Thursday, 27 September 2012

Freedom of Speech 

Freedom of speech is a concept which has been much in the news of late. Mostly I’m afraid to say, as a result of the reaction in the Islamic world to a film made in America, which Muslims claim insults their prophet Muhammad.

For me, freedom of speech is an inalienable human right. That said, it is clear that there are some human rights which should be exercised with caution. Not least, because they can result in harmful consequences. 

The real question therefore, is should the possibility of harmful consequences cause people to be silent on certain topics, or issues? My own view is a resounding ‘no.’

To be free to criticise, or offend others, is exactly what the concept of free speech entails. It is nonsense to pretend that free speech can be circumscribed, either by laws, or appeals to good taste. After all, everyone is actually free to say exactly what they wish. Of course, exercising such a freedom may have unwanted outcomes.

Interestingly, The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines free speech as: “the right to express opinions of any kind without incurring a penalty.” Clearly, under such a definition, free speech does not, and probably never has existed. Not simply because, as a so called civilised society, we have laws to protect us from discrimination in certain areas, but also, because in the current climate, expressing certain opinions could, and has resulted, in people being killed.

I believe that mostly, the law has been used wisely to circumscribe those areas where freedom of speech needs to be curtailed. These are generally those aspects of an individual’s life over which they have no personal control and for which they cannot be considered responsible.  These quite rightly include: their race, skin-colour, height, age, sex, disability, etc.

However, in certain sections of our society, there is growing demand that we should also pass laws to protect people’s individual opinions, beliefs and other sensibilities. This I’m afraid, is where we need to draw the line. 

In my view, no-one on earth has the right not to be offended. Being offended and dealing with it appropriately, is a mark of an enlightened and mature person. Far from protecting individuals from personal attacks upon their beliefs, it’s my view, it is the state’s responsibility to ensure that we live in a society where such attacks are not only permitted, but encouraged, particularly when the beliefs in question are held without good evidence. 

Due to the very real threat of death from offending the sensibilities of certain fundamentalist Muslims, we have gradually allowed ourselves to become timid and self-censoring. In some cases, even going so far as blame freedom of speech itself as being responsible for causing the death and destruction we face every time someone lampoons their intolerant faith.

We need to toughen up, and demonstrate in unequivocal language that our values will not change due to threats and intimidation. We are in danger of becoming like a frightened and inadequate parent, who fearful of losing the love and affection of an unruly child, indulges its every whim and gives in to its every tantrum.

That way will lead to certain disaster. Rewarding bad behaviour, like appeasing intolerance is neither noble, or in the log run, likely to be effective. 

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