The Virtues of Free Speech

| by Michael A. Sherlock |

Free speech must include the right to offend. Granted, there are limitations upon free speech which do serve valuable and necessary functions — such as the prohibition against incitement to violence, or the prohibition concerning the deliberate causing of a panic that would likely result in imminent injury, etc. — yet such limitations are not a valid basis for arguments that seek to increase restrictions on free speech. Put simply, the existence of common-sense limitations on free speech in no way testify to the alleged benefits of restricting speech that offends or hurts people’s feelings. Feelings should never be placed above fundamental human rights, particularly when the human right in question is the primary mechanism by which societies and cultures progress.

George Bernard Shaw penned upon the lips of one of his fictional characters, “All great truths begin as blasphemies”. The validity of this noble and enlightened sentiment has been documented throughout the ages, from Galileo’s offensive yet useful and correct advancement of the heliocentric solar system to the advent of the then offensive germ theory of disease, which challenged and offended the consensus of the day that frequently fatally held the supernatural realm responsible for germs and diseases. The central point here is that the benefits of offense far outweigh the burdens. Feelings subside and recover, yet a stagnant or even regressive social order is much more dangerous and difficult to cure. Cultures and societies that place the greatest restrictions on free speech tend to be least harmonious and the most ignorant, (Trump’s Neo-American revolution being a possible outlier) and I think there is an obvious reason for this phenomenon.

Free speech is the means by which the echo chambers of stale and recycled beliefs and opinions are, often reluctantly, shattered, which, as the Secular Enlightenment demonstrates, creates an environment conducive to the intellectual and moral advancement of our species. Where would the Women’s Rights and Civil Rights movements be without ‘offensive’ free speech? Where would human rights be without the blasphemous expressions of the Enlightenment? Where would science be today without the inalienable human right to express offensive ideas and hypotheses? These are just a few of the reasons why free speech is so crucial.

Free speech must include the right to offend, even if that freedom is disingenuously employed by hate mongers and misanthropes. Think about it this way, wouldn’t you rather be able to identify and challenge hate when and where it rears its ugly head, rather than have it fester, rankle and ferment beneath the surface of society in more subtle and insidious forms — forms which cannot be so easily identified and extinguished — forms which eventually bubble up and mutate into noxious and irrational expressions of insane human violence? Free speech doesn’t merely act as a necessary pressure valve — allowing ignorant, bigoted, hateful and stupid people a chance to vent and then be intellectually criticised, mocked and ridiculed for expressing stupid and/or hateful ideas — but it also acts as an open plain upon which harmful or hateful opinions are less able to hide and brew beneath the surface until they inevitably explode into violence, or victorious protest votes for a megalomaniacal, incompetent, angry and corrupt (orange) Muppet.

I think most people would agree that it is far better to hear hate expressed through speech than to witness hate expressed through violence. Some may counter, “well, speech can incite violence”, to which I would respond, yes, and as I mentioned above, we have incitement laws that afford us safeguards against such abuses. However, notwithstanding these common-sense restrictions, free speech is the bedrock of civil society, because if history has taught us anything, it is that when people are forbidden from expressing themselves verbally and intellectually, they commonly resort to the only available means of expression, violence.

Finally, if you believe that adults in western liberal democracies are not responsible enough to be given the freedom of speech, you will be forced to identify a suitable authority who is, in your own subjective and biased opinion, capable of governing the type(s) of speech you personally prefer. No doubt here you will come into conflict with the competing interests of people who do not share your personal values and beliefs, which will inevitably cause the kinds of conflicts absent within societies that value and protect this cornerstone human right.

In reality, however, speech-inhibiting regimes and societies generally measure offense against the dominant ideology, thereby suppressing dissent and quelling the progressive tides of change necessary for the regime or society to move forward with the times. Modern Islamic nations are great case studies for such stagnation and regression occasioned by speech-hindering policies and doctrines. In the words of Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

“Only through rigorous scrutiny can cultures progress, and only through free speech can rigorous scrutiny occur.”

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Michael A. Sherlock is an author, speaker, and humanist. He is the founder of Human Rights for Atheists, Agnostics & Secularists. You can connect with him on Twitter @SherlockMichael

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2 Comments

  1. Gingerbaker

    ” “All great truths begin as blasphemies”.”

    So, please tell us what great truth might arise from the nth retelling of the fiction of the Holocaust, especially if one was to hear it being broadcast in Germany?

    Most of the civilized world has been running an experiment in the regulation of free-speech over the past four decades or so, based upon the simple idea that not all ideas necessarily have merit to rational civilization and, indeed, some are downright dangerous and cause needless human suffering. Hate speech has been proscribed with varying definitions and successes throughout Europe for more than fifty years.And while there has been some overreach, in the main these have been corrected. What has NOT happened, however, is a slippery slide down the slope of totalitarian censorship.

    The idea that in a civilized society extremely ugly, hateful, dangerous ideas have value or need the freedom to be expressed has been disproven. The philosphical maximization of free speech is an ideal which doesn’t even exist – there are tons of things you can not say or do even in American society and that has been true for more than a hundred years.

    So, this really is an argument about how much free speech will be disallowed in civilized society, with all societies already disallowing quite a bit. Europe has been disallowing a few carefully-defined obnoxious ideas more than the U.S. has, and one could argue that their societies are better off for it.

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