The underlying platform of our liberal democracies is derived from our freedom of speech. There is nothing more important to an enlightened society. Yet, today, it seems to me that our freedom of speech is being constantly eroded. With that our way of life is being threatened.
As you can see, I have titled this week’s essay “The Cost of Free Speech”. If you don’t want to read the rest of my essay, I will give you the benefit of my conclusion immediately. The cost of free speech is that in putting various points of view without constraint, some of you may feel offended! Mind you, as I have told you in the past, and as pointed out by the good Doctor Phil, offense is never given, it is only taken. As a result the more robust of you should have no difficulty in accommodating free speech. Unfortunately however our most important liberty is being threatened by some who, rather than countering our ideas with reasoned argument, would prefer to shut down the voices they disagree with.
In essence free speech involves thinking what you want and having the ability to express those thoughts. On the other side of the ledger, in return you must be prepared to listen to the thoughts of others, even if you disagree with them.
Despite the fundamental importance of free speech it seems to me that we now spend far more time discussing how we are going to restrict that precious freedom rather than how to defend that essential liberty. Almost everyone in public life seems to pay lip service to the notion of free speech but it is usually accompanied by a caveat or a qualifier. We usually hear such statements as “I believe in free speech, but ….” The “but” generally is added to provide wriggle room to allow the proponent to water down their so-called belief in free speech to preclude statements that they purport to find offensive.
Someone who should know a thing or two about free speech is the author, Salman Rushdie, who on the publication of his Satanic Verses was the subject of a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini condemning him to death. In a speech at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Rushdie declared, “The moment somebody says, ‘Yes, I believe in free speech, but…..’, I stop listening!”
As a result of this shameful timidity there has been a growing propensity to abandon free speech in favour of a pathetic movement to suppress anybody from uttering words that other fragile souls might take offense about.
In recent years it has become easy to avoid dealing with confronting ideas by declaring our offense when we might be called to respond to ideas that are different to our own. Many of those who have neither the wit nor the resolve to grapple with ideas contrary to their own, take this easy way out.
The journalist and author, Mick Hume, has written extensively about free speech. In 1994 he published a declaration in defence of the Right to Be Offensive. It upheld two principles:
- No censorship – bans are for bigots;
- No taboos – taboos are for the superstitious and stupid.
Hume maintains his ethos is easily summed up as, “Question everything – Ban nothing.”
This, to some, might seem somewhat extreme (however following Salman Rushdie’s admonition above, I am not going to qualify it with any disclaimer hiding behind the conjunction “but”!).
Some alleged supporters of free speech mistakenly try to silence those seeking to limit free speech. In essence it seems to me that it is hypocritical to defend free speech by banning its opponents. Censoring those who disagree with us is wrong in principle. We need to be prepared to argue our case just as we should insist they should argue theirs and not hide behind the coward’s shield of “taking offense”.
Although much of the traffic about free speech has been engendered by fundamentalist Islamic terrorism and the reluctance of some to mention Islam and terrorism in the same sentence, be assured our need for free speech is far broader than that. Any belief system at all should be subject to the same rigorous examination without fear that airing a contrary or unpopular point of view results in its proponent being ostracised, silenced or vilified. This includes our views on not only religion, but also politics, social mores, and societal stances about anything at all!
We forget the formidable impact that free speech has had on the development of our modern liberal society. If it wasn’t for some of our courageous forebears who insisted on their right to speak what they believed was true, societal progress would not have occurred. Without their intervention we would probably be still living in a society that believed the earth was flat but at the centre of the universe, slavery was condoned and women were denied the right to vote but had the dubious right to be burnt at the stake when they were outed as witches on the flimsiest of evidence!
Our free speech is so important to our continued liberty that we must always resile from attempts to thwart it by state imposed censorship or the institutionalised silencing and public shaming of those who dare to utter opinions different to the mainstream. In this regard the left wing conspiracies around political correctness are to be particularly resisted.
Free speech means you are able to talk back as you see fit. It is a right of everyone including fools and fanatics. George Brandis was derided when he said something to the effect that even bigots have the right to be heard! He was, of course, right. Free speech is an indivisible human right and must be available to all, be they misinformed, unintelligent or just plainly mischievous.
To me, one of the more disappointing outcomes from promoting a freedom from offense stance, rather than a more robust stand against the erosion of free speech, is the impact this cowardly choice is having on our universities. When I went to university I expected (and wasn’t disappointed) to be challenged by new and confronting ideas. A trend has now started (as usual commencing in the US but quickly spreading its tentacles wider) to do exactly the opposite and cosset students (poor fragile petals that they are) from being confronted with ideas that might cause discomfiture. There is an ethos of providing “safe spaces” where these sensitive souls can avoid being challenged. What’s more they insist if something controversial is to be introduced a “trigger warning” must precede it so that they can avert their eyes! They even seek exemptions from studying course material that they claim gives them offense.This seems to me about the stupidest development possible for an institution that should be challenging and extending the belief sets of its students.
It is worth quoting David Hume again. He wrote:
Once you forget the meaning of “freedom” and start cherry-picking which people or what type of speech might deserve it, free speech ceases to be a right. Instead it becomes a privilege.
Those who oppose offering free speech to all in such a manner seem to me to suffer two problems. They either don’t want opinions contrary to theirs to be heard or they treat the public as fools who don’t have the common sense to discern the difference between twaddle and sensible statements.
Underlying the precept of free speech is another important concept that the politically correctness police have overlooked. Irrespective of their reputations we are under no obligation to take the words of anyone as serious or warranting undue weight. And this is a double-edged sword. Just as we have no obligation to take special notice of what anyone has to say, nor do they have any obligation to restrict what they say to what we want to hear!
George Orwell was adamant in his 1945 essay The Freedom of the Press.
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
Spinoza, the great Dutch Philosopher of the Enlightenment got it right when he said:
In a free state, every man may think what he likes and say what he thinks.
So, in this twenty-first century, where we experience freedoms never imagined in prior history, are we going to stand up and defend those freedoms or are we going to give up the fight and allow ourselves to be dominated by silly notions of political correctness and yield our precious freedoms to those who manifest confected offense in order to avoid dealing with confronting ideas?
I don’t know about you, but I am determined to follow Spinoza’s lead and continue to think what I like and say what I think! No, I am not going to incite folk to violence. What’s more I will not set out to deliberately to offend, but when I think it is important to speak my mind I will do so even if some of you find that speech offensive. What’s more I hope you do likewise and let me assure you that whatever you put to me in a free exchange of ideas will not offend me. It is time we mounted a real and robust defence against the erosion of our much valued free speech!