The Indispensable Opposition. Walter Lippmann. Appreciation Study


The Indispensable Opposition. Walter Lippmann. Appreciation Study by P.S.Remesh Chandran.

Editor, Sahyadri Books & Bloom Books, Trivandrum.


By PSRemeshChandra, 15th May 2011.  Short URL
Posted in Wikinut  Essays


A must read for all who love mankind and human speech. An apt admonishment from a long-gone American writer whose great eloquence and excellent arguments in favour of the liberty of speech is once more brought to public attention. His bold opinions are dire predictions which help envision the rise of China as the most oppressive tyrannical rule in the modern world. Going through the article we will wonder whether it is China’s story told 50 years in advance.

Man knows how to speak on one’s back, so freedom of speech exists.

Walter Lippmann. A Portrait.

Walter Lippmann was a famous American writer whose learned lips here speaks to the common man about the principles of freedom of speech in democracies and its suppression in dictatorships. The need for a good, creative and bold opposition in a civilized society is well established. Since the time of man’s formation of his society as clans and tribes, the question of whether all shall have an equal chance for expression of their opinions in the clans or tribes has been a subject for unending debate. Since man knows how to speak on one’s back, expression of opinions has been going on uninterrupted through ages irrespective of the system of rule. Though Lippmann’s ideas on the liberty of speech are too lofty to be compromised and his analysis comprehensive, it should be admitted that his language is not as liquid or lucid as the language of C.E.M. Joad, A.G.Gardiner or Robert Lynd.

Stability of civilization depends on the willingness to consider others’ opinions.

Benjamin Franklin’s Freedom of Thought. A Plaque.

Stability of a civilization depends much on the willingness of people to consider everyone’s opinions. The French philosopher Voltaire once said: “I wholly disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Opinions of opponents must be tolerated, because freedom of speech is an essential ingredient to civilization. Liberty of opinion is a luxury upon which is based the very life of civilization. But liberty of opinion is safe only in pleasant times and only with men of tolerance, for these magnanimous personalities are not deeply and vitally concerned about opposing opinions.

We pay doctors money for asking us embarrassing questions.

A scene from Charlie Chapline’s The Great Dictator

Freedom of speech as a constitutional right has a strong historic foundation. We want to hear what they have to say, so we must protect the right of our opponents to speak. That is why we pay the opposition salaries out of public money. Opposing opinions would improve our own opinions; thus the liberty of others to speak is our own vital necessity. Free thought should be cultivated among youngsters because such needed is the existence of freedom for the existence of civilization. Most often the opinions of opposition might be embarrassing, but we pay doctors money for asking us embarrassing questions. Even dictators tolerate doctors’ free questions.

Isn’t it the story of suppression in China told 50 years in advance?

The Great Dictator played by Charlie Chaplin.

Speaking and listening is the only way to arrive at truth. In totalitarian states also opinions of the opposition have to be heard to and discussed for arriving at the right decisions. But these rulers depend on secret police and party men who filter into the people’s ranks and send reports. Some autocrats rely on their own intuition and some others permit their officers to speak freely in their presence. All exile, imprison or shoot their opponents. A one-way system is established through which opinions of the rulers are broadcast. The official orators speak and the audience listens but they cannot speak back, exactly like George Orwell predicted in his book 1984. As time goes on, critical discussion totally disappears and the internal opposition is liquidated. Some are exiled, many put in concentration camps and a few terrorized. The despot shuts himself off from truth and finally falls into ruin. Hitler, Mussolini, Heyli Selassi, Napoleon First and Third, all met their destiny this way. In the earlier stages they succeed but in later stages they all fall tragically. In the totalitarian states some still manage to voice their opinions through pamphlets and secret radio. But the creative principle of the freedom of speech is not applicable in totalitarian states and dictatorships.

Permitted to proclaiming wisdom in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

Released in 1945 to trace a fugitive.

Things are different in democratic countries. ‘There anyone can stand on his little platform of a soap-box and speak anything as in Kipling’s poem.’ ‘Even in Russia and in Germany a man may still stand in an open field and speak his mind loudly.’ (This was written long before the fall of communism in Russia and Germany through Glasnost and Perestroika and China replacing them in their former positions). The wisest man shall not have to proclaim his wisdom in the middle of the Sahara desert. That would be only a shadow of liberty. The substance of liberty of speech is present only in those places where different opinions resound in the same hall to the same audience. In that sense, freedom of speech may be said to be existing in places like the American Congress, the British Parliament, the Court of Law and the Scientific Conferences. There opinions are not only tolerated but discussed too, which the essence of the freedom of opinion is.

It is not the opinion that is important but the debate that follows.

Tiananmen where Liberty of Speech was murdered.

It is not the opinion that is important but the debate that follows the benefit if which would be that fools would be compelled to listen and learn from the wise man and the wise man too would be compelled to take account of the fool and to instruct him. Radio, movies and newspapers will carry on this process of continued debate. Radio and movie cannot be spoken back to, but newspapers can be. Everything under the Sun can thus be examined and reexamined. As Socrates said, the unexamined life is unfit to be lived by man. Experience tells us that the seed of speech which our fathers planted produces seed only when freedom of opinion becomes the compulsion to speak and debate.

A successful statesman would pray to be left among opponents.

The Cradle of Liberty. Faneuil Hall in Boston.

In whichever angle we look, opposition seems indispensable. It is unavoidable for a good statesman for a good statesman won’t tolerate his mistakes punishing a nation. It is not our friends and supporters but our enemies who study us closely under a microscope and learn about our merits and worth. Living among his enemies and opponents brings out what excellence is there in a man. They show him where the dangers are and where the path of reason and good sense is. Like all sensible human beings, a good statesman learns far more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters. They are the rocks against which the sword of his intelligence is sharpened. A successful statesman would pray to be left among opponents.

Pictures Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.


Dear Reader,

You are invited to kindly visit the Author’s Web Site of P.S.Remesh Chandran, Editor, Sahyadri Books & Bloom Books, Trivandrum at:

Translations of this article in French, German, Spanish and Italian published in can be read by clicking here.


American Essayists And Journalists, American Literature, American Writers, Appreciations, English Essays, English Literature, Essays, Freedom Of Opinion, Freedom Of Speech, Liberty Of Speech, P S Remesh Chandran, Poetry, Political Philosophy, Politics, Reviews, Sahyadri Books And Bloom Books Trivandrum, Studies, The Indispensable Opposition, Walter Lippmann

Meet the author

Editor of Sahyadri Books & Bloom Books, Trivandrum. Author of several books in English and in Malayalam. And also author of Swan : The Intelligent Picture Book.

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16th May 2011 (#)

Does anyone remember, in the picture shown above, released in 1945 to trace a fugitive, who is the fugitive mentioned?

7th Jun 2011 (#)

It was one of those few pictures created by artists and released by Anti Nasi Forces to trace their fugitive Adolph Hitler.

Steve Kinsman
10th Jun 2011 (#)

Excellent article. Growing up, Walter Lippmann was a hero of mine.

11th Jun 2011 (#)

Yes Dear Kinsman,
It is a fine article of his and his arguments also are still very much relevant. He was a hero of democratic thoughts, liberty and freedom of thought. I was very late to come across this author and you were indeed very lucky to have inspired by him from your very early years. I read your poem On The Mountain Side and ran then and there to my mountain again because I was so fascinated by the mountain top atmosphere you created and reminded in the poem.

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