Free speech in an unfair world
Free Speech Debate's 10 draft principles benefit those in positions of privilege and power, writes Sebastian Huempfer.
Travellers sit by their romany caravans at the Appleby Horse Fair on June 3, 2011 in Appleby, England. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
We should speak openly and with civility, says our fourth draft principle, and later we add that “clearly that’s easier said if you’re a powerful man belonging to a dominant majority”. This caveat, I think, applies to many of the draft principles: they are most attractive to majorities and to those in positions of privilege and power. If we want to make the final principles relevant and appealing to everyone, I believe we first have to address this imbalance.
Irshad Manji told us that “offence is the price of honest diversity”. But the world as a whole and many societies within it are not simply “diverse”; they are unequal and unjust. And we should not neglect this crucial difference, because while diversity complements free speech, inequality corrupts it and thus creates problems like offence. Genuine offence is a symptom of a community’s deeper pathologies; it is the result of injustice, not the price of diversity. Many of our draft principles fail to take this problem into account.
The outgoing director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, says that “something done in the name of free expression may to [the receiver] feel threatening and isolating” if they are part of a group who “already feel, in other ways, isolated, prejudiced against, and […] may well regard an attack against their religion as racism by other means”. When some are powerful, secure and confident, and others feel oppressed and besieged and excluded – then some will find free speech as envisioned by our current draft principles liberating and enabling while for others, this vision means, at best, nothing and, at worst, insult and injury.
To everyone who has, will more be given?
Some principles – open and diverse media, communication across all borders – ignore that, in reality, we are not all alike. It is a fallacy to think that just because everyone can speak, those who need or deserve to be heard will automatically be heard. Yesterday’s loudest voice will still be heard in whatever brave new world tomorrow is, and no new technology and no amount of tweeting will change that.
“Honest diversity” is not the inevitable result of open media and channels of communication, because we still enter the new and open space being who we are: powerful or powerless, confident or insecure, rich or poor, informed or ignorant, susceptible to offence or immune from it. Even if the playing field is level, he who has been on steroids will still win. New and more open forums for speech and expression may sometimes erode these differences, but more often than not the old rules and codes that predate the new technology remain in place.
That is why the existence of multiple TV channels is not enough to ensure that the truth is heard: had Press TV existed in 2003, I still would have fallen for Colin Powell’s fairytales; he was, after all, the US secretary of state, even on Iranian-backed channels.
It is why open and participatory technologies for disseminating news and information are no cure-all: more people read the Mail Online than any other news website. The men behind the tabloid press had their media empires offline, and now they have built media empires online.
And it explains why citizen journalism is as biased as elite journalism: 100 million people made Joseph Kony known to the world by sharing Kony 2012 on Facebook, and yet nobody ever posted about the Sheikhs who ordered a siege on Manama’s hospitals. We have always ignored despotism and unspeakable crimes in certain places, and talked patronisingly and simplistically about the problems of certain other places. True, the 100 million had access to plenty of Ugandan blogs to read up on the complex history of Joseph Kony. But 99.9% of them did not take that extra step.
So if we are going to communicate across all borders, using open and participatory media, we must not fool ourselves into believing that “honest diversity”, a plurality of voices or a constructive dialogue amongst equals are going to arise, suddenly and miraculously, where they never existed before. The doubters and the dissidents and the downtrodden may now have access and opportunities they never had before, but unless there is a collective effort to listen to all sides of the debate, and to give every piece of the truth a chance, we will always read and hear and see and tweet just one version of the story. The media and our conversations in the 21st century may appear more diverse, but they still reflect the realities of the world we live in, and the most fundamental of those realities is that some have more power than others. Simply giving everyone more opportunities to speak will not change this imbalance.
Does one size not fit all?
Other principles – civility, non-violence, no taking offence, no taboos – may just serve to buttress an unjust status quo. One might be tempted to argue that civility is a narrow and objective concept: everyone benefits from frank and open debate and if we all let each other finish our sentences and tolerated jokes about our gods and prophets, the world would be a better place for it, wouldn’t it?
But all those restrictions imposed by our draft principles are binding restrictions only for those who are already struggling: those who do well in society can not feel genuine offence and have no need for violent speech, or shouting, or swearing, or for writing disturbing lyrics and music videos. And they like civility because they define its very meaning.
Because civility is not that neat a concept at all. At various times in history, it was thought to be outside of the boundaries of civility for women to speak up for themselves or for serfs to speak out against their feudal lord. Clearly, that is not the civility we want, but it was somebody’s civility nonetheless, and our own concept of civility may have come a long way, but is it perfect? The rules of civility are always written by some people, and for some people, and there are many whose message would lose much of its force if it had to be expressed politely, and in proper English.
So what if nobody had ever violated even today’s rules of civility? What if everyone had always patiently reiterated their arguments in the hope that the truth prevails, eventually? What if nobody had ever raised their voices when offended, or resorted to any means necessary, when it was necessary to forget about civility, and shout, and swear, and clench a fist? Maybe justice comes eventually to those who endure injustice with civility, and maybe that is the path the bravest and strongest take. It is true, the greatest men and women in human history, the Mandelas and the Gandhis, stuck to civility and turned the other cheek. But not everybody can do this, because not everyone has that unyielding faith that the moral arc of the universe, long as it is, bends towards justice all by itself. I honestly do not think I could turn the other cheek and wait patiently, and so I can not demand that others do it.
The hypothetical insurance principle
The 10 draft principles as they stand benefit some so much more than others. When it comes to free speech, more is not always better. If we did not know how loud our voices were going to be, we would not opt for unlimited free speech for all. We would want everyone to accept their responsibility to be respectful, and to go around and listen, genuinely and with an open mind, to all sides of the debate.