The legitimate opportunity to express opinions or points of view, however unpopular or unfashionable these are, underpins all other human rights and is a bedrock of civilised society as we understand it in the West. Any legal or social curtailment of this basic right means that the society concerned is less free than it could be and perhaps should be. It is through free speech that we can win or defend all our other liberties and establish, if not truth, at any rate the balance of probabilities in any situation.
J. S. Mill, in his classic essay On Liberty , maintained that “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” This is an idealistic principle which, if philosophically sound, is remote from the practicalities of real life. Yet Mill’s essay – more often quoted than read nowadays – is far more subtle in its analysis of the benefits of freedom than his many critics have given him credit for. He maintained – rightly, I think – that without social liberty and free speech, human beings are serfs. He also pointed out that the whole truth rarely resides solely in one of two or more conflicting opinions.
Even in an ostensibly liberal and democratic society such as ours, the unrestrained expression of opinion is widely frowned upon. In the 1970s and ‘80s most of the legal and media battles around free speech concerned what many regarded as unacceptable pornography, which they claimed a right not to be offended by. This concept of protection from offence has provided a good deal of the fuel for more recent and contemporary battles around free speech, with various religious groups claiming that they are offended by derogatory criticisms or attacks upon their faith. Laws against incitement to racial hatred, designed to reduce social tensions, are held up as the model for further restrictions on free speech where religion is concerned. ‘Political Correctness’ – the reprobation and in some cases prohibition of opinions which go against the mainstream consensus – is a fashionable concept with a big head of steam behind it.
Whether or not Voltaire actually said “I detest what you say and will fight to the death for your right to say it”, the miasmic spread of intolerant and hate-filled attitudes places the would-be liberal committed to the defence of free speech in a dilemma. How far should we tolerate the intolerable? With so much rabid intolerance around, there seems to be less and less worth defending in the name of free speech. But defending the right to express a particular opinion is not the same as vindicating that opinion. It is, rather, defending everyone’s right to hold and voice any opinions at all. Obviously, opinions which incite violence against individuals or groups are beyond the pale of toleration.
Freedom of opinion is not the same as its indiscriminate expression in all circumstances. The notion that “anything goes” not just in opinions but in manners – or lack of them – in my view spells death for worthwhile debate. On the Internet, just as much as anywhere else, there needs to be a mutually acceptable code of discourse for any constructive discussion to take place. Otherwise, a linguistic Tower of Babel breaks loose, with everyone talking at once, whether to the point of not, and nobody listening to, or really interested in, what anyone else is saying. The late Harold Blackham, a leading campaigner for Humanism, once said that “standards of controversy are the joint responsibility of the parties engaged. They are an important part of public morals. Mutual abuse and misrepresentation are forms of violence and cunning which help to destroy the mutual respect and trust required for co-existence and co-operation in society.” I agree with him, which is why I have asked for the observance of minimum guidelines for discussion on this site. Without them, our exchanges will be pointless and boring.
Productive conversations involve listening as well as speaking. Many – perhaps most – people are poor listeners and manage not to hear much of what is being said to them, being too busy formulating their next statement while their adversary is still talking. I had a Quaker friend, Dr Rachel Pinney, who, because she realised that this was her habit, devised a method of “Creative Listening” which she advocated and practised all over the world – including in Moscow during the Cold War. The Pinney programme was beautifully simple, but extremely hard to carry out if you were not used to it. What she did was to seek out someone with a view opposed to hers – in those days it was usually for and against nuclear weapons – and ask them to explain their point of view to her as fully and accurately as they could, while she promised not to answer back, and not to interrupt them unless she needed to do so in order to clarify something she hadn’t understood. “In this way”, she claimed, “the listener really hears and understands the speaker, and the speaker is confident of being really listened to by his opponent. This enables both people to change slightly and get a little nearer to understanding each other”.
In other words, useful debate is about fostering understanding – not ‘winning’. That is my belief, too. What do you think?