Free Speech

Voltaire is often credited with saying, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” and, although he probably didn’t say it, it was said and meant to sum up his attitude to free speech.

This excellent blog site has been discussing a particular issue regarding homophobia and I have commented, but it was a long day for me yesterday (and a long night too, but that’s my business) and I found it very difficult to clearly explain my attitude to this. Not only was my thinking muddled, but what I wrote was so full of typos it was a bit embarrassing. However, I thought I’d try to put down here what I really think, in a post … and that doesn’t seem to be much easier for me either.

I suppose that the real difficulty arises because one person’s freedom, particularly when applied to free speech tends almost inevitably to impinge on another’s freedom in that or some other area. If, for instance, I detested gays and everything for which they stand (which I hasten to say is not  my view – live and let live is my motto), then I think I should have the right to say so, but those that do just that, publicly, may well incite hatred and even violence against that target group and that can’t, in my view, be right either.

Where is the dividing line? How can those two opposing freedoms be equated? How can the right to free speech be protected whilst maintaining the right to live your private life as you wish providing that it harms no one else? To me, both freedoms are sacrosanct and yet the right to speak out could curtail the right of the homosexual to be him/her self and follow his/her own sexual preferences (homosexuality strictly speaking, I understand, refers to “same sex” without specifying which sex). Equally, looked at in a particular way, the right of the gay to be homosexual does seriously affect the bigot’s right to be bigoted, since it often appears to offend and frighten him/her.

You can, of course, say that the bigot is bad and therefore doesn’t deserve the same consideration, but then, aren’t many of the things we see as bad in our society coloured by our upbringing? Not that I’m arguing in the least in favour of it, but what would be seen as paedophilia in much of the West would (certainly where consent is present, however much coercion is involved) be seen as acceptable in societies where the marriage of girls as young as twelve is acceptable. Or, conversely, what can some sixteen or even eighteen year olds really know about pleasurable, joyful sex? Yet again, how will they learn and decide for themselves, if they don’t experience it? The same principles can be applied to many of the phobias and “isms” that seem to infect and affect any attempt to take my “live and let live” attitude.

I suppose Voltaire’s, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is probably the only true way to look at it and I do agree utterly. Education that instils a sense of decency and freedom is, naturally part of the answer. But, however hard I try to be fair, my gut still retches at the bile and spite that some people seem to spew out with monotonous regularity and total impunity – all in the name of free speech.

4 Responses to “Free Speech”

  1. Hi, thanks for your kind words! 🙂

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with J.S. Mill’s “On Liberty”, but he took a slightly different view regarding free speech. He did not see the prospect of allowing an abbhorent view to be voiced as a necessary evil of free speech. Instead, he saw utility in the expression of all forms opinion, even the bad ones. He wrote:

    “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

    So even the voicing of a “wrong” or “bad” opinion is still useful because by refuting it we are a step closer to the truth.

    Of course it requires a great deal of idealism on our part to assume that the rational, logical, “correct” opinions would always win over the bigoted ones in the marketplace of ideas. But I guess it still beats giving the state or some other authority the power to impose certain views or restrict the voicing of opinions.

    • Yes, I believe I have read that some time ago and I agree with it. In fact, although the words and indeed the reasons given are a little different, the meaning is to my mind almost the equivalent of the “Voltaire quote”.

      I also agree 100% (more if that were possible) with you that the State should have no part in censorship and, in fact, I do think that censorship is at least as great an evil as the possible bad things it supposedly tries to protect us from.

      As I touched on briefly in what I said in the post, good education that encourages our young people to grow up thinking for themselves and coming to their own conclusions and particularly to try to recognise bias (even in themselves) and try to minimise it is undoubtedly the way forward. Education (but UNBIASED education) is so important – and that is why your post is so important too!

      The real difficulty is that, as society, the media and almost everything else is currently organised, it is all too often the empty-headed bigoted ones who make the most noise and are therefore more likely to be able to get their unpleasant attitudes accepted.

      Still, maybe it will be different one day. The blogosphere does do quite a lot to redress the balance at times. We live in hope, eh?

      By the way, my queries were largely academic and far from clearly put, so it might not have been obvious that I did greatly admire your well thought out post 🙂

  2. nettrobbens Says:

    Very insightful blog and yes, we do live in hope. Thanks for sharing.


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