Book

Courting the Abyss

John Durham Peters

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print April 2005 | ISBN: 9780226662749
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226662756 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226662756.001.0001
Courting the Abyss

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This book updates the philosophy of free expression for a world that is very different from the one in which it originated. The notion that a free society should allow Klansmen, neo-Nazis, sundry extremists, and pornographers to spread their doctrines as freely as everyone else has come increasingly under fire. At the same time, in the wake of 9/11, the Right and the Left continue to wage war over the utility of an absolute vision of free speech in a time of increased national security. The book revisits the tangled history of free speech, finding resolutions to these debates hidden at the very roots of the liberal tradition. An account of the role of public communication in the Anglo-American world, it shows that liberty's earliest advocates recognized its fraternal relationship with wickedness and evil. While we understand freedom of expression to mean “anything goes,” the author asks why its advocates so often celebrate a sojourn in hell and the overcoming of suffering. He directs us to such well-known sources as the prose and poetry of John Milton and the political and philosophical theory of John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., as well as lesser-known sources such as the theology of Paul of Tarsus. In various ways they all, the author shows, envisioned an attitude of self-mastery or self-transcendence as a response to the inevitable dangers of free speech, a troubled legacy that continues to inform ruling norms about knowledge, ethical responsibility, and democracy today. A world of gigabytes, undiminished religious passion, and relentless scientific discovery calls for a fresh account of liberty that recognizes its risk and its splendor. Instead of celebrating noxious doctrine as proof of society's robustness, this book invites us to rethink public communication today by looking more deeply into the unfathomable mystery of liberty and evil.

Keywords: free expression; Klansmen; neo-Nazis; extremists; pornographers; 9/11; free speech; national security; liberal tradition; public communication

Book.  317 pages. 

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Publicity and Pain in Courting the Abyss

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