Musing on the idea of free speech, Ash Imani finds the natural equilibrium of public expression bloody hard…but worth it.
The freedom to speak one’s mind, and to express one’s views and opinions is fortunately still alive and well in our Western democratic societies.
Equally vibrant is our freedom to stand up to speech we find abhorrent and to convince others not to listen; to attempt to convince individuals and corporations not to promote or support speech we find dangerous and ensure it doesn’t survive in the marketplace of ideas. This balancing of freedoms, affording each of us a vested interest and equal say in where that balance finds its natural equilibrium, is an example of democracy in action at its finest.
When I heard about the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I was hesitant to interpret the events as an example of the decline of free speech. Murderers of all stripes engage in a unilateral restriction of freedom based on their own cognitive distortions and irrational justifications. The act of silencing someone by murdering them does not deserve to be placed in the elegant and organic balancing of freedoms engaged in by society. Such barbaric acts are not merely examples of suppressing speech. They are much more than that. They are very antithesis of freedom itself.
I recently engaged in a debate on Facebook with an old friend about the role of Islamic ideology in the Charlie Hebdo massacre. We are both atheists and former religionists, so we each hold strong views. We are also both opinionated arseholes, so we tend not to bar any holds when it comes to our disagreements. Neither of us is easily offended and we encourage a certain amount of ad hominem attack against each other, on the condition that there’s at least an attempt at wit and an effort to make us laugh.
We didn’t censor ourselves, but we didn’t go out of our way to offend or upset anyone in particular. The only individuals we attacked were each other, often sharply, but always facetiously. We exchanged ideas and attempted to discredit the other’s ideas with rational and reasoned argument.
As old friends who rarely agree and like to argue are wont to do, we misunderstand each other often. A Facebook thread is not the most conducive forum for deep and meaningful debate. Arguments tend to get confused in the falsely constructed, fun and friendly, public atmosphere of Facebook. (OK, I also tend to ramble on a bit).
My friend was squarely in the camp of ideology and the adoption of bad ideas being the root cause of extremist violence. Although I expressed the unpopular opinion that belief in religion of any sort was a form of cognitive distortion and that even the mildest form of religious belief can be destructive in the right context, I attempted to convince him that the more likely explanation for such murderous barbarism was a more complex interplay of mental illness, superstitious belief and cognitive distortion. He called me a hyper-liberal Islamic apologist. I wasn’t offended.
At some point Facebook decided to shut down our debate. As irritating as being constantly notified of more comments surely must have been (it was up to about 50 toward the end), and no doubt expending the energy required to stop these notifications may have been an unreasonable expectation for some, it’s more than likely someone was offended by something one of us said on the thread and reported it to Facebook. Although neither of our positions could be considered uncontroversial or easily palatable by any means, I’m still trying to understand what was so outrageous as to warrant Facebook censoring our exchange so completely.
For a while there I was convinced that reports of the rapid deterioration of free speech had been wildly exaggerated. I still don’t agree with my Facebook nemesis about the causes of religiously motivated violence, but I’m starting to be convinced that his concerns about the decline of free speech are much more than just a mild case of uninformed paranoia.
When you have noble philosophical ideals on the one hand and empirical evidence of real harm on the other, a space opens up for honest, considered and well-informed public discussion about where the balancing of freedoms should find its state of equilibrium.
Our freedoms do not always compliment each other or fit together neatly like a jigsaw puzzle. The process requires genuine engagement, resisting the temptation toward reductionism and an ability to empathise with diverse perspectives and multiple truths.
If the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, we all have to give it the opportunity to flex its muscles often, even if it does have a habit of poking us in the eye occasionally.
Democracy is bloody hard work but it’s worth it.