I’ve been meaning to write this blog for some time as it is a subject that is close to my heart and has a close bearing on that of culture wars, which I also obsess over, but have been put off, partly because the deeper I go down the rabbit hole the more I find. For now, I will shoot from the hip and if called on to back up what I say with empirical data I am prepared for that, but only in a follow up article. When I sought a suitable meme to plug this post, I was spoilt for choice, so here is a composite of 5 that relate.
I think I should first set out my store before delving into a wide range of current stories that have a bearing on free speech, in particular when it comes to threats and restraints. While some put me in the far right category because of my “rabid” views on certain issues, ironically some of what I believe might better find a home in the far left camp. While I am not for legalizing cannabis, in many other ways I am a libertarian, ideas of which can find a home among both the left and the right. In my left leaning mid teens, I recall studying subjects like the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Peterloo Massacre and the Chartist Movement and it invariably struck me that one of the big issues was freedom of speech was curtailed. This also extended to the vexed subject of religious freedom, e.g. under the Tudors and Stuarts period, and it often occurred if at varying points in that period and speaking forth the “wrong” opinion, it could be a death sentence. In our so called Western Democracies, we might be led to believe we have moved on (compared with some non western countries) and can more or less say what we want, but can we?
Living in a free society is something most hope to be able to do (although opinions will differ widely if that is the case) and freedom of speech is an integral part when it comes to other freedoms. I suspect, in reality, people will differ when it comes to how precious they regard the chance to speak freely. I reckon most people think free speech is a good thing and most think there should be certain restraints. The often quoted example is about someone who shouts “fire” in a crowded theatre, but there are many other cases that can be cited where is widespread disagreement. After all, should our freedom to say what we want restrict the freedom of others, promote hate or falsehood or upset others (especially in a time and place when hurt feelings are a big deal). Many of the examples that come my way have a bearing on these considerations, and one of the reasons I write now is to say how. Just before coming to write this I hear a report that certain social media outlets have taken down images of people self harming, as a result of a teenager taking her life after seeing such imagery. My inclination is this could be a right move, although taking down conservative sites that post stuff that offends the liberals and leaving be liberal sites that post stuff that offends the conservatives, is for the most part NOT.
One of the big questions in when to allow (or not) free speech, is who decides? Some say it could be the government, but are they qualified to do so? I agree there should be caveats as to free speech e.g. when it comes to national security and personal privacy. Sometimes people use their free speech to spread error and insult others; sad as that is, it may be the price to pay. Often people are penalized for saying what they think is important (see the social media example above and those losing their livelihoods). While there is a time and a place for everything under the sun, and common courtesy is desirable even when not mandated, these are some of the examples that have been brought to my mind, in which free speech has been challenged and more (including imprisonment) when in my view it should not be:
- We need a free mainstream media, even though they often lie
- We need a free alternative media, even if only to call out the lies of the mainstream media
- Government funding of mainstream media for propaganda purposes is unacceptable
- We should be free to call out radical Islam as a serious threat to traditional freedoms
- We should be free to speak out against indoctrinating children in schools and parent should be withdraw children from lessons when this happens
- We should be free to say marriage can only be between one man and one woman
- We should be free to say there are only two genders: male and female
- The Internet should allow free access (within the law), including access to services like Google, Apple, Twitter and Facebook, who these days occupy the same position as utility companies
- Preachers should be free to preach according to their conscience (within above restraints)
- People should be free to criticize government and institutions, without penalty
I suspect I can add more to the list and I know I can back up all of the above with examples. I also recognize people may not speak what they want because of fear of harassment. My concern is we are in danger of losing our freedoms to say what we want, especially on subjects that matter. This is not merely a hypothetical, philosophical argument but in the past year each one of my concerns above have been undermined and I suspect the powerful elite who wants control will do more if they could. And right now they can and they do! My fear is many ordinary people are asleep and are gullible when it comes to offers of swapping their free speech for something else, which may appear attractive but where that appeal is illusionary.
All I am doing is my job as a watchmen on the wall and pleading with folk to WAKE UP. We are in danger of losing something precious if we don’t and the next step is enslavement – 1984 and worse. Many people have laid down their lives over the millennia to defend our freedoms, especially free speech, and many are doing so today still. We dishonor their memory if we don’t do the same.