In this essay I am going to discuss ‘What limits, if any, should be placed upon our freedom of speech?’, my argument is going to concentrate on pointing out why we should not limit freedom of speech at all.
To begin, we can all easily grasp the concept of Freedom of speech and see why it is valuable but many of us also see its potential danger, but this danger is a miss-conception of the concept. For a citizen to say, think and feel whatever he or she wants seem to be a key idea and praise worthy sentiment of modern democracy, furthermore it also seems like a basic civil right as a citizen.
I personally am strongly opposed to both the limiting freedom of speech and pacifism for being the opposite side of the same coin. Limiting the freedom of speech is the first steps towards using a subjective view and stating it as objective, which would also evidently limit scepticism and push it underground. Which in most cases of history does not actually stop the activity, but will lead to inflaming the problem and increase the risk of drastic and sometimes violent measures taken by the practitioners. This could lead to Fascism. By that I mean the government stating what the people should and should not think, rather than serving the people themselves. The Governments of democracy are meant to serve and be represented by the people, not the people conforming to the Government. While pacifism offers no opposition when Fascism tries to take control.
Modern examples of limited speech can be seen during the USSR and East-Asian Communist era, where propaganda and limiting what you could think based on making people view an ideology as the one and only one that ought to be taken. To speak out would endanger you and bring disgrace. A contemporary version would be Russia with its Anti-gay sentiments. Using propaganda where they actively incite hatred and violence to all Russian homosexuals (1), especially at known gather areas. Now these people have the right to speak out about what they feel and think. For example, a racist man is perfectly within his rights to express his feelings of racism or a man who denies the holocaust (2) to state he thinks so, and I would defend his right to express that view. I would condemn these people if they incited violence, for example White men to kill Black men or Christians to kill Jews. But speaking your own view is not inciting hatred or violence if expressed purely as a subjective view and not an objective moral that must be obeyed by everyone. I would not ban or shut up the BNP, but I would condemn their ignorant views and be very happy to argue and refute their arguments, ethics and politics.
‘Trying to deal with a political issue such as Holocaust denial through bans can only make the problem worse, by encouraging cynicism and giving credence to conspiracy theories. We’ve seen this happen before, if you shut them up they will only say “See, they’ve got something to hide”.'(3)
There is a common idea that truth sayers are shut up for being dangerous. If you silence them, you martyr them for their own cause, fuelling it. To limit freedom of speech would be to refuse education by ignoring the problem rather than debating it with logic and showing these people why they are ignorant or in the case of some examples, simply wrong. Let them say what they think because you as a citizen have the right to say what you like via the freedom of speech and via that same concept we can judge you how we like and tell those people exactly what we think of that view. You should be able to say what you like no matter how stupid, that is the beginning of learning, philosophy and most probably every area of study we now have and will ever have. It is by critiquing them, not by silencing them up that you get rid of ignorance. By shutting someone up you’re in effect being the parent that hits or silences their child without explaining why. This leaves such people with no challengers to oppose their views or a brick wall that destroys their right to the view without teaching them anything in the process but resentment, and usually such people will only be fuelled on by such things, taking it as a confirmation they are doing something right and ‘breaking the boundaries’.
Some people who have the right to express their freedom of speech do not because they are terrified of what their views may bring to their life. A recent example being the Danish cartoonists (4) who were threatened with execution via a Fatwa issued by Islamic fundamentalists. This is an example of steps towards a Fascist view. The Danish cartoonists were condemned by the left for inciting hatred with religious intolerance and by the right for insulting them and thinking they deserve death in response. When in reality, the problem is rather simple. The Danish cartoonists are not Islamic, therefore should not be subjected to Islamic laws. If however, a Islamic cartoonist was to draw the Prophet Muhammad, then at least it would have some basis to the condemnation.
To conclude, I do understand why people are outraged by such views as sexism, racism, denial of past tragedies etc. But to stamp them out rather than teach them out is counterproductive. Education, rather than limiting our freedoms will effectively treat this problem gradually rather than instantly, but gradually is the best way to do things effectively. Such gradual changes that you barely notice them are via education and information, not instant banning or limiting of freedoms. One of the key contributors to gaining knowledge is honesty, and if freedom of speech was to be limited, it would also limit our sincerity and openness for fear of violence or imprisonment. This is quite clearly not the right option for children who are products of their environment never mind the adult, and as adults I think we ought to be perfectly able to criticise and be criticised by others and ourselves.
To use famous words that perfectly express my sentiment:
‘If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.'(5)
1. A video from Human Rights Watch released four days before the official start of the Olympics in Sochi details the extent of violence facing LGBT people in Russia: http://www.buzzfeed.com/lesterfeder/this-short-film-shows-just-how-terrifying-life-is-for-lgbt-p, accessed on the 9th of February 2014.
2. A recent example of Holocaust denial: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/what-could-be-worse-than-holocaust-denial/14617#.Uve0RmJ_tA0, accessed on the 9th of February 2014.
3. An argument against banning certain views being expressed, same source as above reference http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/what-could-be-worse-than-holocaust-denial/14617#.Uve0RmJ_tA0, accessed on the 9th of February 2014.
4. Salman Rushdie (19th June 1947) being another example of an attempt to limit the freedom of speech. He wrote the Satanic verses in 1988 which was a novel based around the Quran and was branded with a fatwa in 1989.
5. John Stuart Mill, ‘On liberty and the subjection of women‘ (Penguin classics, 2006), ‘Chapter II: Of the liberty of thought and discussion. p. 23.
– John Stuart Mill, On liberty and the subjection of women (Penguin classics, 2006)
– Salman Rushdie, The satanic verses (Viking press, 1988)