Why Freedom of Expression Still Matters

Why does freedom of expression matter? Allowing our best ideas to be challenged forces us to remain aware of why we hold these cherished beliefs.

Freedom of expression has been a defining value of liberal progressive movements from the revolutions that shook Europe and America at the end of the eighteenth century to the cultural upheavals of the 1960’s. But the pedigree of those who advocate for this value can be traced back to Ancient Greece and Rome. In 399 BC, Socrates stood accused of “offending the traditional Gods” of Athens and “corrupting the youth” (by teaching them critical reasoning and introducing new ‘gods’ of his own). At his trial, he argued that he had benefited the Athenians by subjecting them to his philosophical cross-examinations. It was his contention that his superior wisdom lay only in the fact that he alone was aware of how little knowledge he possessed. He was convinced that life without this sort of critical examination – of both his own beliefs and other people’s – is not worth living.

Today, liberalism’s impersonators want to persuade us that the free speech lobby is “right-wing.” While right-wing speakers have indeed expounded repugnant views under the protection of free speech, it is blatantly false that the principle itself is “right wing.” Deceptive semantics should never be a means of imposing on mankind facile conclusions that are neither humane nor necessary. We do not need to define ‘tennis’ in order to knock a ball back and forth over a net, but we do discover that games have rules, and that two men with gloves punching one another in a ring for twelve rounds (or less) is not ‘tennis.’ Rules define what constitutes playing a particular game or not. Detaching words from their content (as in Orwellian Newspeak) may concoct such an alchemy of self-validation that those who wield the terms can arrange never to be wrong. We have seen such grotesque perversions in the use of the vocabulary of morals, democracy and responsibility by Nazis, Soviet rulers and American imperialists. The Stalinist coinage ‘People’s Democracy,’ like the Nazi term ‘People’s Court,’ is risible where it is not nauseating. Stigmatising the free speech lobby with derogatory labels and associations like “right wing” is nothing but a  smear tactic used to discredit liberals who would rather debate disagreements than render them illegal.

It is true, however, that bigots and bullies can (and do) use the liberty granted by free speech protections to give voice to their views. But foolish or bigoted doctrines only become dangerous when they are reinforced by the suppression of conflicting ones. As Justice Louis D. Brandeis’s opined in his Supreme Court decision in Whitney v. California (1927),

“To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning . . . , no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

To defend a right to “free speech” only when the speech in question is in broad agreement with one’s own point of view is not really to defend free speech at all. To suppress other people’s opinions is to assume an infallibility that none of us possesses. Even if a majority in society have good reasons for believing that they are right, it does not follow that they could learn nothing from hearing dissenting viewpoints. Even falsehoods may contain partial truths, and we deprive ourselves and everyone else of the benefit of ‘filling gaps’ in our knowledge by suppressing contrary views.  Allowing our best ideas to be challenged from time forces us to remain aware of the reasons why we hold these cherished beliefs, and thereby keeps them from calcifying into dead dogmas and us from holding them in the manner of unthinking orthodoxies.

Society has always progressed not from smug elitism or complacency with our current knowledge, but through the ongoing process of ‘testing’ our beliefs against the merits of competing ones. Those who cling to cherished beliefs in fearful defensiveness exhibit little confidence that they are able to defend their ‘superior’ views. Yet, the only reason we have for confidence in our beliefs, when we do possess it, is that they have emerged victorious from the tussle with rival opinions.

Liberals may be tempted to curtail “hate” speech but, unless we have actually heard a viewpoint, it is impossible to appraise whether subjective labels like “hate” correctly apply. Moreover, “hate” is an ambiguous concept. As Human Rights activist Peter Tatchell has stressed:

“What some sensitive souls condemn as hate, others would describe as legitimate critical, dissenting opinion.”

Moreover, stigmatising a speaker or his views with epithets is a very convenient way to prevent unorthodox arguments from being heard. One reason for wishing to pre-empt speech may be that the speaker’s arguments are better than prevailing opinion on the matter. “Hate-speech” laws are routinely used to suppress controversial political speech in Russia, but the same people who condemn China and Russia as “repressive” would merrily mimic their policies at home. As the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943),

“…freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Tolerant liberals allow all manner of persuasion to express disagreement with another viewpoint. Literature, speech, satire, music and art — all are legitimate ways to express disapproval of beliefs or practices that we find morally repugnant or intellectually bankrupt. By contrast, “intolerance” means rejection of the other’s fundamental right to self-expression and unwillingness to withstand his dissent. Intolerant individuals or groups dictate how others must live. In many instances, they deny to other members of their own communities the basic rights that they demand for themselves vis-à-vis the liberal state.

Censoring religious insult will not so much protect a minority sub-culture from the outside host culture as it will suppress the diversity of opinion within it. Muslim moderates are the only Muslims that by definition would not agree with, nor benefit from, paternalistic blasphemy laws intended to protect “Muslims.” (That is what distinguishes them from intolerant extremists!) Freedom of speech benefits all Muslims; censorship only benefits the most intolerant Muslim extremists.

The key to tolerance is reciprocity, which is guaranteed by structural equality, not by policing content. Classic liberal philosophers and activists would limit only actions that interfere with the reciprocal liberty of others to live according to their beliefs. By implying that offensive words are equivalent to illegal acts of physical injury, some wish to persuade us that speech needs a similar legal remedy. Sarah Haider, Director of outreach for Ex-Muslims of North America, has argued that this blurring of the line between speech and physical acts unwittingly justifies violence as a fitting response to offensive speech. In a similar vein, Brendan O’Neill, Editor of Sp!ked, has observed that,

“We are starting to see what happens when speech is talked about as though it were a form of violence: it green-lights actual violence against certain forms of speech.”

This, says O’Neill, is the outcome of a moral culture that elevates mental safety over intellectual liberty, and people’s feelings over public freedom.[1]  Never have truer words been said.


[1] Tweeted on 29 Aug., 2017

About Terri Murray 56 Articles
Terri (PhD) is an author, blogger, and has taught philosophy and film studies in Secondary and Adult Education for over ten years

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