I’ll admit, I was a reluctant convert to the notion of complete freedom of speech. I had always believed that some things people said were so vile, so beyond the pale of respectability, that there had to be some boundaries or limitations to the concept of freedom of speech. In fact, once upon a time I did argue that some things were so extreme that they had to be censored. Over time, however, I have come to appreciate what complete freedom of speech entails and what the responsible exercise of this right means for a society.
The reason why freedom of speech is so important is that it directly leads to the broader, and I do believe more fundamentally important, concept of freedom of thought. What this means is that no higher authority indoctrinates those below with uniform notions and ideas; instead, people are free to choose from the marketplace of ideas and develop whatever belief they want based on the strength of evidence. Rational people can (theoretically) listen to the various opinions on some issue and walk away with a new viewpoint. A society grows and flourishes when people can think independently and critically about different viewpoints.
This, in a nutshell, is why freedom of speech is so important. This uniquely Western concept forged during the Enlightenment strengthened the diversity of thought and belief in the Western world. The concept of critical self-reflection became a hallmark of all liberal Western democracies. Freedom of speech has been used by the press to check government abuses. Locke’s Social Contract would have no defender without the freedom of speech. It is the muckraking journalists that expose abuses of power, the ivory-tower academics that document these abuses, and the politicians who have to deal with the fall out of these exposés. Without journalists exposing the horrors of Abu Ghraib, the world would never have know what it means to have America “justice” meted out to (largely innocent) Iraqis. Thus, freedom of speech is inextricably tied to regulating and exposing those in power, but also it allows people to formulate any independent ideas they so desire.
However, even within the domain of Western freedom of speech, sometimes there are ideas that are so offensive that they have become illegal. For example, across much of Europe holocaust denial is a criminal offence fully prosecutable under the law. In fact the historian David Irving was imprisoned in Austria for thirteen months for committing this offence. It was based on this concept that some ideas are so extreme that they must be outlawed, and I vehemently argued against (for more info see my post entitled "Cartoon Controversy") the publication of the cartoons initially published by Danish newspapers that not only depicted the alleged image of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) (In Islam this is blasphemous), but also portrayed him as a terrorist.
This is where the idea of responsible usage of the freedom of speech comes into play. I think that people should themselves realize the consequences of using this freedom and perhaps sometimes delicately discuss sensitive issues. With that being said and while I believe that it was utterly wrong for those images to be published, I now believe that it was within those people’s rights to publish that material. As morally repugnant as I believe those cartoons were, it becomes a very tricky issue to regulate what can and can’t be said. How far will we be willing to clamp down on freedom of speech to protect people’s sensibilities? Either everything can be said, or else too many limitations will be placed on the freedom of speech and, by extension, freedom of thought. This is unacceptable for a society that wants a vibrant debate of ideas and diversity of opinions.
More often than not, however, many Western nations practice self-censorship to provide either ideological cover for a particular agenda, or to prevent incensing some sub-group of people’s sensibilities. In terms of self-censorship, the way the mainstream corporate media portrayed the destruction of Gaza by the Israelis is an excellent example of how self-censorship works; the brutalization of a helpless people becomes not only justified—because of course Israel is, and always will be, the victim—but the right thing to do, since Israel is a frontline state in the War on Islam (often referred to as the War on Terror, but these two monikers could be interchangeable). This portrayal reinforces the ideological belief of the US government that Israel must be defended and supported, no matter the cost or reality of a situation. The fact that this reinforces established authority rather than questions its actions is a failure in the fight for freedom of speech.
The other type of self-censorship is how to deal with a sensitive issue for a particular sub-group in society. The example of the cartoon controversy can be revisited here. The publishing of these cartoons became a rallying tool used across the Middle East to protest Western ideological imperialism. The consequence of the publications of these cartoons (even though they were published months before) was riots in cities across the Middle East, the burning of embassies, and the deaths of dozens of people. In the West, it provided for an example of how sacrosanct the notion of freedom of speech is, no matter the cost. In the East, it provided the masses a distraction to focus on the external enemy (i.e. the brutal, tyrannical, imperialist West) and deflected focus on the terrible governments that rule over these people.
One important distinction to be made, however, is that I have purposely portrayed the Western concept of freedom of speech as more monolithic than it actually is; the reason I’ve done this is for simplicity sake and that for almost all of the major issues, Western freedom of speech is essentially uniform (i.e. anything can be said as long as isn’t a direct threat to a countries sovereignty—like saying, “I’m planning a revolution in so-and-so country, and this is how I’m going to do it.”) amongst liberal Western democracies. However, I must note that the US notion of freedom of speech is still, by far, the most liberal and complete of any Western democracy. There is very little that you can’t say in America. That being said, you should still watch what you say, since your words and ideas will have direct consequences for you, but that is of course patently obvious.
The concept of freedom of speech has still not penetrated Oriental cultures yet. I don’t want to sound like an Orientalist here (I swear Edward Said, I won’t sell out) but there are some generalizations that can be made of the Oriental mindset. One is that Oriental cultures tend to have more deference for authority, are less willing to forcefully speak out, and are circumspect, rather than direct, in their criticisms. While I do believe in cultural relativism as the only realistic way to deal with cultural differences, I feel like the inability of these peoples to freely speak their minds has prevented them from freely thinking. I mean think about it, Google could NEVER have been created in the intellectually stifling and painfully uniform culture of say China.
This independent thinking, the ability to innovate, has been something that Orientalists have criticized the Orient for. Orientalists argue that this inability to innovate prevented the Orient from evolving and challenging archaic, and possibly wrong, norms and values. For example, the Orientalist Bernard Lewis’ central thesis in What Went Wrong? was that Islamic civilization failed because they lacked the capability to create new ideas. Instead the Dar al-Islam was left to wither away and cheaply imitate Western development, but without absorbing the intrinsic meat of the ideas that allowed for the development of the West. I do believe this argument holds some merit, even though the source is obviously suspect.
The list of failures in Orient because of a lack of freedom of speech is long and damning. To use China as an example, Chinese repression of Tibet and East Turkestan (i.e. the Xingxiang province) is not well documented at all. There is only a small drip of news that reaches the West of the brutal repression of Buddhist monks and the destruction of Muslim villages and mosques. Juxtapose Chinese treatment of Uigher Muslims that they capture (those captured in revolt against China are usually never seen again) and the amount of press coverage the American gulag known as Guantánamo Bay has gotten. Yes Gitmo is a deep stain on America’s reputation and is an ongoing tragedy; but at least we are able to document the abuses that have occurred and perhaps one day fix—in however inadequate of a way—some of the mistakes we have made. Then, hopefully America won’t repeat this travesty. But look at China. It disappears people regularly but doesn’t suffer from media agitation against its brutal policies. Hence it never receives moral opprobrium or pressure to change its unjust actions. It, therefore, never has to learn a lesson and can continue to oppress those that deviate from the mandates of the state. I believe that this is not only wrong but that this will hinder China ideologically in the future, thus preventing it from becoming a benevolent world power. Instead, China is on a path of Soviet-like preeminence in the world, except that it has the economic capacity to maintain its (rapidly growing) informal empire and status in the globe while the Soviets didn’t.
Another Eastern example that has relevance to my current situation is Malaysia. People here are programmed to believe certain concepts from an early age and any deviance from those beliefs is seen as heretical. To be heretical in a collectivist society is to be cast out into the wilderness, without protection, and constantly being in fear of slipping up badly so that the vicious wolves can pounce. So to question inane government actions lands bloggers here in jail. To be opposed to the government line, you may be tarnished with sodomy charges. To hold a protest of more than five people, a permit is required (something like 99.9% of these requests are denied). Malaysia—and basically the rest of the developing world—needs to accept and tolerate different opinions other than the normative ones; if these societies do adopt this liberalism, they will flourish and succeed. If they don’t, they will remain intellectually castrated and unable to evolve to a higher degree of civilization.
So pick up the White Man’s Burden and proselytize the righteousness of freedom of speech. Okay so that’s perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek. But still, I believe that it is critical for Eastern societies to develop a healthy tolerance for the notion of freedom of speech. This will greatly benefit their societies and allow for innovative thinkers to create new technologies and improve on the stagnant status quo. Free thought allows for the gestation of new ideas. Ideas do matter and hold extreme relevance in an idea-driven world. Marx’s concept of communism—although bastardized by the Soviet Union—affected hundreds of millions of people worldwide; so too, a new idea, a new innovation, could revolutionize human society. Freedom of speech is a necessity that could allow for this. This provides for the flowering of the world of ideas and checks governmental abuses of power. To quote the famous American founding father Patrick Henry, “Give me Liberty, or Give me Death.”