believe in ‘freedom of speech’, but rather only those ideas which you believe to be acceptably stated.) Seeing as how there are so many different beliefs in the world, and as it would be virtually impossible for all of us to agree on any one belief, you may begin to realize just how important an idea like ‘freedom of speech’ really is. The idea basically states ‘while I don’t agree or care for what you are saying, I do support your right to say it, for herein lies true freedom.

It’s worth pausing here to note that in the DNA of the Christian Church, as an institution, is a compulsion to do precisely the opposite — to suppress the views that contradict its dogmas. One need only look to Galileo’s trails to appreciate how far back and how deeply these foundations of power-maintenance through censorship run. (But, of course, there’s always Flannery O’Connor to clarify the difference between dogmatic religion and faith.)

With his characteristic blend of snark and keen cultural insight, Hicks continues:

While I’ve found many of the religious shows I’ve viewed over the years not to be to my liking, or in line with my own beliefs, I’ve never considered it my place to exert any greater type of censorship than changing the channel, or better yet — turning off the TV completely.

Hicks moves on to the part of the letter that disturbed him the most:

In support of your position of outrage, you posit the hypothetical scenario regarding the possibly ‘angry’ reaction of Muslims to material they might find similarly offensive. Here is my question to you: Are you tacitly condoning the violent terrorism of a handful of thugs to whom the idea of ‘freedom of speech’ and tolerance is perhaps as foreign as Christ’s message itself? If you are somehow implying that their intolerance to contrary beliefs is justifiable, admirable, or perhaps even preferable to one of acceptance and forgiveness, then I wonder what your true beliefs really are.

If you had watched my entire show, you would have noticed in my summation of my beliefs the fervent plea to the governments of the world to spend less money on the machinery of war, and more on feeding, clothing, and educating the poor and needy of the world … A not-so-unchristian sentiment at that!

Ultimately, the message in my material is a call for understanding rather than ignorance, peace rather than war, forgiveness rather than condemnation, and love rather than fear. While this message may have understandably been lost on your ears (due to my presentation), I assure you the thousands of people I played to in my tours of the United Kingdom got it.

Whether or not the priest himself got it, even after the letter, is another story open for speculation.

Letters of Note is a spectacular collection in its entirety, featuring opinionated, vulnerable, beautiful, blunt, and deeply human contributions from such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, Richard Feynman, Jack Kerouac, Emily Dickinson, Flannery O’Connor, Leonardo da Vinci, and more. Sample three of my favorites here, here, and here. Usher continues to dig up even more gems and to share them on Letters of Note, one of the most wonderful corners of the internet.

You can watch Hicks’s Revelations below. It, along with the rest of his legacy, can be found on this essential collection of his work.

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