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. 

Note to readers: Your views are welcome. Please click on the tab below if you wish to leave a comment.


  1. Brilliant post - I hear you and I am with you - free speech is precious and we need to stand up for the right dissent!

  2. James...I'm giving another one of my silly looking standing ovations on this one! (All opinions welcome) Why is it, in the majority of cases, on a global level, we have to take "offence" to a differing opinion, and defend our own "opinion" to the death. This is DE-evolution. Why does a debate have to end in argument? Why can we not agree that different eyes see things differently, different minds process things differently, and because one does not share your opinion...why does that mean they're "wrong". This "Politically Correct" (censorship) environment that has been created has me double checking every post,every is this freedom? I have no desire offend anybody...and if expressing MY opinion is misinterpretted as such...then that is the fault of the interptretor...right?

  3. Well done James! A finely wrought and craft blog on freedom of speech! Lots of wisdom conatined in your words! Kudos! Roger ☺

  4. As a practitioner of a religion that is not mainstream I have no problem with people sharing their opinions about it...their thoughts and feelings. If they outright lie...which some do...then I need to educate them, but I don't want a law telling them what to think. Laws can stop them from firing me for practicing a different religion then they do, but it can't stop them from voicing an opinion. And some opinions are harmful...again it's then my job to voice my own ideas and express the truth about what I practice if they have the wrong idea about it. Education is better than restriction. Dialogue is better staying quiet.

  5. Yes, James, I agree wholeheartedly that we must stand up and be counted, not allowing ourselves to be intimidated. But whilst we stand square to face it and brace ourselves like soldiers in civilisation's thin line of defence, I believe strongly that there is a crucial part of our language that we are not using in the debate; that some of those, who are rattling their sabres in the defence of the freedom of speech may feel is too namby-pamby, not strong enough. But it's not language alone that we need, it is a burning need to develop some well defined principles; principles that could be enshrined in international diplomacy and law.

    I'm talking about three things: (i) mutual respect, (ii) personal responsibility (for the consequences of one's actions) and (iii) the application of down-to-earth common sense. This applies to all parties, whether they be film-makers or Muslim clerics.

    As a fully paid up member of the Cynics and Skeptics Association, I'd say this is nearly impossible, given the inter tribal diversity of human condition, not it's not impossible! Trouble is that whilst blood is boiling and sabres are rattling, there is no chance of even starting this debate.

    The first step (reference Natasha's very valid comments above) is to open minds, avoid being judgemental and engage in even-tempered debate. Isn't this what the United Nations set out to do all those years ago? Maybe we need to reinvent that institution?

  6. Afterthought. More questions to answer: how do we define "harmful consequences"; how do we define "respect"; how do we define "common sense"..? I think I know what I mean by these, but would all parties be in agreement on the definitions?