Thursday, March 3, 2016

Free Speech from a Broader Perspective

Being a minority is a fast-track method of seeing the limitations of "freedom" and "tolerance" in modern society. Everything looks peaches and cream when you agree with the popular moral fashions of the day. But I believe that words like "liberty" and "diversity" should amount to more than just lip service. We should strive toward creating a sociopolitical framework that is universal - not just adequate to the present day's populist concerns.

People argue that free speech shouldn't protect unpopular and insensitive opinions. But there was a time when the merits of slavery were taken for granted. That nobody questioned the fact that women couldn't vote. That expressing the love between two people of the same sex was considered a heinous crime. Opinions on each of these subjects has changed a lot over time. How is it anything but arrogant to believe that now - this time - we've gotten it all right? What might we be taking for granted today, that in the future will make us look back and cringe?

I believe we should follow a code of law that, if transplanted back into a previous age, would not criminalize an artist or an activist for rallying behind abolitionism, women's suffrage, or the freedom to love who one wants - just because it's not how things are done at that point in history. But here's the thing. Humans are fallible, and sometimes we're wrong. Sometimes the causes we rally behind are wrong, too. We can only really know - as a collective - which of those causes is just in hindsight.

That's why freedom of speech needs to remain blind. If you spout hatred as part of some religious doctrine - just to use an example - then you should be ostracized from the people who actually care about decency, sensitivity, and respect. You should be identified as the blithering idiot that you are. But I will still defend your right to have those beliefs and to express them, because there is something far worse than a world where people cannot express hatred, or other unpopular and sometimes offensive opinions. And that is a world in which people cannot express genuine emotion, and original ideas, because they have to check their thoughts against the national register of taboos before they are allowed to open their mouths and speak.

Yes, you should think before you speak - I am a walking embodiment of that principle. But if you feel strongly enough about expressing what it is you want to say, it shouldn't matter if it defies conventional wisdom. Otherwise, how boring would this world be? We should be resistant to censorship in its myriad forms, because the chilling effect is at least as effective at chilling progressive speech as it is at chilling regressive radicalism. The whole point of free speech is that you suffer the one, for the sake of the other. It's like innocent until proven guilty. If two men were on trial - one of them guilty, and the other innocent - and had to be given the same verdict (as a hypothetical - bear with me), I'd rather let the guilty man go free, than suffer the innocent to face a punishment he doesn't deserve.

Insensitivity and Free Speech

It grieves me that so much insensitivity in the world today, coupled with the censorship-happy "politically correct" mentality, is contributing to an erosion of public sentiment in defense of free speech. Honestly, in spite of what the founding document for the country I live in declares, I wonder if anyone else but me truly believes in the underlying virtue of the freedom of speech.

Free speech is not about immaturely defending your "right" to utter offensive remarks. It's about maturely defending the right of the person who's insulting you to speak their mind, even though it bothers you, because you understand that only in doing so, and thereby upholding the inviolable sanctity of the principle of free speech, are you, too, guaranteed the right to speak your mind whenever your conscience dictates.

And it won't always be immature, offensive remarks that you'll be spouting. Sometimes, it will be something truly original and revolutionary, that will change the way mankind thinks about life and the world - but in a way that a conservative, habitual-minded majority would bend over backwards to prevent you from broadcasting, given the authority. Dealing with a slew of offensive remarks from the less evolved members of our species is the price we have to pay for those sparks of progressive brilliance. And I gladly pay it. Would you?

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