This is true liberty, when free-born men,
Having to advise the public, may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserves high praise;
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace:
What can be juster in a state than this?
– Euripid. Hicetid
It is difficult to overstate the importance that freedom of speech has on our lives; allowing anyone the opportunity to impugn, put forward or criticise an idea or status quo that was itself brought about through the medium of free speech and expression.
It is a bastion of our individuality in the ongoing tug of war between state-rule and self-rule. Countless philosophers and politicians have argued as to where to draw the line between the Leviathan’s sphere of influence and the individual’s existentialist boundaries. Across the pond, the libertarians are alive and well – albeit in the form of the intransigent Tea party movement – whilst in the ‘Emerald Isle’ the idea of privatisation brings thousands out in protest.
Yet they share common ground in their ability to speak out. It is this ability to speak out and protest, against what they consider injustices, which prevents our lives from continuing on in indifference. Its continued practice never allows the progress of society to fall into torpor and indolence. It is the right of everyone to speak their mind, however misinformed or seemingly foolish, without regard to their background or wealth. Every person can and should use this right. Our ability to criticise and enter into discussion is the fuel that keeps the engines of our civilisation progressing.
Moreover, it is not just the right of the person to speak but also the right of you and me to hear what they have to say, no matter how absurd. I have memories of being in Hyde Park passing Speaker’s Corner and listening to the men and women as they spouted, mainly, nonsensical themes to the surrounding crowds from upon their soapboxes. And while they were interpolating, mainly, frivolous topics, there could just as easily have been a person actively denying the holocaust, or proposing racist ideology.
The act of heretics, contrarians and iconoclasts, they who go against popular opinion and cherished views, have just as much, if not more importance in the arena of discussion precisely because they are proposing an unconventional opinion. Their ability to speak must be upheld. Their point may even contain a grain of historical truth, and if nothing else, will shake you from intellectual laziness and make you question why you hold the beliefs you do. Creating and understanding first principles is extremely important if we are to reliably draw from these axioms for future thought.
Have you ever wondered why you know the world is not flat? What would you say if you met with a young-earth creationist? Do not seek shelter in the false security of consensus.
Censorship persists in our lives, whether in more obvious forms, such as the archaic and immensely stupid blasphemy laws, or in the more subtle forms where one is passively forced into intellectual dishonesty. This is a fact that I see as a crying shame, breaking with Shakespeare’s well known maxim “To thine own self be true”, yet the vast majority of people would consent to the existence of some form of law curbing freedom of speech and expression.
They argue that it shouldn’t be legal to incite hatred, violence, crime and lies. But I put it to them that it is through these incitements that one learns the extent to which a group or individual is thinking. What we see when we hear them and what we hear when we see them is an invaluable source in unveiling a problem, that until then, may have simply festered in silence, until the pressure is released in ways greatly exacerbated and perhaps unmanageable.
Saying that homosexuals are sub-human, claiming that the wretched woman is incapable of doing a man’s job, or drawing a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad are not crimes. But those that seek to withhold the rights of the LGBT community, pay women less, and seek beheadings as reaction must be held accountable. In the aftermath of the Prophet Cartoons saga in Denmark, almost every institution condemned the cartoons, but failed to condemn those that called for, and got, blood in revenge. Where are your priorities?
When someone utters an idiocy such as a homophobic rant, they must be ready for the barrage of counter arguments coming their way. But, nevertheless, they should be allowed to speak their idiotic statements. To quote Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
If someone speaks an untruth, I have no doubt that it will be exposed as just that, but only by those willing to listen and argue against. In essence, I advocate the dialectic in search for the truth. The fear of offending or provoking should be a straitjacket that constrains no one but the reality of having to defend your position should give you moment’s pause.
It should be noted that being offended is a purely subjective act and there are those that are so happy to be affronted that they actively go out looking for it. The joke goes that when Dr Samuel Johnson completed his great lexicon, many delegations met with him to congratulate him. One of the delegations was a group of respectable women from London:
“Dr Johnson, we are delighted to find that you did not include any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary”.
“Ladies” replied Johnson “I congratulate you on being able to look them up”.
One must understand that the groups of those determined to be offended will go out of their way to satisfy their needs; willing to go through a treasure trove of English language to find some filthy words to fulfil some instinct, about which I dare not speculate…
And who, I wonder, is the person you would entrust with the impossible task of deciding what is ‘right’ for you or I? Who decides what can be said, read or thought? I do not know of a single person in the history of our species who would be suitable. Anyone who puts themselves forward to be the stalwart of censorship is by default, unsuitable. Their presence opens a most menacing doorway into an Orwellian dystopia of ignorance and doublethink.
Anyone claiming the right by knowing the mind of God is either a charlatan or an idiot. In the words of the Iranian polymath Omar Khayyam:
And do you think that unto such as you?
A maggot-minded starved, fanatic crew
God gave the secrets and denied it me?
Well, well, what matters it, believe that too.
Not long ago, a Somali comedian was murdered in cold blood. He has shot, point blank, in the head and the chest. His crime – poking fun at Islamist militants. Again, I reiterate, whenever someone says, writes or creates anything that you may deem heretical, they must be given extra protection by you and by the state, for they are adding something to the table that was previously missing.
This showcases the religious threat, but rather than have myself expatiate its horrors in the realms of free expression, criticism and emancipation, I shall instead offer the prose of Karl Marx in his Introduction to his Critique on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. The first page is all that is necessary to understand the point, but continue if you so please, for who am I to tell you what you cannot read?
Freedom of the press is an obvious arm of free speech, with state-run papers being viewed, rightly in my opinion, with a hint of cynicism and a raised eyebrow whenever they critique domestic politics. But the strong arm of censorship runs deeper into the ‘Independent’ papers too, with their shareholders invariably having a say when a story threatens a conflict of (their) interest.
A few months ago, the Journalist syndicate in Cairo convened to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the appointment of the latest chief editors for the country’s state-run papers. They were aware that the government’s appointments to the 5 major state-run newspapers were almost certainly going to affect their freedom in criticising the ruling powers. The new editors would be foolish to so quickly turn on the powers that granted them such high positions. You do not bite the hand that feeds, as the saying goes.
It has always been the first practice of a dictator after they have secured the loyalty of the army to then secure the provisions of the Press, for this had always been the main source of knowledge for the proletariat. However, with the advent of the Internet another vast channel of free speech and knowledge opened up; yet another channel that the totalitarian needs to close.
One must only look to the last true dictatorship in Europe, Belarus, to see the evidence. It claims to run a free press, yet it is illegal to write anything slanderous about the despotic President, Alexander Lukashenko. Exactly who falls afoul of the critical-slanderous line is obviously up to Lukashenko’s cronies and there have been disappearances of several Belarusian journalists. It is this omnipresent threat that made Freedom House, a trusted independent monitor, call Belarus’ freedom of press and internet ‘not free’.
Stop someone from speaking; withhold something they have written; or bury something they have created and you are in essence making yourself a prisoner of your own actions. You are denying yourself in advance; you are creating a rod for your own back, for in the subjective realm of censorship, all is fair game when it comes to closing avenues of learning.