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政經

蔡子強與伏爾泰

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In his Mingpao article, "愛在漫天風雨時--再評中大學生報事件" (Mingpao A33, May 15, 2007; for link, see infra), 蔡子強 purposed to quote Voltaire, whom he baptized 「法國思想之父」, on the freedom of speech. His version of the quote reads:「雖然我並不同意你的觀點,但我會至死也捍衛你說出那個觀點的權利。」; and he declared confidently that he "完全能領會到這句說話的境界." Permit me to have two reservations on what he said.

(1)

In the first place, and in point of historical fact, Voltaire never quite said what 蔡子強 believed him to have said. Search Voltaire's Complete Works, and you will for sure not find the quote, popular belief to the contrary notwithstanding. The closest thing one may find is a line in the letter to l'abbé Le Riche, dated February 6, 1770, where Voltaire wrote:

Monsieur l'abbé, je déteste ce que vous écrivez, mais je donnerai ma vie pour que vous puissiez continuer à écrire.

(In English: M. l'abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life so that you might continue to write.)

It is only in the twentieth century that E.B. Hall (pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre), author of The Friends of Voltaire (London: Smith, Elder, 1907), wrote in that book that in a certain incident involving the burning of books, " `I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,' was his"--that is Voltaire's--"attitude now."

(2)

This little historical erratum is not entirely beside the point, when it comes to discerning what lesson Voltaire meant to teach. No doubt Voltaire would defend l'abbé Le Riche's freedom to express in writing what he wanted to express; no doubt he would condemn the burning of books (the book in question was Helvétius's De l'Esprit, which approved of moral relativism). But it is far from clear that Voltaire would "defend to the death" anybody's right to say anything in what manner soever.

One of the events 蔡子強 mentioned, to which the mis-quote was meant to apply, is this: "在開放日那天,中大喜氣洋洋,冠蓋雲集,正當高錕校長要致辭時,冷不防被激進的學生衝上主禮台,在眾多嘉賓、家長、同學、校友的眾目睽睽之下,誓要搶走校長手中的「咪」,以表達另類聲音,結果令台上亂作一團,擾攘達數分鐘之久,令人覺得中大丟盡面子。他們又把抗議的單張放在吹脹的避孕袋內,向現場人士派發,極盡挑釁之能事。"

How a right to say what you want to say--"你說出那個觀點的權利"--extends so far as to include the right to "衝上主禮台,在眾多嘉賓、家長、同學、校友的眾目睽睽之下,誓要搶走校長手中的「咪」,[...] 結果令台上亂作一團,擾攘達數分鐘之久,令人覺得中大丟盡面子," we are never told. But what is plain is that the Vice-Chancellor's right to say what he wanted to say was glaringly violated: Who then in the audience had ever "至死[...]捍衛" the Vice-Chancellor "說出那個觀點的權利"? If 蔡子強 was in the audience, and I suppose he was, why did he not follow Voltaire's teaching a little more even-handedly? Voltaire never said that he would protect only the right to speak of the weaker or younger or more radical party in any dispute. L'abbé Le Riche was obviously no little guy; nor were those who burnt Helvétius's book all in positions of power. 蔡子強 seemed to be quite unaware of this aspect of Voltaire's teaching; for him, Voltaire is just a patron-saint of rebellion.

To praise rebellious students regardless of what they have done, is nowadays taken by many as axiomatically right. So freedom of speech means every permission for students to disrupt: but what if next time, instead of the Vice-Chancellor's oration, the students choose to disrupt 蔡子強's class or reading group? I for one would say to the students: "In the name of Voltaire, I demand that you stop, you alleged supporters of the freedom of speech. Be so good as to remain respectful, nay, even to give your life, so that 蔡子強 may continue to speak, even if you detest absolutely what he says. Be 蔡子強 L'abbé Le Riche; who among you have the guts to be le philosophe then!"

Had 蔡子強 said something to this effect for the sake of the Vice-Chancellor, I would truly believe, that he "完全能領會到這句說話的境界."

*The article is reproduced at: http://www.inmediahk.net/public/article?group%5fid=53&item%5fid=219820

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