Freedom of Speech: Too Much of a Good Thing?

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The events in Paris on January 7th forced society to face issues far too long buried under the rug, and cast a shadow of doubt on our human capacity for harmonious democracy. After the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, one might come to question freedom of speech and how it is interpreted today. Although everyone can agree that this liberty is an essential trait of any democratic society, fundamentally, some question whether it is understood in the same way by everyone. Is “freedom of speech” an unreserved oral license that allows words or images without purpose or message to seek pure offence? Or, is “freedom of speech” rather a vehicle of social dialogue: the tool that has allowed democracies to doubt, question, discuss, and progress? Are these two definitions of the term reconcilable? If not, which definition is most compatible with our notions of a cohesive democracy?

Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of democracy, as long as it is expressed in an inclusive, comprehensive, and dialogue-friendly way that fosters insight and debate. For such an open, free, and democratic right to be developed, we must emphasize reason and critical discussion. Everyone should have the right to say anything they like, as long as they have a ready explanation for the reasoning behind their words. From this perspective, freedom of speech only extends as far as the boundaries of respect and rational thought. However, some feel that freedom of speech is an unconditional guarantee of expression regardless of the consequences.

Yet, the definition of liberty of expression as an unconditional oral license doesn’t seem to match the values and actions of democratic societies around the world. Many news outlets – like the New York Times, the BBC, Bloomberg, Reuters, Al-Jazeera, and The Telegraph – decided not to publish Charlie Hebdo’s covers, even after the attacks.

The particular brand of “freedom of speech” championed by Charlie Hebdo seems all the more problematic when we consider the fact that the satirical publication fired journalist Maurice Sine for his cartoons mocking Jews. Likewise, a French humorist named Dieudonnée M’bala M’bala was recently prosecuted (and had his show cancelled) for his jokes about the Holocaust. It’s curious how such forms of satire, though representative of the kind of freedom of speech loudly defended in the aftermath of massacre, were not tolerated, even by Charlie Hebdo. These artists were punished for their opinions, which were understood not as social critiques, but rather as purely offensive or even disruptive to social cohesion.

Freedom of speech, then, is inherently, and paradoxically limited: we refuse to tolerate those who push the boundaries of acceptable speech.

Although this stance is harsh, it is not new. Though claiming to be peaceful and tolerant, religions – whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Islam or even Buddhism – actively distance themselves from their extremist factions. Exactly as the modern Christians have distanced themselves from the KKK or the Westboro Baptist Church, so have the moderate Muslims condemned Salafists or IS. Even Buddhists were obliged to denounce the slaughter of Muslims by fanatic monks. A society or group that upholds the right to free expression for all its members must likewise condemn expressions and actions – whether it be intimidation or oppression, slander or slaughter – that threaten its stability.

Though there is consensus that freedom of speech does have limits, few are ready to draw the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable – and for good reason. On the one hand, a wrong answer to this question could lead to a stagnant, censored, uncritical and undemocratic society. On the other, it could also lead to a reality where liberty of expression is used as a tool to reinforce a litany of reductive and oppressive stereotypes perpetuating the marginalization – and persistent persecution – of different groups.

So, if both extremes of freedom of speech hinder societal communication, how then can we balance this constraint?

To answer this question, we must go back to  the roots of freedom of speech: the Enlightenment. Freedom of speech wasn’t developed for the sole sake of transgressing upon the authority of kings. Rather, it was conceptualized to allow discussions and questioning based on reason instead of blind faith.

Essentially, this critical period of societal development brought forth the idea that everyone should have the freedom to say what they please in public, so long as their words promote a dialogue – not insubstantial provocation.

To create a constructive dialogue in the public sphere, we should allow any opinion as long as there is a rationale to justify it. Because such statements won’t stand up to public questioning, detrimental and harmful proclamations cannot be maintained if their rationale is unreasonable. Imagine a bully who harasses a classmate and then has to provide reasons for his actions. As soon as the brute provides his unreasonable arguments behind his actions, theoretically, his posture and power would be disintegrated – how would he look once we all see the fallacy of his logic? Establishing reason, or at least the presentation of arguments, as a criterion for expression in the public sphere will greatly reduce – and maybe even eradicate – speech that misappropriates liberty of expression for the sake of inflicting harm.

The failure to use such reason when exercising the right to free speech weakens one’s own argument. Though Charlie Hebdo’s criticism of religion’s role in a secular society may be justified, their medium was without a doubt an inefficient – if not downright counterproductive – way of conveying an opinion. Not only did their cartoons lack any explanation, it exploited free speech, seeking purely to provoke. It seemed to say: “I can say whatever I want – regardless of how harmful or provocative the consequences may be.” Such an attitude does not enhance a democratic society; it only promotes hate and further entrenches people’s existing – and often prejudiced – beliefs.

If the exercise of reason becomes intertwined with the exercise of freedom of speech, our dialogue could have stabilizing effects on democratic society by encouraging rational thought and critical analysis – features that are very much lacking in the political sphere, where demagogy and emotion appeals are still used to manipulate the electorate.

If the right to free expression that is based on reason is promoted and conveyed, the people’s propensity for critical thought and enlightenment would be bolstered, thus enabling more considerate decision-making. After all, it is through dialogue that a democratic spirit can be fostered.

Freedom of speech, like every right, should be earned and used in the appropriate circumstances. Let’s prove ourselves worthy of this right. Let’s use our right to free speech to drive ideas, progress, and cohesion. Let’s use this means to achieve the end that the enlightened thinkers originally intended: the rule of reason and critical thought in a democratic society.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.