To be ignorant of one’s ignorance is the malady of the ignorant.
– Amos Bronson Alcott
The populist viewpoint, that we can say whatever we want to, appears to reign supremely on the topic of Freedom of Speech (and Freedom of Expression). A well-considered perspective about it, one that questions itself constantly, is rarely the case.
And yet, the Western mentality—and those who claim to have Enlightenment values of evidentiary thinking, rationality, objectivity, and independent thought—consistently displays an astounding lack of sophistication and depth when it comes to understanding the world and how it really works, as opposed to how they assume it works, or even how they might like it to work.
Many hold the view that we live in a society that protects all forms of speech. That’s a pretense upon which no facts are in evidence. Perhaps if we compare our Western societies with those of many in the East, it might appear to be so. But that position rests on very soft ground.
There’s nothing "free" about free speech. The very nature of speech is that it carries a price-tag—privilege.
RIGHTS OR PRIVILIGES
In truth, freedom of speech is a sometime thing. When we do enjoy freedom of speech we do so while exercising our privileges—not rights. Otherwise, why would our Founding Fathers have gone to such great lengths to enshrine those very privileges within our Constitution?
In his well conceived article for The Federalist Blog, Original Meaning—Freedom of Speech and of the Press, P.A. Madison expounded on many factual assessments, including these two:
“Under common law, people had to be careful of any criticism they wrote or said about government policy, laws or official conduct out of fear of being charged with a seditious crime where truth would be of no defense. “
“If freedom of speech or of the press alone was understood to mean the liberty to freely write or speak whatever one wishes, then there can be no purpose for the additional declaration that says persons may also “freely speak, write, and publish his sentiments on all subjects.” It is too clear freedom of speech and of the press had specific meaning and that meaning could only have been freedom from seditious libel. “
A blanket acceptance that everyone has the right to freedom of speech, regardless of how hateful, is insulting to anyone who has thought long and hard about all sides of the concept. Do we really have the right (i.e. privilege) to be racists and bigots and to insult and to cause harm with impunity? Or is there a price to pay when we overstep those rights (i.e. privileges)? The latter is more often true than not.
The problem with a lack of critical thought versus blasé acceptance is that it’s enshrined in a dishonest claim: we in West stand for a universal "right" to offend and freedom of expression. Do we really?
Anyone who is considering the concepts of FOS/FOE might like to set aside their unfettered positions and reflect more carefully before digging their feet too firmly into their own soft ground.
In today’s world, we do not accept racist depictions of American Indians or Blacks or Hispanics, negative stereotypes of gays or anti-Semitic cartoons. Our Western society has shifted greatly when it comes to drawing a line between hate speech and acceptable speech. In fact, for hundreds of years in the West, speaking out against things like religion or politics was also unacceptable, and could land you in what the English refer to as Queer Street. That’s hardly the makings of free and unfettered speech—is it?
The topic of FOS/FOE, became a hot button one around the time of the Charlie Hebdo shooting (prompted by Islamic cartoons). Some argued that we should ban these kinds of cartoons because they cause upset and insult to others. The French people rose up in unison about their rights to FOS/FOE.
Despite the fact that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (adopted during the French Revolution in 1789) set forth freedom of speech as an inalienable right, Article 11 goes on to say that:
“The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.”
This clearly suggests a fine line when it comes to FOS. But as with our Founding Fathers, many of us dislike bans of any kind. We don’t trust the state when it comes to censorship, largely because of how the state often protects the freedom of the privileged and suppresses the freedom of the disenfranchised. A glance at our current POTUS and the Betsy DeVos debacle are fine examples.
A friend of mine suggested that Article 11 in France’s Declaration “put those rights back into the hands of the legislature.” But this very legislative process allows for the privilege of FOS/FOE. To put it crassly, the chicken is the legislation—the egg is the privilege. And the chicken—at least in this case—came first.
Rather than debate “to ban or not to ban,” perhaps a better idea would be to consider why we have allowed ourselves the luxury to develop our Western culture in such a way that the feelings of others—in the case of Hebdo, Muslims, and, despite questionable Prop 8 activities, Mormons—are not as legitimate and can be discarded.
At the time of the Hebdo business, I too was inclined to think Hebdo was merely exercising its Freedom of Expression. I was never bothered by any of their depictions over the years, why should anyone else be? I’ve since had reason to regret my own shallow assumptions.
Had I paused to consider Hebdo from a perspective other than my own, I might have realized Hebdo had a responsibility along with their privileges. In exercising their own benefits, did they in fact reinforce Islamophobia? Other writers said as much at the time. Where my ears closed? Or was I ignoring the obvious because I wasn’t personally involved in that particular issue?
We obviously have no issues when it comes to protecting some groups from potentially racist-based attacks. Yet others are cannon fodder for our privileges to FOS/FOE. That’s a helluva lot of hypocrisy.
BUILDING SOLID GROUND
We here in the West have double standards when it comes to FOS/FOE—be they standards of the far right or the far left. The same is true when it comes to immigrants, citizenship and many other interrelated issues.
Until our so-called Western values relating to FOS/FOE become well-balanced between our own privileges and the privileges of others, I personally cannot bang on about mine when it comes to speaking my mind (something I do freely).
It’s time to stop the bullshit and open up a sensible dialogue, free from populist beliefs and comfort zones. How can we do that? Here are a few suggestions:
- Realize that facts are the basis for opinions—not the other way around.
- Learn to understand the links between ideas, both divergent and convergent ones.
- Ditch assumptions and dig for the facts. One article on a given topic is not the final word on that topic—that includes this article.
- Learn to determine the importance and relevance of arguments and ideas.
- Make an effort to recognize, evaluate, build and appraise arguments that are logically and legitimately strong.
- Dig deeper into our own biases, and realize we’re all guilty of having them.
- Reflect on the justification of assumptions, beliefs and values—yours and other peoples.
- Remember that with freedom comes responsibility—to ourselves and to others.
When we’ve begun to question more about our so-called superior Western values and systems, perhaps the signs carried by the left and the right while marching and demonstrating might have a more constructive and instructive appeal.
Who knows? People might even begin to think twice about their reactive comments online—even me.