Freedom of Speech
Note: For the purposes of this discussion it will be assume that the ideology of communism has failed, such that most nation-states have now adopted a variation of free-market capitalism, which might be defined in terms of state-capitalism or social-capitalism . While it is recognised that many of these ‘variations’ may only allow a limited form of democracy, we will not attempt to address the issue by which a government as come to assume its authority over the people, which is often a matter of a long and complicated history of events.
In the previous discussion, some consideration was given to the ideas of a Russian political strategist and the argument for a multiplicity of cultures rather than the neoliberalism of multicultural societies. In this discussion, further consideration will be given to different ideas about the right for a ‘freedom-of-speech’ .
Note: Freedom of speech is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or sanction. Freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in terms of the law as defined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights .
Based on the apparent weight of authority being cited in the note above, we might assume that there would be little debate about the inalienable right to a freedom of speech. However, some nation-states such as China do have a very different attitude to the right of an individual to say almost anything, if it appears to undermine the collective stability of the state. At this point, we might replicate part of an earlier discussion entitled ‘The State of Global Politics’ that outlined to perspectives, first by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and second, the response of Eric Li, who is a venture capitalist and political scientist in Shanghai.
Weiwei statement: "I don't ask for much. Just the freedom to create, and the freedom for everyone to say what they want".
Li's Response: That, indeed, is simple enough of a statement. However, it is asking for much - too much. One fallacy in the modern Western political ideology is the so-called freedom of speech. It makes a presumption that speech, unlike acts, is harmless and therefore can and must be allowed absolute freedom, the freedom for everyone to say what they want. But of course, nothing can be further from the truth grounded in thousands of years of human experience. Speech is an act; and speech has been harmful to human society since time immemorial. In the West, one does not need to go further than 1933 to find an example of the power of speech by just one man, due to the unique circumstances of that particular time and place, causing death and destruction to millions. The prevailing cultural conditions are unique to different societies at different times. It is up to that society to determine the boundaries of speech and alter them as conditions change. Germany, for instance, due to its unique recent history, seems to believe the publication of Mein Kampf must not be allowed. Contemporary China is experiencing social transformations of which the speed and scale are unprecedented in human history. Under such conditions the fragility of social stability can be easily disrupted by amplified speech. A responsible person, one would think, would consider the consequences of advocating everyone being free to say whatever he wants. An intelligent observer of human society and student of history ought to be more thoughtful than simply asking, why is that a problem?
Again, the reader might wish to review the Caspian videos entitled Chinese Mindset and East Asia 2017 plus China's Belt and Road Initiative in order to get a better understanding of the Chinese historical perspective and the current objectives of the Communist Party of China . We might also question the ‘united’ reality of the ‘United Nations (UN)’ position when the largest country on planet Earth, in terms of population, disagrees with one the foundation principles of the UN. For China considers the freedom of expression as a privilege rather than the right of each and every individual. In a similar fashion to earlier nationalist arguments for the sovereignty of the nation-state for self-determination of its laws, China has argued that its cultural and political history would be destabilised by the wholesale acceptance of human rights, such that these rights, as apparently enshrined in international law, cannot simply be considered as ‘universal’ in scope.
But is freedom of speech just an issue for authoritarian governments?
Apparently not, as an Islamic perspective also requires some limits be placed on the freedom of speech because no Muslim can tolerate an insult of the ‘beloved Prophet of Islam’, i.e. Muhammad . Of course, the first problem we might have with this position is the somewhat subjective nature of an ‘insult’ as interpreted by a non-Muslim as opposed to a devote Muslim of a fundamental Islamic sect.
Note: In Islam, blasphemy can be interpreted as any impious utterance or action concerning God, Muhammad or anything considered sacred in Islam, which we might assume would be taken as an insult that would restrict the freedom of speech of others.
We might also attempt to differentiate blasphemy from heresy, where the former is considered to be an irreverence or insult towards God, as outlined above, while the latter is considered to be a wrong belief in God or any idea that rejects some belief in a deity. Again, this interpretation might be subjective to any one of the 250 major religions worldwide, where a heretical idea might correspond to any evidence, factual or otherwise, which appears to contradict a religious belief. As such, the attitude of present-day Islam is not so different to the earlier historic attitude of the Catholic Church, where the most common punishment for blasphemy was capital punishment, e.g. hanging or stoning, which was justified on the basis of Leviticus 24:13–16.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And speak to the people of Israel, saying, whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death."
While the religious context being outlined is different to the Chinese argument, the reason might still be described as cultural, although the scope is different in the case of Islamic belief. For example, while the central communist party in China may restrict the freedom of speech in its own geopolitical domain, it is restricted in simply imposing this restriction to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, it appears that some fundamentalists of the Islamic faith may see no geographical boundary to the restriction of any ‘impious utterance’ of ‘God, Muhammad or anything considered sacred in Islam’ for fear of some act of physical reprisal.
Note: At this point, it will be argued that while a specific society may claim the right to establish and impose its own cultural or religious norms within the jurisdiction of a nation-state, it should not have the right to impose its political or religious norms on others outside its jurisdiction.
Despite the argument against restricting the freedom of speech above, there may still be some need for sensitivity in respect to the scope of its use, such that this freedom is not seen as a licence for verbal abuse, i.e. it has to be used responsibly.
So, barring the caveat above, do western democracies support the freedom of speech?
Before discussing this question, it might be useful to make some reference to the videos below, which possibly outline the potential scope of the issues now surrounding the freedom of speech debate in the US. These videos appear to question the scope of ‘free-speech’ in both universities and private corporations, where the issues in question do not appear to be related to ‘hate-speech’, but rather the growing concept of ‘safe-places’ and ‘no-platforms’ within an expansion of political correctness, which will be discussed further below.
- Sep 2017: Fired Google Engineer James Damore
- Dec 2017: Lindsay Shepherd: Free Speech Battle
- Jun 2018: Bret Weinstein Testifies to Congress
At face value, these videos appear to highlight a growing issue in the US, although it is possibly true to say that these issues also exist in many western democracies. However, it is possibly worth pointing out that ‘freedom of speech’ is an integral part of the 1st amendment (1791) to the American constitution (1789) , which are now listed as part of the US Bill of Rights .
Summary of 1st Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Of course, what might be implicitly understood by the very nature of any ‘amendment’ is that they reflect changing attitudes over time. For example, the 13th amendment , which formally abolished slavery in the US, was added in 1865. Today, there are 27 amendments to the US constitution, the last being ratified in 1992, which might be said to reflect the change of public and political opinion on many issues over some 200+ years. While, in the limited context of the US, the divide in opinion on the issue of free-speech might be described in terms of left-right politics, there is some possible wider link to the divide between globalist and nationalist politics in terms of multiculturism as opposed to multiplicity of cultures along the lines of national identity, which has previously been discussed in terms of both Russia and China plus the growing support for national popularism in Europe.
Note: It is felt important to clarify that this website is only discussing national identity in terms of cultural values and not on racial ethnicity. As such, people of many multicultural backgrounds may be peacefully assimilated into some expanding acceptance of national identity as long as the indigenous majority does not feel threaten that its culture might be overwhelmed by too much immigration.
In part, the issue of globalism, political correctness and free-speech can all become interlinked with the push-back from popularist nationalism because the scope and rate of change has too much of an impact on some cultural groups. It might also be recognised that older people, in all cultures, are less accepting of change, not only because they are invariably a product of an earlier time, but because they have less ability to adapt to radical change. It might also be recognised that the age demographics of a given nation-state can have a considerable influence on the political process, irrespective of whether it is democratic or autocratic in nature. However, having now taken a bit of a detour associated with some of the tangential issues now affecting free-speech, it might still be stated that most western democracies continue to support the general concept of free-speech. However, there now appears to be an aspect of neoliberalism that wants to highlight the issue of hate-speech, consistent with the earlier idea that the freedom of speech is subject to responsible use, not abuse, which some now claim requires the idea of ‘safe-places’ and ‘no-platforms’ in both public debate and all educational institutions to be accepted – see note below for more basic definitions.
Note: The goal of a safe-space is often defined in terms of a place where a person or group of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm, e.g. schools and universities. The policy by which a ‘safe-place’ might be created is often described by the process whereby any individual holding views regarded as unacceptable or offensive are prevented from contributing to public debates or meetings.
Of course, it might be argued that the problem with such ideas is not in the general definition, as it might relate to hate-speech, but the subjective definition of what constitutes ‘unacceptable or offensive’ speech. Clearly, in the case of China, it has its own definition of unacceptable speech, while Islam has another definition of offensive speech, which restricts the freedom of speech of others, even though an individual may only be seeking to speak the truth. In the context of safe-spaces and no-platforms within a democratic society, there is a growing risk that powerful institutions, biased towards the political left or right, might simply define ‘ unacceptable or offensive’ speech as anything that does not conform to their specific political ideology. As such, these concepts simply allow a form of censorship to develop, which may only be compounded by an increasing level of ‘fake-news’ in both mainstream and social media, which search-engines may then reinforce in terms of ‘confirmation bias’ .
Note: For the reasons outlined, it is argued that freedom of speech is generally a ‘good thing’ that should only be restricted on the grounds of hateful or abusive intent. The idea that we can hide or censorship any idea that certain groups of people, i.e. governments or religions, simply do not like for their own ideological self-interest will not be helpful to the development of any meaningful political discourse in the future.
Despite the argument for free-speech that accepts a responsibility toward ‘hate-speech’ or even ‘abusive-speech’, there is still an argument that certain cultures and societies need to be allowed to address this issue in their own way and in their own time. For there is an argument in Eric Li’s words that cannot simply be ignored, because the power of words, i.e. speech, are often the incitement for action.
One fallacy in the modern Western political ideology is the so-called freedom of speech. It makes a presumption that speech, unlike acts, is harmless and therefore can and must be allowed absolute freedom, the freedom for everyone to say what they want. But of course, nothing can be further from the truth grounded in thousands of years of human experience. Speech is act; and speech has been harmful to human society since time immemorial.
However, Eric Li’s argument about Nazism might be reversed, if we consider the idea that the suppression of free-speech in Nazi Germany, prior to WW-II, may have contributed to Hitler’s rise to power. Of course, while it has to be recognised that this issue extends beyond just free-speech, authoritarian dictatorships invariably require the removal of many types of ‘freedoms’ in order to maintain their rule. This argument might be characterised in terms of the following quote:
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
However, it is not clear that anybody is necessarily advocating ‘absolute’ freedom of speech without the caveat of responsibility. Equally, the argument that free-speech has to be suppressed, simply because some political or religious ideology might wish to define a truthful statement as ‘unacceptable or offensive’. Of course, in the wider scope of politics and the history of human development, we might realise that both political and religious power has never really been for the benefit of the majority, but rather some powerful minority. As such, we possibly should not expect too much to change, politically, in the near future.