Freedom of speech revisited

I wrote in an earlier post about freedom of speech that it means ‘you can say whatever … you want without going to jail.’ I am an admin for a well trafficked Facebook group and recent experience in that role has resulted in a rethink about what freedom of speech really means to me.

When people hear the word ‘freedom’ they tend to think of it in isolation, a complete liberalism without boundaries or limits. But this is an important, much loved concept with far reaching ramifications. If we want to preserve any freedoms we need to look more closely at the concept than a simple dictionary definition. When we do this, the result is almost always the same (and hence the cliché): with freedom comes great responsibility. So, what responsibilities arise from having freedom of speech?

Returning to my earlier statement that it means being able to say whatever you want, is a good place to start because it reflects the first impulse we have when we think about freedom: ‘without boundaries or limits.’ But, as has been observed in Australian politics in recent years, it’s just not as simple as that.

It’s not as simple as that because, sometimes, when people express their opinion others are hurt and offended. I’m not suggesting we should never hurt or offend anyone, that’s unrealistic but when people are hurt or offended things can escalate. Consider the Charlie Hebdo murders. The potential for violence that can arise from the things people say, or write, or draw is the reason why we have laws against incitement to violence at the same time that we have an ideal of freedom of expression. Though they may appear to conflict, the two are not mutually exclusive. But, how can we resolve these two ideas?

By looking at what we really mean when we say we want, even expect, to have freedom of speech. With the understanding that there are many and diverse answers to this question, I’m going to say this: we want to be able to express any opinion on any subject. The point of having this right is that it allows for all voices to be heard. This is a necessary requirement of a democracy. Now we are at the crux of the problem.

How can we be free to express any opinion on any subject without someone eventually, for example, breaching the incitement to violence laws? The answer to this is imperfect because there is no silver bullet solution. Some people will be insulted sometimes as long as we have freedom of speech. But we can minimise damage. This is the responsibility that comes with this freedom.

Often, the offense caused by people exercising their right to freedom of speech is not a result of what they’re saying but of the way in which they are saying it. For example, ‘That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard’ is more likely to provoke a punch in the face than ‘What you’re saying is not making any sense to me.’ It boils down to the need to think twice before speaking, or posting, or publishing.

I said it was imperfect. I often forget to think before I speak. Many people like to exercise their right of freedom of speech without thinking or caring about the consequences. Sometimes it’s difficult or even impossible to anticipate what causes offence to some people. Some people are simply not all that good with words. The point of this post is not to solve the problems with freedom of speech but rather to point to what it might take to preserve the right of that freedom.

If we want to hang on to the right of freedom of speech, which we should, then we need to avoid causing damage with that freedom. People die everyday because we use cars to get around. So we have rules to govern driving in an attempt to save lives. It works. Imagine how many more people would die if no one followed the road rules. When drivers use their right to drive on the roads with responsibility fewer people are hurt and we can continue to use the roads. The same goes for freedom of speech. Some people will get hurt but we can avoid total carnage if we use the freedom with responsibility. I.e. say what you think but think about what you say. Be considerate.

I admit I find this a bit boring, a bit conservative, but there is a bonus. When we choose our words carefully, instead of simply being shut out as an offensive jerk, we are more likely to be heard. When people are heard, problems can be solved, things can be achieved. Life is happier, easier. Less people die for stupid reasons. And, we can carry on exercising our right to freedom of speech.

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