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Is absolute freedom of speech a realistic aim? 31 July 2006

Posted by TwentyTwoYards in Hypocrisy, World gone mad... or is it just me?.

Continuing the theme of ‘freedom of expression’ I started a few weeks/months/decades ago here , and the theme of copying my comments on other blogs and pretending these are real posts I started here, I post today with some disparate thoughts on the myth around ‘free speech’. This is a myth in two ways:

(a) everyone assumes free speech and freedom of action are inherently good, and represent worthy ideals to pursue in their own right – that’s clearly not the case, and in fact to believe that absolute freedom is a ‘good’ in its own right is an absurdity – it’s merely a means to an end, the end being a stable, just and fair society; and

(b) it is widely believed that the Western nations practice free speech in its absolute sense and the rest should aspire to, and in fact we are lectured and hectored on how we don’t have enough of this freedom.

As I hinted at a few weeks ago in here, the trend in most Western societies is towards fewer freedoms for the individual, and more restrictions on what he may eat and drink and inhale, where he may go, what work he may do, what he may say and even in some cases, what he may think (the most notorious example of the latter being the odious hate crimes legislation in the UK, where any crime becomes much worse not due to its consequences, but merely due to what the perpetrator may have been thinking; so if the Judge decrees the perpetrator had a certain motive / thinking behind the crime, eg a racial motive, the sentence may end up twice as long!).

So these restrictions on the individual, whether in the name of health and safety, or personal welfare, or societal wellbeing, are getting to be ever-present and even all-pervasive in these allegedly free societies – people are no longer free even in the comfort of their own homes, with the blinds drawn and the doors locked…

Despite this, some Muslims, especially those living in the lands of the East, seem enamoured with the chimera of the Western freedoms. Some argue that, for instance, banning books such as the truly vile Rushdie diarrhoea, or the disgusting insults published as “cartoons”, we should merely ignore them. Those who advocate for absolute freedom also sometimes argue that banning anything merely forces it underground, and adds to its allure. Makes sense, no?

No. This is a misleading hypothesis. The argument that “banning something only adds to its allure” can be used by everyone from those arguing for the legalisation of child-porn to those who say that Class A drugs (heroine, cocaine, etc) should be licenced, taxed and dispensed over the counter… at your local supermarket.

On the face of it, this “argument” appears to have some merit: Does banning drugs create a worldwide drugs cartel, making it perhaps the second most lucrative criminal business (after Halliburton, of course ;-)) Yes. Does banning child porn in the end victimise poor, defenseless children in truly horrible and vile ways? Perhaps. Should we legalise both? Never. Why? Because some things are so vile or disturbing that one has to stop them, using the full force of the law if needed.

Merely ignoring such evil is not the sensible nor the decent response. In fact, we are down a slippery slope indeed if we abdicate all our responsibilities to speak up against evil, in the misuigded belief that arguing against it merely gives it the valuable oxygen of publicity. Perhaps it does, but staying silent is worse… as Edmund Burke may, or may not, have said: ” All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing…

Hence, ignoring Rushdie, or Jyllands-Posten was, in my humble submission, not an option, just as ignoring PNAC or the neo-cons would be a dereliction of duty for all serious journalists and bloggers. Of course, I am not condoning violent behaviour of any kind or even unnecessary threats of violence – private individuals have no right to take the law in their own hands. But I am all in favour of condemnation, and other peaceful and polite protest or lobbying – especially when, for instance in the case of Jyllands-Posten, the horrific and oppressive cartoons were part of a much broader narrative of diminishing Muslim rights in Denmark.

In our lighter moments, we may be enticed by the seemingly attractive argument that everyone should have a right to their speech and their views – indeed they should, but then this right is never absolute, is it? Those whose views involve fetishing young children, or propagating murderous fantasies involving defenceless women, find that most countries actually criminalise these very views and statements. Similarly, try praising, or questioning, the official version of the Shoah in most European/Western countries, and one may get a nasty shock. For that matter, the recent avalanche of “anti-terror” legislation in many countries creates and criminalises a whole range of ‘thought-crimes’.

As such, free speech, or even freedom of thought, seems to be far from universal even in the West – those societies have their own sensibilities, their own taboos and their own values, some of which may not make any sense to us Easterners. Given that, I fail to see what’s so wrong about our societies having our own sensibilities and values?



1. thabet - 14 August 2006

assalamu alaykum

…everyone assumes free speech and freedom of action are inherently good
Who’s “everyone”? Even Western philosophers have disagreed on what ‘freedom’ meant. Hegel thought to be ‘free’ in the truest meant to be ‘free’ from instincts and social conditioning and not merely to act on impulse and base desires.

What I’ve found is ‘freedom’ really means different things in different parts of the world, and perhaps there are a few ‘freedoms’ which are universal.

but then this right is never absolute, is it?
In the cartoon affair, like in the Rushdie Affair, the question was not really over “the right to free speech”. This is how some characterised the debate but they had their own social/political agendas; afterall, not a single champion of free speech during the affair would have admitted that racist or sexist insults are acceptable. The question was over what is and is not open to “free speech”. To one critic I gave an example: whereas Pakistani newspapers were not likely to print those Danish cartoons, they were likely to be far more critical of government and state than, say, American newspapers who would publish those cartoons (the critic merely confirmed my views when he said matters of “national security” were no open to criticism!).

As for the “banning something only adds to its allure” argument, I think this largely applies to art, and specifically literature. In Western societies literature has assumed the status of almost being like “revelation” (a claim made by the anthropologst Asad); to question it is to attack a ‘sacred’ principle. The empirical evidence is there; no one outside of Denmark had really heard of Jyllands-Posten before the whole affair, and I know more people in Pakistan who have read Rushdie’s book than I do in the United Kingdom. None of this, of course, means petioning, lobbying and protesting cannot be done (to me the most effective means of protest in a liberal democracy is mass civil, non-violent, disobedience).


2. Kristiane Hussen E. Maratas - 7 August 2007

I believe that the Freedom is absolute in any form it may take. Freedom is a thing to do good – nothing else but righteous. When you say that you are free to kill it is not freedom, it is evil. Evil violates freedom and it controls each individual’s liberty. Politics is considered as a thing of evil. If only men do not tend to do evilness the world woulds live peacefully. We are the son of one GOD though we praise HIM in many ways. It is our right to speak because God has given us mouth to sound. Freedom is always right; when you say “I am free to steal!” that is not freedom… you are violating freedom because freedom is the thing for good to do good and nothing else but good.

3. OmegaWolf747 - 2 November 2007

Absolute freedom is doable as long as that absolute freedom doesn’t assault another’s absolute freedom. For example, I have the right to play my stereo as loud as I want to in the privacy of my own room. But if the neighbors were to ask me to turn it down after 9 PM, this would be reasonable. I do not have the right to force them to hear my music when they want to get a good night’s sleep. It’s my responsibility to turn it down.

On the other hand though, I have the right to wear a t-shirt with a swear word on it because that is my self-expression. If someone is offended by it, they do NOT have the right to tell me to take it off. The ONLY right they have is to ignore it. I am not forcing them to look at it, so they can say nothing.

4. Kristiane Hussen E. Maratas - 23 August 2008

let me say that we are all an individual with different point of views. can you accept that you are alone and trapped inside a body that has limitations. our minds are absolutely free to imagine all the possibilities it can be but our body cannot respond to all of its desire. we speak through our mouth and work with hands and feet but can it make all the possibilities of which our minds desired. we are free to speak for changes but can we absolute work for it?

5. forex bot review - 29 March 2012

forex bot review…

[…]Is absolute freedom of speech a realistic aim? « Moderate Enlightenment[…]…

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