Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On the topic of free speech

On the topic of free speech, there's a distinction between allowing a person to voice an unpopular opinion, and then criticizing them for it, and respecting a person's dissenting voice, even as you disagree with it. The former case is not really freedom of speech at all. Even under a regime of censorship, opinions that are disallowed can still be voiced, short of some means that can directly and preemptively prevent people from saying certain types of things. People will be discouraged (strongly) from voicing such opinions, but they still maintain the freedom of choice to voice those opinions, provided they are prepared for the repercussions of doing so. This, however, is not freedom of speech.

It's akin to saying, "you can say anything you want, but you better prepare yourself for the consequences". Giving somebody the opportunity to speak, and then throwing them in jail or executing them (or what have you) for doing so, does not reflect a respect for freedom of speech. Discriminating against a person for their opinions in other, less extreme ways (like personal criticism, ostracization, severing of business ties, etc.), may not be as severe, but it is still a form of punishment for having dissenting views. Freedom of speech does not mean that everyone's views are "right" or should be adopted, but that their ability to speak up about those views ought to be respected (not just tolerated but respected); and where disagreement occurs, as it inevitably will (and should!), the focus should be on debating the topic, and not attacking the person whose opinion you disagree with. That shows a true respect for the principle - and the fundamental importance - of free speech.

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