The Spanish Inquisition Had a Chilling Effect on Freedom of Speech
One of the memorable episodes from the old Monty Python Flying Circus featured several Spanish Inquisition sketches. Each begins innocuously until someone says, “I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition” whereupon three bumbling priests in 15th century garb burst into the room, Michael Palin snarling, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Our chief weapon is surprise!”
Whereas the skits were hilarious, the actual Inquisition was anything but.
I turned to Wikipedia for a refresher course on this period of history. I learned here that the Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478 and lasted 300 years. What I was unaware of — was it downplayed by historians? — was that Ferdinand II and Isabella I were the ones who commissioned the Inquisition. If those names sound familiar, they should. Ferdinand and Isabella were the the monarchs who commissioned Columbus on his mission to India by traveling West.
The Wikipedia account contains a lot of detail about the various stages of the Inquisition, including objectives and statistics. There is a breakdown of how many were prosecuted (150,000), how many were executed (3000 to 5000) and the ratio of their offenses (Protestants, Orthodox, Sodomites, blaspheming Catholics, etc.)
As I read this information, I got the impression that some people could argue that the numbers weren’t all that bad. Three to five thousand executions in three centuries is only 10 to 17 executions per year. Stalin, Hitler and Mao killed millions. The U.S. killed more than three-to-five thousand unarmed citizens at Hiroshima and Nagasaki without a trial or even a warning.
True enough, but consider this. Consider the atmosphere of a society where your livelihood, and even your life, may be at risk at any moment if you get accused by your neighbor. In other words, your family’s well-being is at risk at any moment because you may say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Maybe your lose your temper, or simply have a lapse of judgment and express something against the Pope. Suddenly, the PC Police (neighbors) are making notes, and the next time the Grand Inquisitor is in the neighborhood, your name comes up.
It may be something you said 20 years ago and you don’t even remember it. You may not even have those feelings or views any more, but under the Inquisition (the rack stretching your bones apart in order to aid your memory) you do recall having made that gesture to a priest or snarky comment about the Pope, or whatever else was not politically correct at the time.
Our current culture is quite far from the ideal when it comes to freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Some topics are so controversial that I am uncomfortable listing them here. There are questions we are afraid to ask. There are topics that people have been criticized for even writing about.
When I Googled the question >>what are some topics we can no longer talk about publicly<< The first answer delivered was 11 Things You Can’t Discuss in Public Anymore.* One can quibble over particulars but the list does show that we haven’t arrived at the free thought society mathematician/social critic Bertrand Russell was fighting for.
When Russell expressed his concerns about these matters 100 years ago, the list of objectionable topics may have been different but it was no shorter. 60 years ago Lenny Bruce was hounded to death for challenging the limits of free speech.
Though free speech is protected in our nation’s Bill of Rights, we all know that there are limits. We do not have a right to shout “Fire! in a crowded theater. Unfortunately, there’s an increasing tendency to tar-and-feather people on an ever widening array of topics.
I know we’re supposed to be optimistic going forward, but in order for us to solve many of our problems we need to have the freedom to discuss issues openly without fear of retribution. The temper of our times seems to be in opposition to such a proposal as this.
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*This is used as an example only. I do not know this person and share it for illustrative purposes.
Originally published at https://pioneerproductions.blogspot.com.