The erosion of free speech….
‘Best to keep quiet mum, it’s not worth the agro’ says Cost centre 2 explaining to me that debate on some sensitive topics at school in formal or social settings can be a fallacy. This is the setting my children are growing up in and he is not alone. Such an attitude seems widely spread across many environments; simmering my fear for our children as they grow into mature beings that the erosion of free thought and speech in what is perceived as a free society is real.
Of course I’m being slightly ridiculous because I have typical parental worries for my offspring around the paucity of skills needed to find and keep gainful employment, the inability to pay their way, falling prey to a debilitating illness or accident, a lack of imagination in how they chose to live. But my privileged assumption is that some how this is overcome and my children can learn and earn enough to ensure there is no grind to everyday life. So now that is cleared up, let me return to my worry for the fortunate.
I am extremely lucky that for most of my life I have lived in an environment encouraged to think and learn. From the support of my parents to the educational establishments I have attended to the extra curricular activities I have partaken in to the work that has stimulated me and the friends I have thrived on. Open discourse, challenges and rebuttals a normal course of life. Of course there have been limits to this. You come to understand that hate speech, incitement to violence or hurt are not socially correct. But that does not mean I haven’t had opportunity to converse on these topics and more. Ask controversial questions; voice opinions; push the boundaries of my comprehension in order to lay out for myself why such restraints, situations or imbalances exist around us. Such liberty has benefitted me and my environs. I’m a finer more interesting person, open to ideas and change. Wanting and trying to help my locality and improve the narrative for the better with the strength of my evolved convictions. However I see evidence that the noose of control and condemnation by various unelected unrepresentative bodies and factions is tightening. So I am ever more careful about who and how I parley with as no matter how innocent the observation, the ability to cause offence and suffer negative ramifications seems more prevalent than ever.
‘Supporting free speech is worth little if you only defend the stuff you like’.
John Stuart Mill
But you might say, Curious Rascal, you have an over inflated view of yourself, your impact and the importance of this. Is it a significant a problem if we don’t have the prerogative to discuss what we choose but do have our other freedoms intact? Certain conversations, debates even without agenda are unnecessary because they are plain wrong and need no light shone. And who cares about someone’s opinion in any event. Most of us are clueless. Driven by the agenda of the age with no free opinion anyway.
In the context of societal problems why does the ability to debate and consider matter?
When I denounce the clamping down of free speech it is because in my grasp of the situation, a barrier is being erected to learning, expressing without censorship or legal ramifications. Freedom of thought and speech advances individuals and society by unleashing our ability to problem solve, releasing our creativity and analytical skills. Nurturing how we relate to others through burnished transparency. Compelling us all on the journey. The ability to speak up ensures a single possibly flawed portrayal does not dictate to the majority. Interestingly UK and World Bank research has shown the power to speak freely is crucial for social and economic development. Tangentially, my gut tells me that the impotence circling thinking out loud curbs social mobility as we take to cocooning in our bubbles where we feel safe.
The undermining of this right, compounds through time and there-in lies the slippery slope to curtailed emancipation and development. We need to listen to the swirling thoughts, experiences, ideas of others, partake in the sparing of debate or friendly banter to congeal these into revelations and options. Without that fresh nourishment, we stagnate. Worse it cedes control to others relegating us to live in the shadows where unchallenged ideas, dangerous to all or just some of society usurp and insidiously tighten their grip.
I wonder how many dictatorships have started out with such simple infringements?
But let’s address the nuance. In 1948, The UN announced The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights). Within these 30 rights, Article 19 states that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. These rights including this Article were co opted into the laws of various countries around the world with some modification. Freedom of speech generally does not mean you can spout poison and incite certain activities. Here in the UK, the law can modify the right to freedom of speech for a variety of pursuits. For example if there is a concern over national security; violation of the necessity to protect the rights and reputation of others, or to prevent dis-order and crime. I’m supportive of this approach; proud of our legal system and how it is enforced as I believe in consequence and ownership. But inciting is not the same as contemplating which can be accommodated in a free society.
‘Few freedoms are absolute and one of the ways you defend liberty is by not abusing it. We may have a right to offend but that is not the same as an obligation’.
Robert Shrimsley (The Financial Times, 12th Feb. 2022)
But I recognise that implementation of Article 19 and its modification isn’t easy in practice. Freedom of speech is not a neutral concept and there is a grey scale between genuine learning and critical expression to being ignorant and causing offence — though that offence can depend on your viewpoint. This quote from Human Rights activist Peter Tatchell explains it very well.
‘Freedom of speech is one of the most precious and important human rights. A free society depends on the free exchange of ideas. Nearly all ideas are capable of giving offence to someone. Many of the most important, profound ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin, caused great religious offence in their time’.
So how do we move forward in a world where technology has made the ability to speak up more powerful than ever but also has brought with it it greater group offence, censorship and persecution. In many countries we are beyond being able to ask that question for fear of reprisal or danger to life. But that’s not true the world over. John Stuart Mill a British philosopher suggested that free speech and discussion will lead to a discovery of the truth. But for that to be true, he said ‘People have to be educated, and they have to be mature’. I’m not sure what education is in this context but I don’t agree academic vigour should confer greater rights over speech. We all have a right to a voice.
I don’t have bright ideas as to how we embed this freedom never to be eroded. But If Article 19 is to be truly cherished, a good start would be to support a free press, entrench a principled legal system; ensure access to an educational programme that places learning, confidence and discussion at the heart of its offering; enshrine respect for each other and our cultural norms and through social, business and charitable tentacles, foster the mentality to accept not all disagreements should cause offence. The beauty of the human mind is that capacity to differ gently pushing boundaries and conversations. It should be celebrated. Not contained.