Thursday, 8 December 2011

Liberty and free speech

Most of us if pressed would be able to give our own definition of liberty. It might take a while because it’s a complex idea fraught with dilemma, but most of us could make a good go of it even if we take a peek at John Stuart Mill first. The definition of liberty I use is a little different to Mill’s, but I like it even though to some it may be over-simplified –

Liberty is free speech.

We say and write things almost exclusively for the purpose of influencing people – sometimes other people sometimes ourselves – influencing ourselves via that covert form of speech we call thinking. Apart from trivial cases of speaking to animals or inanimate objects, the purpose of language is to influence people. Even your humble blogger writes to influence – if only in my dreams!

This extremely intimate behavioural link between saying and doing is why suppression of free speech in a universal feature of repressive regimes. It isn’t an accident. Free speech is liberty because without it we can’t disagree and explain why.

From the creeping authoritarian trends we see in the UK to the extreme example of North Korea, free speech is necessary for political freedom. In the UK, suppression of free speech has tended to come under the label political correctness, although we really ought to describe it more bluntly and accurately as repression. But of course that’s a universal feature of repression – the use of political euphemisms.

  • Laws on verbal behaviour relating to race.
  • Laws on verbal behaviour relating to religion.
  • Laws on verbal behaviour relating to sexual orientation. 

These are all examples of repressive legislation. Laws defining what we can’t say are attacks on liberty whatever the justification. They are intended to suppress certain forms of verbal behaviour beyond the laws of libel.

Free speech, whether written or verbal, also has complex, shifting dimensions – you can have more of it or you can have less, you can have it in one area of your life and not in another. You can say things to one friend but not to another, you can say things at home but not at work.

At work you can say things to one manager but not to another, to one colleague but not to another and possibly nothing but platitudes to a CEO. You can say things in the pub that you can’t repeat to NHS hospital staff and you can say things to your children that you can’t say to their teacher. The point being that if you can’t speak openly then there is always some degree of forced assent.

We can’t easily pursue protests or criticisms without recourse to verbal behaviour, although the political cartoon has its place. We might thump somebody or stamp off in a rage, but with good reason we call that body language and body language can be punished just as severely as spoken language because it amounts to the same thing - as we see all the time in football matches.

A notorious symbol of dictatorships is that loud knock on the door at 2am. Yet these things arise and are perpetuated because free speech and therefore dissent have been suppressed in the past. If free speech gains ground, then support for even the most vicious dictator becomes less certain. Networks of dissent grow and spread. Powerful regime supporters listen to the groundswell of dissent, looking to their own future while casting a furtive, sideways glance at other members of the regime. They may try a bit of free speech themselves, oblique at first but more open and specific as confidence grows. At this point, any dictator is doomed.

What are the requirements of free speech? Well most they are pretty well-known aren’t they?
  • Free speech in public places.
  • Free speech with public officials.
  • Access to public debates.
  • Free speech in the media.
  • Transparency.
  • Overt propaganda.
How about free speech at work? Not necessarily – not if we’re talking of private property, commercially sensitive information, workplace morale and so forth. After all, you don’t have to work there. The public sector is mostly different though, apart from not broadcasting such things as personal information of course. That’s another characteristic of repressive regimes, a casual disregard of personal information – something we see more and more of in the UK.

What about overt propaganda? How can that be right if we want more free speech? Why tolerate propaganda at all? Maybe because propaganda is inevitable if we are to retain advocacy, because advocacy is essential to free speech. So propaganda needs to become overt advocacy rather than covert manipulation.

Public relations and all other forms of covert propaganda distort the debate by perverting the free circulation of ideas. PR is our absurdly genteel label for covert propaganda. The term public relations is itself a product of public relations.

One way to tackle the covert PR issue is via transparency with the aim of turning covert propaganda to overt advocacy. The media could be required to publish sources for every story or clearly state why the source is withheld. Material passed to them by vested interests should be clearly identified as such. Why? Because transparent advocacy is a key aspect of free speech – one of the practical issues we have to pay attention to. It’s far more important than health warnings on cigarette packs and should be pursued with far greater rigor.

Maybe the BBC could take a lead here? Don't bet your liberty on it though.

No comments: