Nick Cave has laid out his argument that listening to opposing ideas makes for a healthier society and that free speech isn’t a right but is a tool to “liberate the soul of our world”.
In the latest instalment of his The Red Hand Files fan Q&A website, the singer-songwriter responded to two fans about questions on freedom of speech and religion.
One fan named Lorraine, who wrote from Berlin, asked him: “What are your thoughts on free speech? Do you think it is a right?”, while Jason from London sought a response about Christianity, writing: “For fuck’s sake, enough of the God and Jesus bullshit!”
Cave, who is a defender of free speech including those of Morrissey’s, wrote in his answer to Lorraine that he’s “not so sure free speech is a right” but that it’s “something we, as a community, can use to enliven, embolden and liberate the soul of our world”.
He explained that he sees each person possessing “individual sovereignty, their specialness” that is “a distinctiveness that is the very thing that should be prized”. As such, that allows for people’s “own true thoughts” to be “terrifying” at their “most interesting”.
“In fact, humans are mostly distinct individuals thinking terrifying things,” he wrote, before making reference to the “dangerous and heretical ideas” that Jesus Christ – someone whom he previously indicated in a BBC radio broadcast [via thehumandivine.org] he admired although was not devoted to – disseminated, and which led to his demise.
“I’m not so sure free speech is a right, but it is certainly a societal or cultural attainment, something we, as a community, can use to enliven, embolden and liberate the soul of our world, provided we are fortunate enough to live in a society that allows such a thing,” Cave continued in his post.
“To be able to speak freely is not only a benefit to oneself, by making us feel less alone, it is also a barometer of the health of our society, just as intolerance to opposing ideas indicates a feebleness or lack of confidence in one’s own thoughts and the ideas of our society.
“I support free speech, not so much because I think it is a right, but rather because it goes some way to validate our specialness. I am genuinely concerned by its alternative, the fearful flattening of ideas through the suppression of our individual natures, something that has become all too evident in almost every institution I can think of.”
Elsewhere, the Australian singer wrote: “Each of us is an amalgam of all we have loved and lost and learned, our personal successes and failures, our particular regrets, and our singular joys – and part of that uniqueness is that we think in different ways. Not all of our thinking is right or fully formed, far from it, but there it is, regardless – that flawed and terrifying uniqueness of thought.
“So, it is little wonder that people adopt and signal a kind of protective groupthink, because our own true thoughts, at their most interesting, can be terrifying. In fact, humans are mostly distinct individuals thinking terrifying things.
Cave then addressed Jason in the final paragraph, writing: “Jesus roamed the land expressing what were, at the time, considered dangerous and heretical ideas. He was literally the embodiment of the terrifying idea. He was followed around by a nervous coterie of muttering scribes and Pharisees whose purpose was to catch him out – expose not just His dangerous ideas, but to lay bare and persecute his uniqueness. They, of course, succeeded and Christ was cancelled upon the Cross.
“These impossible, dangerous ideas – to love your enemy, to love the poor, to forgive others – were terrifying and unconscionable and forbidden in His day, but became, in time, the better ideas that underpin the society in which many of us are lucky enough to live today.
“It is worth remembering that. I think we must be careful around our assumptions of what ideas we think are right and what ideas we think are wrong, and what we do with those ideas, because it is the terrifying idea – the shocking, offending, unique idea – that may just save the world.”
You can read Cave’s full answer here.
In 2020, when asked by a fan for his opinions on cancel culture, he linked his answer to another question about the idea of mercy, calling cancel culture “mercy’s antithesis”.
“Mercy is a value that should be at the heart of any functioning and tolerant society,” Cave’s answer began. “Mercy ultimately acknowledges that we are all imperfect and in doing so allows us the oxygen to breathe – to feel protected within a society, through our mutual fallibility. Without mercy a society loses its soul, and devours itself.”
He then discussed cancel culture, adding: “As far as I can see, cancel culture is mercy’s antithesis. Political correctness has grown to become the unhappiest religion in the world.”
Cave added: “Cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society. Compassion is the primary experience – the heart event – out of which emerges the genius and generosity of the imagination.”
The musician has answered similarly religious, existential questions posed by fans including one Australian fan who once asked him whom he was addressing in his song
‘Idiot Prayer’ from his 1997 album ‘The Boatman’s Call’. “A prayer to who?” they asked.
Cave wrote: “The act of prayer is by no means exclusive to religious practise because prayer is not dependent on the existence of a subject. You need not pray to anyone. It is just as valuable to pray into your disbelief, as it is to pray into your belief, for prayer is not an encounter with an external agent, rather it is an encounter with oneself.
“There is as much chance of our prayers being answered by a God that exists as a God that doesn’t. I do not mean this facetiously, for prayers are very often answered. A prayer provides us with a moment in time where we can contemplate the things that are important to us, and this watchful application of our attention can manifest these essential needs.”
He added: “The act of prayer asks of us something and by doing so delivers much in return – it asks us to present ourselves to the unknown as we are, devoid of pretence and affectation, and to contemplate exactly what it is we love or cherish. Through this conversation with our inner self we confront the nature of our own existence.”
In 2019, Cave used rhetoric to challenge an “asshole” homophobic fan, again referencing Jesus: “Jesus said on the cross, ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do’. “George, I think Jesus may have been talking directly to you,” he wrote.
“The opportunity to act in a better way is one that is continuously afforded to us – to try to make the next thing we do the best thing, rather than the worst thing, the destructive thing.”
The artist has also previously reflected on the idea of freedom in terms of his musical output, also writing in 2020: “On an artistic level, I play what I want to play, and say what I want to say, and let the chips fall where they may. This is a kind of freedom.
“The universe has had its best shot at me and I am still kicking around,” he added, explaining that the Red Hand Files site has “played a significant part” in making him feel “stronger”.
“Each answer I write seems to be an act of surrender, but at the same time a kind of armouring up – vulnerability as a form of protection.”
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