René Ribière (left) battles Gaston Defferre in 1967, the last duel in France. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
René Ribière (left) battles Gaston Defferre in 1967, the last duel in France. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Freedom of speech, like anything in life, has never been “free”. The First Amendment of the US constitution notwithstanding, speech is punished in cases of libel, threats and blackmail; for falsely shouting “fire” in places with excitable crowds (metaphorically too); and for companies’ false advertising.

The US also had laws against “obscenity”, and its Congress passed the Act of Sedition on May 16, 1918, against expressions of opinion putting a negative light on war efforts, government, and, yes, the selling of government bonds too. The media at the time appeared to be for all these, but the act was repealed in 1920.

With present interpretations of the First Amendment, though, and confusions between “free speech” and “subsidized speech”, a couple of questions arise. One is: How to deal with words used to destroy one’s honor and cast doubts over one’s virtue?

In the past, education at home and religious education (the latter  severely condemns cursing) and the threat of duels shaped civic responsibilities, the language of political debates in particular.

The last politically motivated duel in France took place in Neuilly, near Paris, in 1967 in the private park of a mansion. Duels were highly regulated: The fight was supposed to just draw blood but not kill (in contrast to earlier times and other countries where duels were fought to the death).

Gaston Defferre, the powerful mayor of Marseille and owner of influential newspapers too, was one of the duelers. The duel notwithstanding, he ran two years later as the Socialist candidate for the French presidency, where he was miserably defeated (though not because of the duel). The other politician was René Ribière, a Gaullist.  They were both members of the National Assembly, where the duel was provoked when Defferre, the older of the two, shouted to Ribière: “Shut up, you fool!” (“Taisez-vous, abruti!”).

Ribière asked for an apology; Defferre refused, and he made no secret of his wish to draw Ribière’s blood where it would hurt him most, between his legs, that is, especially as Ribière was scheduled to get married the next day and go on his honeymoon. Defferre won the duel after four minutes of sword fighting, wounding his opponent twice. Not seriously.

Duels were subsequently outlawed in France, as they were by then in all European countries. Still, 46 years earlier, in 1921, Benito Mussolini – a skilled swordsman – seriously wounded in a duel Francisco Ciccotti, at the time an editor in Rome writing anti-Fascist editorials. This duel lasted an hour and a quarter and ended with Ciccotti unable to continue after losing much blood. Ciccotti later fled Italy.

In the US last month, CNN’s Brian Stelter mentioned on his show Reliable Sources that “Trump being mentally ill” rumors were widespread among the media. So how can President Donald Trump react now? Tweeting appears to be the solution, though perhaps not as efficient in watching one’s tongue as the threat of even a French-type duel.

The law in the US prohibits either harming or destroying property when one’s honor and virtue are being publicly questioned (though many now recall the 1804 Hamilton-Burr duel, where former US treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton was mortally wounded, Broadway having turned this into a musical). These principles are easy to state, but can they be enforced – and in time? What if when running for political office, a person is accused of corruption and labeled a “fool”? By the time he would clear his name, the elections would be long gone (and one must have financial clout to start the proceedings), both of these having been factors in the events leading to Hamilton’s duel with sitting US vice-president Aaron Burr.

I am not arguing for restoring duels to restore more civilized political debates, because it is not the outlawing of duels that brought about the severe decline. The weakening of institutions that shaped civic responsibilities – families and religious ones among them; the vast increase in population that brought about cheaper anonymity; all combined with the unintended effect of vastly subsidizing the production of words (within universities in particular) and a superficial identification of freedom of speech with individual liberty brought this about.

Courts and police for ex-post penalizing of destructive behavior turned out to be poor substitutes to fill the void of weakened education. They are expensive and time-consuming: As in medicine, prevention is the far superior remedy. What then can be the preventive substitutes for what once were education at home and the Damocles’ sword of duels?

Recent destructive events on campuses, on one side, and the emergence of companies such as Twitter and Facebook, on the other, suggest the solutions. The first ones raise the neglected issue of distinguishing between “freedom of speech” and “subsidizing speech”.

The first principle should have never implied the second, which had the unintended effect of, among others, producing the present heavily subsidized Balkanizing cacophony. These are accidental outcomes of the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which, having come in response to the Sputnik, should have focused on subsidizing sciences and engineering, and not what it ended with doing: Producing jargon-filled nothings passing for “social sciences” (economics included) and in the humanities. Subsidies produced noise, not brains.

The Trump administration’s proposed tax plan can take care of this issue, if, except for math, the sciences and engineering, federal subsidies and special tax treatment to all other departments at universities and to so-called “think tanks” would be, if not eliminated, then drastically curtailed.

Twitter and Facebook point to complementary solutions, gradually establishing standards among digital communities. They also substitute for duels: President Trump using the first with (too much) abandon since this technology, with its 140-words limit, requires a greater precision with words to prevent misunderstanding – a skill to be still mastered.

Former CIA agent Valerie Plame’s picking up the “Twitter-sword” displays a different preliminary mastering of these duel-substitutes, trying her hand at “community-building”. She is leading a crowd-funding campaign to raise US$1 billion to buy shares of Twitter so as to use the leverage to build a digital community that excludes President Trump, a variation of religious and cult communities of the past.

Not that Plame has the slightest chance to succeed. But she and the 4% of Twitter shareholders who wanted to turn Twitter into some kind of “kibbutz” represent a solution where new communities will form and quickly, briefly and cheaply fight for one’s views. And if people want longer, more “in-depth” fights – Facebook is there for the taking.

Briefly: You want speech freedom, but a more disciplined kind? No need to subsidize any access now: Open accounts on these two sites, shape new digital cults – “For Trump”, “Never Trump”, “Climate Religion” – or any other – and start dueling with unsubsidized words rather than swords, each community imposing its standards of speech.

This article draws on Reuven Brenner’s book Force of Finance.

Reuven Brenner

Reuven Brenner is a governor at IEDM (Institut Économique de Montréal). He is professor emeritus at McGill University. He was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, was awarded the Canada Council's prestigious Killam Fellowship Award in 1991, and is a member of the Royal Society.