Tuesday, 16 January 2007

What free speech is and is not

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 [1859], 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?

23 comments:

Richard W. Symonds said...

I picked up a wonderful little 'debating' book just before Christmas :

"THE ART OF ALWAYS BEING RIGHT - 38 Ways To Win When You Are Defeated" by Arthur Schopenhauer - introduced by A.C. Grayling.

I particularly like No. 8 - "Make your opponent angry".

To me, discussion and debate (however heated) is critical for Truth-seeking. None of us have the monopoly on Truth - thank God. We are fallible (not infallible) human beings, so we all have fallible thoughts and ideas to which we can all agree or disagree - or both.

With that said, I believe there are certain thoughts and ideas which are more 'true' than others...but it's an endless quest for us 'fallibles', and always will be.

That's why whenever I meet an arrogant 'know-it-all' who thinks he's always right, I know he's wrong - which makes it very difficult to live myelf sometimes :)

Jose said...

Seeking truth is what intelligent people do. As Richard implies seeking truth does not mean finding truth, as everything in this world both physically and spiritually is relative and your truth may not be my truth.

One of the examples I take which may make us better understand how this question of truth works are religions. I would not for the gold in the world offend any religious person who may be reading this, but on too many occasions people take faith for truth. Faith is faith and truth is truth. And that faith a person feels may be for her/him "the" truth, but of course it is not "the" truth for somebody of a different religion.

Toby Lewis said...

Good article, Anticant.

I'm surprised to see that Anticant's seemingly rabid atheism hasn't been provoked by your comment, jose.

Rationality dictates personal "truths" that you have no evidence for should not be used as a basis for knowledge. Yet good manners teach us to be tolerant of Kosher food, religious rituals and the next fad that attracts our fellow man. Perhap we also realise that we also have habits and beliefs that have no rational basis. Yet I hesitate to elevate any of these beliefs to truths.

This means that the attempt at social engineering which lies behind political correctness is very interesting. Somehow the word police (whoever they are?) have decided that purging language will change ideas. The protection of freedom of expression that we would wish for needs to be trimmed around the edges to protect the sensibilities of others. I find this distasteful partly because I'm extremely sceptical that the users and inventors of PC language have any moral high ground, just a fear of offending everyone, leading to debates of mind-numbing boredom and inconsistency.

As to the recoil from this which leads to the "anything goes" attitude. My instinct is to say if tolerance can become the norm then people will learn what are ephemeral pleasures and what is really valuable. Allowing pornography makes room for DH Lawrence or Nabokov and also concedes that such pleasures will always have a market even if we try to police. "Incitement to violence" is a difficult issue. I used of the mind a few months ago, swayed by good old Frank Fisher (where is he now?), that even this should be tolerated. The theory goes: say what you like, it is doing something which is the crime. Henry II was not guilty of conspiracy to the murder of Thomas A Becket. This now strikes me as naive but there is a certain charm to it still. Simply because incitement to violence seems difficult to assess legally. What is the line separating Abu Hamza's comments, from Rebekah Wade publishing the names of known paedophiles which is basically implying, here they are, go and get 'em? It seems the activity of funding a terrorist organisation abroad or breaching reporting restrictions should be how to tackle such people. Where does the line start with "incitement"?

anticant said...

Toby, I am not a "rabid atheist". I am not a "rabid" anything but I have a lifetime commitment to democracy, pluralism, tolerance [except for the intolerant] and free speech.

On the balance of rational probabilities, I do not believe that supernatural gods exist, or that theology and metaphysical philosophy are useful. Fascinating as such abstract speculation may be, it contributes little, if anything, to the quality of our actual daily lives. Scientific method, however, does.

I judge self-professedly religious people, or those who say they have 'faith' in a deity, by their actions - not by their words. Can you deny that the overwhelming responsibility for the world's troubles today lies with the religious? OK, you may say that if that were not their conscious motivation, they would still behave wickedly and antisocially. That may be true, but we have to deal with the situation as we find it.

You are perhaps too young to remember the origins of 'Political Correctness' in the 1970s. It was a strategy promoted by militant feminists, who regarded all men as the oppressors of women and attempted to dumb down debate by shaming their adversaries into silence. It became almost impossible to express honestly held views about differences between the sexes. The concept then morphed to racism, so that it is now not respectable to express opinions on that score if they are at variance with the official NuLab Nanny wisdom of mindless multiculturalism.

Although I have been at the forefront of the battle for gay rights since the 1960s, I never liked the attempt to shame opponents into silence instead of confronting and demolishing their arguments. But 'PC' now reigns in this sphere also. It strikes me as barmy and hypocritical to brand religious people - however cranky and mistaken - who sincerely believe that homosexuality is sinful because their scriptures tell them so as 'homophobes' who deserve a visit from the thought police.

There is no room for thought police in my Utopia.

Richard W. Symonds said...

I like your idea of the "Word Police", Toby, and methinks you are right about the dangers of making certain words a criminal offence.

The next step from that is the Orwellian "Thought Police" who make certain thoughts a criminal offence.

Toby Lewis said...

I meant the rabid atheism to be a bit cheeky but also in some ways a compliment.

The certainty that comes with faith held by people in power can be very dangerous. Bush, Blair, Bin Laden or the secular faiths of Stalin and Hitler. Those who are willing to go on violent crusades for their beliefs and worldview in general are to be feared. Yet it should also be conceded much thought that is beautiful and interesting has come from the religious.

Richard W. Symonds said...

I'm always a little amused by atheists...a belief that requires more faith than the religious...

...but that's coming from someone who thinks he's a spiritual being having a human experience, rather than a human being having a spiritual experience (hat-tip : Teilhard de Chardin)

Jose said...

Free speech includes everything from normal natural ways of living to religious or spiritual ones. I am not a religious person, I used to be but free thinking prevailed over those concepts that were instilled into me by an epoch in Spain where the Catholic principles were paramount in everything, and it prevailed for the simple reason that I came to consider my fellow women and men my equals. I cannot accept, although I respect them who wield religious principles they say emanated from a Divinity, that the human being can speak with God.

I cannot accept a religious authority for the same reasons.

But I have always had a doubt about the freedom of speech and that is where it begins and where it ends.

I concede that we can express our opinions in a free manner, but can we as well insist and be adamant when those opinions bump frontally with those expressed by others? Is there a limit to our "expressing" those views, or to their "expressing" their views?

On many occasions, more than are convenient, we have seen that mockery of a particular faith has provoked scandal, anger and fury raised to the nth power, even reaching beyond the limits that mark our personal safety. It has been thought that that mockery was intended to cause the uncontrollable reaction by those who felt themselves offended by it. Is this freedom of expression permissible?

In my opinion there ought to be limits to the freedom of expression that take into account the respect for our fellow humans.

I do not think abuse or misuse of any liberties should be tolerated.

anticant said...

TOBY: Concepts, beliefs, and works of art all originate in the human mind/body complex. Works of art inspired by concepts of a Deity, and beliefs about its nature, do not have to be true - whatever 'truth' is - in order to be sublime. You do not have to be a Roman Catholic to appreciate the glory of Chartres Cathedral, or a paid-up member of the Anglican Church in order to recognise that the King James Version of the Bible is one of the greatest ornaments of English literature. The truth of a belief, and the actions it inspires - whether good or bad - are completely separate issues.

RICHARD: You certainly have taken to heart "The Art of Always Being Right", haven't you? All this de haut en bas nonsense about atheism being "a belief that requires more faith than the religious" is piffle. Atheism [or, as I prefer to call it, scepticism] is the absence or suspension of belief pending fuller and further particulars. How often do I have to labour this obvious point?

I do not agree that you are "a spiritual being having a human experience". In my opinion, spirituality is an integral part of being human. There is no dualism involved.
Neither do I agree with making my opponent angry, even if you specially like to do so! In fact, you cannot, unless they collude with you - because anger is a personal choice. I can choose to be angry, or not to be angry. Usually I choose the former, because anger in my view blocks perception and understanding, rather than deepening them. On the rare occasions I am angry, I take care to be so thoroughly. I had an aunt who was one of the politest and gentlest people I have known, But when she was angry, because of some injustice, dishonesty,or insult, her anger was ice-cold calm, and she utterly wiped the floor with the other person. Such well controlled anger is useful. The hot, rancorous kind is not.

JOSE: One should always respect sincerity, but never nonsense. If people choose to feel "insulted" because you tell them, in a temperate fashion, that you consider their beliefs to be nonsense, that is their problem. You have every right to question their beliefs, but they have no right to use either verbal or physical violence against you for doing so. People who wish to be respected must be worthy of respect. This involves self-respect. No self-respecting person should wish to injure someone else simply for disagreeing with them. I don't believe in deliberately insulting people because of what they believe, but if I consider their beliefs to be not only hogwash,but dangerous to others, I should be at liberty to say so in a free society.

Richard W. Symonds said...

Atheism/Scepticism - "the absence or suspension of belief pending fuller and further particulars".

Piffle.

"I think therefore I am". Are you -or are you suspending belief "pending fuller and further particulars" ? :)

Richard W. Symonds said...

Anticant - "Left is never right. But Richard is" (The Art Of Always Being Right)

anticant said...

There is no dualism involved. You think BECAUSE you are. Read "Philosophy in the Flesh" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

anticant said...

Szwagier asks me to post the following comment:

I never had any difficulty distinguishing between 'signal' and 'noise' in 'anything goes' forums. Is a person's opinion less valid because it is prejudiced, hate-filled, and incites to violence? You might think so...

I think, rather, that we should also listen to them, whether or not we 'want' to, and whether or not their vile opinions are 'legal'. After all, a person who is ready
to fly a passenger jet into a tall building is, in my opinion, someone we should pay attention to, if only to protect ourselves better.

Plugging our ears, or banishing said troll to another place, does not make that person or their opinions disappear. It may make us feel more comfortable and/or secure, even civilised, but that, at root, is all. It's equivalent to sticking our fingers in our ears and repeating "I'm not listening! I'm not listening!"

Obviously, there's no point "debating" such people. Their minds are not going to be changed. Although.... is it any easier to change ours? Nevertheless, when you talk of 'productive conversations', two questions immediately arise - "productive how?" and "productive for whom?". Although, in my CiF days, I rarely participated in Jew-Arab threads, I usually glanced through them because I always learned something. I learned something about the individual posters, I learned something about their methods of argumentation, if and insofar as they had any, I learned the degree to which the debate was led by emotion alone, rather than emotion allied to reason. Last but not least (for a lover of language), I often learned new ways of expressing my dislike for another person.

It's true that I rarely learned much about the topic, but there's more than one way to skin a discussion.

One other point that springs immediately to mind is that you, anticant, and I share many of the same commenters (as opposed to readers). In the Burrow, and more particularly here, you have made a point of being civilised and disapproving of earthy language, and some members, myself included, have persisted in testing your tolerance. On my site, where there are no such bylaws, the same commenters have, until now, behaved impeccably. On my site, occasionally in my posts, I am the worst offender. Does that tell us anything interesting, I wonder?



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Jose said...

I regret, Anticant, that I cannot agree with you. Above liberties are rights which are fundamentally the main origins of liberties. I have a right to say what I like provided what I say does not damage the right to profess a religion my opponent has. I have been able to say to a Muslim what I think of their religion, but I have never dared to offend him by mocking Islam.

I am going to say that even fanaticism is a right but that a fanatic attacks me physically because I am not in agreement with him is one thing, another is that he does attack me because I have mocked his feelings.

I must say that in my opinion respectfulness is one of our obligations.

Not only do rights exist, duties also do.

tyger said...

Mill was misrepresented - as was Adam Smith, who believed passionately about social justice (indeed he saw Capitalism as a method of flattening wealth disparities). History can be skewed…

Toby Lewis said...

Jose - There is rather an interesting and outrageous Almodovar film, Entre Tinieblas, about some nuns who take drugs, shield prostitutes, write racy thrillers and own a lion. I'm sure the Catholic Church objected, but after the censorship of the Franco years they had to put up with it, finding their complaints only led to the popularity of the film. Compare this to the banning of Bunuel's films. Which is more desirable.

My guess is the moment any of the theocracies in the Middle East become truly democratic they will also need to put up with films disrespectful to Allah and his human representatives. I can only say this as only a good thing, the religious will in general come to terms with a bit of blasphemy. On the other hand rioting on the streets, destroying embassies and burning things is totally inappropriate behaviour against some cartoons or a lecture by a contrarian pope. They should protest but peacefully, because none of us want to tiptoe round the strange requirements and taboos of religions all the time, although we will in general be perfectly polite to those who are religious and would not go running naked through a church/mosque.

Jose said...

In olden times Almodovar would have burnt in a pyre set ablaze by the Inquisition. Those were times when there was no Protestantism, no new religions such as Church of England or Scotland, Evangelicals, Episcopalians, whatever, and mainly it has been possible because today's most Catholics are only Catholics in name but not in staunch belief. The separation between Church and State has helped to end that "unpleasant custom".

That separation would have been the same with Islam if colonial powers had permitted education West-style among them. Muslims are influenced by religion because their education has always had religion as its main component. I do not wish to discredit those colonial powers overmuch, but perhaps there even existed the power of bribery those times. And, of course, the power of arms.

It has been proved that, despite Christian churches' efforts to the contrary, separation between Church and State is perfectly feasible and viable.

anticant said...

SZWAGIER: No, a person's opinion is not "less valid because it is prejudiced, hate-filled, and incites to violence". It is most important to listen to, and so far as possible understand, such utterances. But they are far less interesting than reasoned argument. I have never said I wanted to plug my ears, or banish anyone. I have simply said that I don't think my sites are the best place for them to operate, because they do not WANT reasoned debate, and so I find their presence here a waste of time.

I too observed a lot of slanging matches of the "yah, boo, it was your lot started it first" playpen variety on CiF. There was a great deal of useful information to be gleaned from them - usually in the form of criticisms of their opponents. Amongst other things, I did a crash course in the tenets of Islam, and did not like what I learned.

You cannot exclude emotion from reasonable discussion. There is no such thing as 'emotionless' argument. This was one of the bones I picked over with that egregious phoney billstickers. Once again, you wrongly accuse me of 'disapproving' earthy language. I don't at all - I use it myself quite often. But I do disapprove of the misuse of sexual terms in an angry, aggressive, or abusive way, because I believe they should be employed only positively, in a love-making context. I agree with D.H. Lawrence, who said that pornography 'does dirt' on sex. If people want to be smutty, there are plenty of other sites where they can do that, and I won't condemn them or disapprove. But here and in the burrow, I am the host.

JOSE: I am not sure what we disagree about. The right to criticise a religion must surely include the right to mock it, if one thinks it is intellectual nonsense. Whatever people believe, their first duty is to take responsibility for managing their own feelings. If believers consider themselves so "insulted" that they threaten violence because someone has asserted that their religion is not peaceful, they deserve no respect from me - nor, I should have thought, from you. Respect is an admirable concept, but to be relevant it has to be mutual. I can have no respect for the rights of those who do not respect my rights. That way lies intolerance and fascism, and the politics of fear - which we in Britain are already experiencing in the government's craven attempts to dumb down criticism of Islam for fear of civil disturbance.

TYGER: Yes, indeed. Mill sets out his position very carefully and scrupulously in the essay on Liberty. He maintained - and I think you would agree - that truth [which he believed it possible to discern] is rarely wholly on one side of an argument, but partially resides in both. That is why he condemned suppression of any opinion.

TOBY: I agree with you in principle, and wish I could share your optimism that any of the theocracies in the Middle East will soon become democratic, in our sense of the term. Apart from Israel - which I suppose you could call a theocratic democracy - autocracy is inbuilt into these peoples' ways of thinking and behaving. Quite apart from Islamic doctrine, the ruling male elites have too much to lose by giving up any of their power over women, 'infidels' and foreigners. I had an Arab grandfather, and know only too well from being a longtime Middle East watcher that violent emotion, jumping up and down and screaming, and shooting guns into the air - and not always into the air - comes far more naturally to Arabs than peaceful demonstration. But to say so would doubtless be dubbed 'racist' by today's PC brigades.

Thank you all for making such stimulating discussion points.

Toby Lewis said...

Isn't it the case that shooting guns in to the air comes naturally to many citizens of tin-pot states around the world? To be honest if the UK allowed guns, some of the kids here would probably think it would be a good idea. Yet with education, an average Arab, a Colombian, or a huggable hoodie, will decide that peace and dialogue is almost always the best option.

anticant said...

But they don't GET education as you and I understand it - they get indoctrination from fanatical preachers.

Richard W. Symonds said...

Do we really get "education", Anticant. The older I get (but not as old as you of course!), the more I believe we also get "indoctrination"...It's that idea of Richard Moore..."Escaping the Matrix"...

anticant said...

Some of us - far too few, alas - are fortunate enough to spend some time in at least one educational institution where we do get an inkling of the difference between education and indoctrination. Of course, there is an element of indoctrination in all education, but it is our repsonsibility to discern the difference and to furnish our own minds wisely.

Richard W. Symonds said...

Indeed - and as Peter Ustinov once said "If I'm to be the prisoner of my own mind, I might as well make sure it's well-furnished"...