Thursday, 5 February 2015

Free speech

I see free speech bounced around the news not so long ago. Didn’t last long as a hot topic though did it? Important people and major sections of society, don’t believe in it, but did they ever? It's often ridicule they don't like.

Pope Francis has defended freedom of expression following last week's attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo - but also stressed its limits.

The pontiff said religions had to be treated with respect, so that people's faiths were not insulted or ridiculed


Free speech is an ideal, not something attainable, something we implement by passing enlightened laws. Enlightened laws eh? There’s a phrase to conjure with...

...ah well. Moving on.

We use free speech as a yardstick, a standard by which we finger those who try to suppress it either directly or with too many furtive caveats. It is one of the few issues where absolute freedom is the only possible ideal even though we know we can’t achieve it. Otherwise we lose too much to those who believe we should be prevented from saying what we think. As has already happened in the UK.

However, an important issue is that there is no such thing as genuinely free speech anyway. What we write and say is contingent on our past history, our habits and allegiances. We can’t escape into some imaginary fairyland of complete freedom.

These social restrictions are probably enough to regulate what we say and write with little or no interference from the state. We already use the web to distinguish sources we trust from those we don’t and in our ideal world that would be enough because information is power while dud information isn’t.

Yet this is politically too naive because powerful people, institutions and businesses with something to lose can’t afford to let go to that extent. They can’t afford free speech because their flaky reputations rest on it.

So suppose we add one caveat to the ideal. Suppose any damaging reference to a living person may be challenged within the same medium using the same number of words.

If I say “Nick Clegg is a shit”, he has the right to challenge that statement in this blog using five words. 

Nick Clegg is no shit. There I’ve done it. You decide.

However I’ve no idea how this might work or if it is sufficient because these issues tend to dissolve into a miasma of real and invented anecdotal arguments.

Yet somehow we have to retain our grasp on the free speech ideal and we’ll only achieve that via a certain robustness which currently seems to be lacking. Yes there is collateral damage to free speech, but I think it’s a price worth paying.

We could begin by scrapping the right to be offended.


Anonymous said...

Why Sir a fly may sting a horse, but at the day's end the fly is but an insect, while the horse remains a noble animal still. Worse, the fly may get zapped or receive a writ or even a molotov. Flies have to be a bit careful. With thanks to Dr Johnson.

A K Haart said...

Roger - Johnson was right of course, but perhaps we have more pantomime horses.