The Fragility of Freedom of Speech

It is no doubt naïve of me, but I am shocked that so many people do not believe in the freedom of speech. Without freedom of speech we have no freedom of thought and without freedom of thought we do not have ourselves. There is nothing original in this simple point. It has been a foundation of English liberty for centuries.

Freedom of speech is either the freedom to say things that others find detestable or it is no freedom at all. And this freedom imposes an equally stringent duty. We are all obliged to tolerate the expression of what we find detestable.

153 years ago Mill diagnosed brilliantly the intemperate discussion that has recently been on florid display. “Unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them….The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men. To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed, because they are in general few and uninfluential, and nobody but themselves feels much interest in seeing justice done them”. Plainly this is exactly what we have just seen.

Where, then,  is the line of toleration?

 Mill drew it perfectly well when he said “An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer”. A more up-to-date example might be to contrast pro-life protesters giving a speech calling abortionists evil in the town square with giving the same speech in front of a specific abortion clinic. When you incite people to immediate violence or to violence against specific persons you have crossed the line.

The clarity of this freedom has been obscured by a number of false notions, false notions which have resulted in legal prohibitions on speech. We have busily been passing bad laws against much that we are obliged to tolerate, including causing offence, insulting or abusive words and jokes. This is frankly ridiculous and largely the fault of the left. This freedom is not up for legal determination. It does not matter what the law says you can or can’t say. If the law does not conform to the freedom then the law is wrong and that is the end of it.

Unfortunately when you have bad law on speech it corrupts our knowledge of the required tolerance. So let me spell it out for the issue of the day. You may not like the idea that the instant of birth doesn’t draw a morally significant boundary between a permissible and impermissible killing, but so what? What makes you so important that your dislike, your violent disagreement, your outrage means that no one should hear this opinion? Obviously, nothing at all. So you have a simple choice. You can either argue back or shut up. What you can’t do is try to shut me up.

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8 Responses to The Fragility of Freedom of Speech

  • Khalid Jan says:

    Dear Dr. Shackel,

    It was never easy for Socrates for being Socrates, and it will never be easy for anyone else who steps into his shoes. Your anger – "You can either argue back or shut up. What you can’t do is try to shut me up" – will simply empower the critic. Like the master – Socrates – himself, use words of wisdom and kindness when responding to your critics. People are ignorant, and ignorance can only be removed by way of the intellect of the "heart" and not of the "mind."

    Keep well,
    Khalid

  • Jeremy Bowman says:

    Spot on.

  • Frank Mason says:

    Dr Shackel, I suspect that your shock is not only naïve but also disingenuous.

    Honestly now, should someone develop the "after birth abortion" argument and conclude that as a new born can be killed without harming it in a morally significant way, it can also be sexually abused before being killed without any harm being done, would you defend their right to circulate that view through the press, or publish it in a peer reviewed journal?

    How about arguments justifying and promoting slavery, homophobia and the torture and sexual abuse of prisoners of war? Arguments justifying genocide? Are all to be defended in the name of freedom of speech?

    Do you honestly believe that there is no opinion or proposal too vile to be published, as long as it doesn't incite people to immediate violence?

    There is clearly a difficulty balancing the desire for maximum freedom of speech, and limiting the propagation of hatred and violence, but the idea that anything goes as long as its not delivered orally to an excited mob is surely not an adequate place to draw the line.

  • De Pietro says:

    That said, I wonder if we are missing the whole point in this matter.

    I mean, the anger displayed against Giubilini and Minerva is not due to their irrefutable arguments (they are flawed in some points). It is also not because both are against the conservative religious stance (it seems that the Church defends a similar point), nor because they are bad researchers (their cv's should be enough to disprove that), and definitely not because the JME made a bad choice (there are a number of offical statements explaining the opposite).

    In hindsight, I think everything happened because of the title, which can be easily misenderstood by people who do not have access to the full paper. Had it been "Reassessing the moral status of neonates", I am sure nothing would have happened.

    Sure, this does raise the question of whether the average citizen has the patience to go beyond the external appearance of an article. But it also let us not forget that, even in ethics, we must care for how the things we say affect the pathos of the audience.

  • Jeremy Bowman says:

    "would you defend their right to circulate that view through the press, or publish it in a peer reviewed journal?"

    Yes, I would. Same wih homophobia, slavery, all the rest.

    As Mill saw, an opinion is worthless unless it faces opposition, however ridiculous, so unless that opposition is actively opposed it is worthless. Long may Holocaust-deniers have a voice, so we may learn of and never forget the Holocaust.

    • Frank Mason says:

      I'm open to being convinced, but merely restating the fact that "Mill said so" doesn't do it.

      Perhaps my real concern is that a professional journal on medical ethics could publish an article like "After-birth Abortion" without comment or counter argument, and then when the fire-storm erupted, defend their decision to publish as poorly as they did in Prof. Savulescu's initial response. The subsequent defence "Why did the journal publish an article defending infanticide" did a far more professional job. Had this been published along with the original article, it might have relieved the suspicion that the bioethics profession actually needed a censor to regulate its behaviour.

  • Jeremy Bowman says:

    I think everyone is treating this as a much bigger deal than it really is. In philosophy and science, ideas must be "tested to destruction" by being taken to the extreme, and if "medical ethicist" nitwits haven't got the picture yet, they should grow up.

    Grow up, you nitwits.

  • Nicholas Shackel says:

    Mr Mason, you can find Mill's own arguments in chapter 2 of 'On Liberty', available here http://www.bartleby.com/130/2.html and a recent exposition on more recent philosophical work is available here http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freedom-speech/.

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