“‘Men,’ said the Devil, ‘are good to their brothers: they don’t want to mend their own ways, but each other’s'” ~ Piet Hein
Freedom of Speech is an inherent extension of Free Will and Freedom of Thought, born of (call it God, biology, both – I care not) an influence, greater than Religion, Government or Society – despite an often relentless effort. It isn’t a Right to be given by some human benevolence; it can only be diminished, lost and taken away, by either our own sloth or by oppression. Free speech is just that. It is only limited by imaginative thresholds. The OED cites it as “the right to express any opinions without censorship or restraint”. What follows an act of free speech, however, are its reception and repercussions, either as tolerance or agreement or by punishment under Law (as with hate speech) or by Society’s or peer group condemnation. So, the right to speak freely is obviously not cost-free. Responsibility is tightly interwoven.
The right and responsibility belongs with the speaker/writer, who must choose whether or not to risk the possible consequences of controversy, retribution or lawful punishment. This does not mean you have no right to react; to be offended – though neither is compulsory. If you take offence it is up to you how you respond and the consequences of your response, justified or not, are your responsibility. There is actually nothing to prevent a person falsely claiming ‘”fire!” in a crowded theatre’ except for the awareness of possible legal reach, AFTER the fact and, obviously, having the common sense and some sense of responsibility we hope is felt toward one’s fellow citizens – whether the oft-used fire! analogy is an act of terrorism, public order or incitement, I haven’t yet discovered. I’ve always felt a bit uneasy about incitement, though. I understand the reasons why we have laws to prohibit it, like keeping public order, concerns about brainwashing, etc and I’m not suggesting repeal. It’s just that the line between the responsibility of the ‘inciter’ and the responsibility of the audience seems obtuse. Doesn’t the adult listener/reader/viewer also bear some responsibility for how s/he receives and responds to information? What does it say about Society and Education if s/he does not..? What happened to ‘and if (…) told you to jump off a cliff, would you do that, too..?’
So, the responsibility of choice – perhaps that is what’s really ‘free’ about free speech.
If I don’t entirely have free speech then it may be for benign reasons: because it has been restricted by, for example, a professional code to which it would be presumed that I’d adhered voluntarily; or for malevolent reasons: from because my expression is being deliberately edited or erased, to having my means of communication actually physically curbed, to imposition by some external force, such as a real fear of brutal, sanctioned punishment.
If I actively choose not to say something then I am self-censoring – I am choosing to exercise restraint. I have the right to withhold my thoughts. This might be because I need/want to be diplomatic; because I am afraid of an angry consequence or of hurting someone’s feelings; because it could be seriously detrimental to my prospects. Societal fashions, the diktats of ‘Authority’, Media and political framing and the responses of my peers might contribute to, even shape my thoughts, values and conscience but, how I perceive such influences and pressures and how I act, according to or against their direction, says as much about the character of my environment as it does about my own character.
When facts become whoever shouts loudest and longest and people cease to think independently and critically; when the world is suffering due to decades of atrocious foreign policies; when State and Society become heavy with the moralising, paranoid and hysterical burdens of invented authority, perceptions about what freedom is, occupy a dangerous, fragile and shifting space, subject to manufactured fashions, propaganda, segregation, disaffection, old sensibilities and populist reactions. Once one becomes affected or infected by this, personality, spirit and free will are increasingly encroached upon and suffocated. Then it’s getting to put up or shut up, fight or flight time. However, when such ‘authority’, whether democratically elected or self-awarded, has to suppress and micro-manage its environment and scrutinise and herd the lives of its fellow citizens, it is already a lost cause whose eventual end is inevitable.
Whilst I worry about and can understand the upset and danger in cheap, nasty, gratuitous provocations, I would be very worried, indeed, if we legislated to punish expression based on someone’s taste or manners. I think there’s a fine line, sometimes, between looking to ridicule, wound or make vulnerable to serve a wilful ignorance or ideology and finding something genuinely significant as to be worthy of comment. It’s a pretty subjective line. I accept that it’s for me to draw a line where I am. I can’t draw yours for you. Nor you, mine. I can only control whether or not I like where you draw yours. And you, mine. Independent thinking, conscience, having boundaries (and trying to respect others’), applying discernment… We all have lessons to learn and motives to check…
“Forgiveness recognises what you thought your brother did to you has not occurred” ~ A Course in Miracles