Contemplation: The Importance and Limits of Free Speech

The vast number of protests across much of the Arab and Muslim world, starting last week, and continuing into this week, which resulted in the death of an American ambassador and several State Department employee in Libya has had me thinking a lot about the ideas of free speech and its vast importance to the ideals of functional democracy.  Reading a New York Times article this morning has gotten me thinking about it even more, so I thought I’d try to write down some of my thoughts here.

I think, personally, that the concept of “freedom of speech” is of the utmost importance and central concern to the existence of a functional democracy government.  Or put another way, I do not believe a true democracy can exist without the guarantee freedom of speech.  I think that right is the pillar upon which all true democracies must be built.

Now obviously a lot of this thought comes from the fact that I was born and raised (and continue to live) in a nation that highly celebrates the right of free speech and which has enshrined that right as the first constitutional bill or right item. But I also think that this opinion of mine comes from philosophical contemplation about the function and necessity of government and so I will attempt to clarify my perspectives on these further.

The reason why I think that freedom of speech is the cornerstone of functional democracy goes something like this.  For a democracy to work, all individuals within the system have a right to voice an opinion on who should be elected to run the overall government, this is called voting.  For a system to be a true democracy people need to have the right to vote for any eligible candidate.  These candidates need the right to come from any political or ideological background.  If somebody is restricted from partaking in candidacy or voting based on ideology or political belief, then the democratic system becomes compromised, and unfair advantages can be given to one belief system or outlook over another.  As such, freedom of speech allows a candidate to speak his or her own opinions of ideas without risk of punishment under the law.  In turn, the voters in the system and able to cast their ballots in favor of the representatives who must seem to represent their own beliefs and ideas.  At any point where freedom of speech is weakened there is a distinct risk that the democracy will fail to be a truly representative government, which defeats the purpose all together.

Now, in reality, it can probably be argued that there are no true or absolutely idea democracies or republics (which are a subset within democracies) in the world.  The reason is that ideal government forms are just that, they are “ideals” and in reality they do not often come to this state of the ideal philosophical governmental entity.  However, I think that there are a number of places where the ideal is more closely approached than others.  While I recognize my personal bias is saying this, I would argue that the United States version of representative democracy more closely approaches the ideal than say some third world countries representative democracies do. I think that this is in part because the USA did a lot to contribute to the existence of these types of governments in a time period where monarchy type governments where the vast majority in the world.  Having maintained the essence of representative democracy for near two and a half centuries, the united States has had plenty of time to work on and improve the system.  Is it perfect?  No, far from it.  Honestly I think that our democratic government could use a number of improvements.  But all around I think that it works relatively well.

One place that I think our country regularly works very well is in regards to the matter of freedom of speech.  As I mentioned above, this right to freedom of speech is nearly a sacred right to Americans is protected in our Constitution as the first item on the Bill of Right (along with freedom of assembly and freedom of religion, which are both, arguably, variation of the freedom of speech).  With this right I can write in the above paragraph that I do not think our government is perfect and enjoy the certainty that I cannot be punished under the law for such a statement.  Furthermore, I can express my religious position (in this case Soft Atheism), I can attend peaceful protest, and I can voice criticism of people, places, things, organization, laws etc. and still be comfortable that I am protected under the law.  About the only things I become really restricted in are matters of certain obscenities and acts of defamation.  

Now, within reason, the existence of obscenity laws and laws against defamation means that I do not enjoy “pure” freedom of speech.  Furthermore, just because a form of my expression may be protected under the law, does not mean that other people have to like it, and I can suffer consequences from my own speech or expression of belief (hopefully such consequences will remain within the law themselves, but that is not a guarantee).  as such, if somebody doesn’t like what I write and say here, he/she can choose to tell me so, or to decide not to associate with me.  They could write a counter argument.  I might not like any of this, but I have to respect it as that person’s freedom of speech in their own right.

And this becomes the real important part about freedom of speech, that it is not applied for just one person or group of people, but for all people.  If I am promised the right to free speech, then for it to work as a whole, all others within the system need to receive and be protected by that promise as equally as I am.  As such, this can allow a lot of heated exchange of conflicting ideas and beliefs that, while often drastically different, are all allowed as freedom of speech.

So let’s go back to the recent protests and bouts of violence throughout a number of Arabic or predominately Muslim nations (a number of which, like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, etc. partook in the Arab Spring uprisings that got rid of dictator governments and have resulted in the establishment of tentatively “democratic’ governments).  The anger leading to these mass protests and acts of violence is over an internet video that was made in the United States and is extremely critical and deeming of Islam as a whole and the Prophet Muhammad in particular.  This video and its portrayals have enraged thousands through these nations, and as such heavy protesting and some violence has occurred.

Now, considering freedom of speech, I have to come to two conclusions.  First, that while however distasteful and bigoted the video may be toward the religion of Islam, it is a protected form of freedom of speech under our law.  Furthermore, I respect the right, as a form of freedom of speech, to voice outrage over the video, just as much as I can say that it is obviously in my opinion a work of extreme prejudice and bigotry.  But I find a point of conflict, especially in reading the above New York Times’ article, and it makes me worried about the future of democracy in these protesting nations.

A quote from the article reads:

“We never insult any prophet — not Moses, not Jesus — so why can’t we demand that Muhammad be respected?”

However disrespectful and vile insulting a religious figure or practice may seem to many of us (myself included, for while I am a self-proclaimed atheist, I believe that a certain amount of respect towards religion is vital towards having open and meaningful dialog about the broader use and issues with religion as a whole) I have to believe that it is a right of free speech.  Just as I may think it is poor and insulting taste to burn an American Flag, I will stand behind it as a right of free expression.  So when, citizens of these protesting nations ask why they cannot demand that their prophet and religion be respected, my response has to be, “because in so doing you undermine the central right of freedom of speech, and threaten a foundation upon which your hope of a fair and representative democracy can be founded.”  By all means return your own free criticism.  Argue against it, explain why it is wrong, tell the person who created it that they are a real asshole, but do not think that that means a person cannot express his or her own ideas, however much you may dislike them.  Freedom of speech can guarantee a lot for people within a nation, but it does not guarantee that people will not on occasion be insulted or offended.  it my protect their response to perceived insult, but it does not mean that the insulter at hand must retract or apologize for what he or she has said.

I think that the best explanation of this kind of view-point comes from the author Philip Pullman in this video.  While the circumstances are somewhat different (he’s talking about a book, and its perceived insult to Christianity) I feel like you could swap out the circumstances and still come up with the same core argument about what freedom of speech means.

Unfortunately we live in a world where not everybody is always going to get along and see eye to eye.  We can ask and hope that most people engage respectfully with one another regardless of their difference or disagreements but unfortunately it will not always be the case.  In the matter of religious express especially, I think that the opportunities for adherents of one belief system to be insulted at some point or another is almost a certainty, because for every believer there will always be another person who does not believe the same.  I think, personally freedom of speech must always come above and before freedom of religion, for while freedom of religion is enshrined in that right to free speech, the free speech guarantees that the dissenters of a particular religious viewpoint will continue to have a right to their own ideas and beliefs, even when those may appear insulting, bigoted, and unintelligent.

My hope for the world, especially the parts of it currently struggling to develop functional democracies, is that sounder minds will prevail and urge people to think about the all-encompassing importance of true free speech and furthermore how to allow people to express such rights peacefully.  While our vast many differences at times can cause us problems and difficulties, I feel great confidence that a continued adherence to the value of free speech means that we can more meaningfully work towards peaceful and mutually beneficial solutions to the challenges the world throws at us.  That is all.

Happy Monday folks!

~ by Nathaniel on September 17, 2012.

2 Responses to “Contemplation: The Importance and Limits of Free Speech”

  1. As a little added aside to this, I hope that it is obvious to most people, that it is absurd to blame the action of one individual or small group of individuals, on the larger class of a whole group. Just as it is wrong to blame the attacks of Sept. 11th on all muslims so to is it wrong to blame the bigoted Muhammad video on all Americans. Part of freedom of speech is that any individual or group of individuals may say or express their own ideas. It is incredibly ignortant to then assume that those ideas and beliefs are shared by all others who may be caually associated with that individual through such broad connections such as nationality or top most relgious belief.

  2. […] Contemplation: The Importance and Limits of Free Speech ( […]

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