Free speech in an unfair world

Free Speech Debate’s 10 draft principles benefit those in positions of privilege and power, writes Sebastian Huempfer.

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.

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Comments (6)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. The more I familiarise myself with the site, the more I am convinced that the notion of free speech cannot be separated from the broader idea of human rights and individualism. The ten principles of free speech make sense only in this context.

    Unfortunately, no background for the principles has been described or even mentioned anywhere on your web pages. In the absence of such a framework all interpretations are likely to be correct and anything could be proved. In my opinion, presenting a list of rules without providing a framework within which these rules could be interpreted and applied coherently is not enough.

    Even worse, the link inviting readers to challenge premises of the forum was buried deep inside the text and the whole issue relegated to the back pages no one ever visits.



    Hi sebastianhuempfer,

    Thank you for the reply. I will use Rev. Fraser’s article in the Guardian1 as an example of the issues I regard important. Consider the following passage:

    “…one of the most familiar modern mistakes about faith is that it is something that goes on in your head. This is rubbish. Faith is about being a part of something wider than oneself. We are not born as mini rational agents in waiting, not fully formed as moral beings until we have the ability to think and choose for ourselves. We are born into a network of relationships that provide us with a cultural background against which things come to make sense. “We” comes before “I”. We constitutes our horizon of significance…”

    It is easy to notice that Rev. Giles Fraser does not really argue against the interpretation of faith, but against privileging the individual rather than the social group in matters involving faith. The two phenomena have different scales but they are part of the same process. Even the reverent himself would not deny that beliefs are mental processes taking place inside the head, and that faith is a social process involving many individuals with heads on their shoulders.

    It is then reasonable to say that Rev. Giles Fraser disagree with the court decision because he has an interest in privileging social aspects (he says: Faith is about being a part of something wider than oneself), and the so called liberals privilege individuality (that is, the absolute priority of personal autonomy and individual choice). Rev. Giles Fraser conveniently overlooks the fact that the constitutional protection of individual rights was introduced in Germany to protect minorities from the kind of atrocities he writes about, irrespective of who commits them, and in what name they are committed.

    The argument made by Rev. Giles Fraser has a disturbing undertone to it. His statement that “We are not born as mini rational agents in waiting, not fully formed as moral beings until we have the ability to think and choose for ourselves. We are born into a network of relationships that provide us with a cultural background against which things come to make sense” makes me very worried because it could be interpreted that those of us who do not have Faith are not only retarded but also immoral and antisocial (not to mention being condemned to hell). You might say that I am oversensitive and read too much into the statement. It would be the case if it was an isolated statement, but, unfortunately, it is not.

    I agree with Rev. Giles Fraser, though, when he says: “We are born into a network of relationships that provide us with a cultural background against which things come to make sense.”We” comes before “I”. There can be no doubt that we all are born into some or other cultural group, which illustrates how difficult it is to grow up as an independent individual. From the moment we are born until we die we are indoctrinated by others about morality, obedience, and loyalty to a specific tribe, nation, class, gender or religion. At no stage we are taught how to be “self” in a responsible way. Neither our parents (perhaps with a few exceptions) nor educational system helps us to discover who we are and what it takes to be an individual. On the contrary, we are told that individuality really means selfishness which effectively discourages us from engaging in any such behaviour.

    Then it should come as no surprise that democracies based on individualism have never flourished for long. The Age of Enlightenment was quickly superseded by Romanticism which led to the rapid growth of nationalism which dispensed with individualism in favour of citizenship, and religious morality with civic duty, and piety with cultural loyalty to the tribe. The wars for national and tribal independence rolled out throughout Europe as a result. The long period of conflict between nations (as usual, at the expense of their citizens) lasted until 1945 to give way to a brief period during which an attempt was made to redefine the notion of individuality: in the west as social liberalism and in the east as communism. It failed in both cases, most likely because the conception of individual they used was defined entirely in opposition to the membership of the group.

    In my opinion, the ambitious program of Enlightenment never had a chance to survive in its original libertarian form. But this does not mean that it should be willingly abandoned. So far there is nothing better to replace it with (and perhaps never will be), as multiculturalism so venerated in many circles today is not really a social system but a product of the post imperialist era. You are right – individualism (and rationality) in its current libertarian form is not a very alluring option to many people. If the intellectuals of Europe want individualism to survive into the next century they have to put some thought into its redefinition. There is a lot more at stake than just free speech.

    There is one thing that Rev. Giles Fraser overlooked in his article. The only reason so many cultures can coexist on the continent of Europe today is the very individualism he tries to undermine. The tension between social groups (e.g. churches, ethnic groups) and individualism has existed ever since rights of individuals were put before rights of groups as a result of the Enlightenment. Replacing liberal democracy with one based on any particular culture or even multiculturalism is likely to destroy in the long run the very aspect which made Europe so attractive to so many newcomers.

    There is another issue I strongly disagree with Rev. Giles Fraser. It is simply not true that “… Liberalism constitutes the view from nowhere. Liberalism has no sense of history”. On the contrary, it is religion that has no sense of history – the stories in the Bible were frozen two-or-so-thousand years ago.

    There are many reasons why we have been living from conflict to conflict in modern history, and we have to find them all. One cannot get such answers from old texts or from people with vested interest, however. The future of the world lies with those individuals who are able to transcend specific culture in search for what we all have in common instead of what makes us different.

    1. See:

  3. The current discussion of free speech is a clear sign of confusion. The freedom of expression cannot be the goal in itself – the free speech is and always has been an integral part of individualism. Let me remind the reader, that all of us are born as individuals who only later in life become members of some group.

    The current problems have arisen from the hasty and misguided rejection of individualism. Today, the prevailing view is that all individuals have to be part of some or other cultural group to acquire identity and belong to a religious group to have any morality. This gives enormous power over individuals to various social organisations from religious sects and movements to tribal and national hordes. These social groupings are seen not only as desirable but also innocent – the common belief is that social groups benefit its members who always retain control over group’s behaviour. If this were the case, however, we would have no social conflicts, no bloodshed, and no wars. The history demonstrates quite convincingly that social behaviour has its own collective dynamics which is impossible to manage. It is for this reason I believe that the main role of government should be protection of civil rights of its citizens – just the way it was once done after the World War II. Do we need another world conflict to remind us about this imperative?

    Wars are waged not by individuals but by groups to advance their social expansion. Various cultural, tribal, national, religious and political organisations fight their dirty wars by proxy using own members. In this forum we should therefore differentiate between those who are prepared to coexist with others as individuals, and those ones who act as door-to-door agents of their cultural groups.

    At the heart of current problems is not the issue of free speech. The real concern is that we somehow convinced ourselves to forgo our heritage of Renascence and Enlightenment and with it the memory of what really matters in life – the human individuality and reason.

    • Thank you for your comment – although I disagree with you, I think you make a compelling case and an interesting point.

      Here’s a counterargument, and it’d be great to hear your opinion on it:

      “We are not born as mini rational agents in waiting […] We are born into a network of relationships that provide us with a cultural background against which things come to make sense. “We” comes before “I”. We constitutes our horizon of significance.”*

      I think this is true especially for people who are conscious of their cultural background because they are constantly reminded of it. And I find it problematic to tell them, just endorse individualism and rationality and all will be fine.

      [*Rev. Giles Fraser for the Guardian’s Comment is Free

  4. I believe without freedom of speech it is impossible for a country to advance..Even more to this, it is impossible for the world to advance since nowadays our voice is heard worldwide due to social media networks and global networking connections which has made the world connected. However as we tend to see what has been taking place in the middle east for the past 2 years now, after the different revolutions happening in 2 different countries and the 3rd one on its way, i have to disagree with you lates comment Mr sebastien Huempfer. First of all if you call freedom of speech “meaningless” then we will never be able to advance in this world and will live miserable lives and it will get worse and worse each year since we all know that the minority which control us, will only be brought down or heard through freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is the only political weapon which 2nd class citizens as you call it, i would better name is anarchists, hold this freedom to right for there rights and justice. It is a fact that we have no power however if we do not struggle to shout out and fight for what we believe in than we are only going backwards in our standards of living. To overcome this opression and extreme inequality around us, we MUST have freedom of speech so that we can express fully what we feel and trigger others who are helpless to join and create on big community to fight for our justice and overthrow this unjust regime which we live in.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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