We express ourselves openly and with robust civility about all kinds of human difference.

Conflict and civility

Living with difference is difficult. Our deeply cherished beliefs, values and ways of life do not merely contrast; they conflict. We should not be afraid of that. Conflict is an ineradicable part of freedom and a source of creativity. If there were no differences, we would have no choices and therefore no freedom. What we need is not to abolish conflict but to ensure that it happens in a civilised way. That is the spirit of this principle – which is for debate, like all the other principles. We must be free to speak openly about all kinds of human difference, but without the words turning to blows. Hence the need for what we have called “civility”. Like the translators on Wikipedia, where “civility” is a key term, our student translators have wrestled to find equivalents in their languages. In English, I like these elements of a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Behaviour or speech appropriate to civil interactions” and “The minimum degree of courtesy required in a social situation.”

“Hate speech” and “immutable characteristics”

Much of the free speech literature is concerned with what we should or should not be free by law to say about how other women and men differ from us. One shorthand label used in English is “hate speech”. This has been helpfully defined as speech that attacks or disparages a group or a person for characteristics purportedly typical of the group. Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights calls for, “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” to be outlawed. Whole volumes are devoted to exploring exactly what that means, and how one should balance or reconcile the demands of Article 19 and Article 20 of the Covenant. Countries differ greatly in what they allow and the line does not fall simply between authoritarian and liberal democratic states. There are big differences even between the oldest democracies of the west. Most countries in Europe and the English-speaking world (Australia, Canada etc) limit by law what we are allowed to say about others more than the US does.

The subject of this principle is closely related to questions addressed in three others: the freedom to debate history, science and other areas of knowledge (see P3), incitement to violence (see P2) and – explosively in our time – religion (see P6). But it applies most directly to statements or images attacking or negatively generalising about other human beings on account of who they are, rather than what they believe or think; just because they have a darker skin, for example, or are women, or were born into a certain family or tribe. In the US, they call these “immutable characteristics”, but when you look at it more closely, some are more immutable than others. A contrast is often drawn between religion, which you can change, and race, which you cannot. Just how clear is that distinction? True, you cannot change your skin colour, but as Paul Gilroy and others have argued, “race” is a social construct. For decades, the same person who was (like it or not) always described as “black” in the US could be “white” in Brazil. So is it really the case that “race” belongs unambiguously on the immutable list, and “religion” among the mutable? What do you think are “immutable characteristics”?

By law or social practice?

This fifth principle, like the others, suggests that as little as possible should be restricted by law, as much as possible regulated by our own free choices as grown-up neighbours, citizens and netizens. Trying to impose civility by law has so many disadvantages. In the nature of something as complex as human identities in today’s mixed-up world, it is very difficult to define exactly what should and should not be banned. From country to country, the legislation is full of unclear wordings such as “stirring up” (Britain), “threatening speech” (Denmark) or “provocation” (Spain). Defenders of such legislation often say, “But it is used only in the most extreme cases.” The record suggests that it has been used only in a few of the most extreme cases, and in several that were not so extreme (read our case study here). At best, its use has been selective, at worst, almost random. Because people don’t know where the line is, this legal uncertainty has a chilling effect. Once you start down this road, you are repeatedly confronted with the charge of double standards. If race is covered, why not religion? If religion, why not sexuality? If Jews and Christians, why not Muslims? If Muslims, why not lesbians? If lesbians, why not old people? If the state attempts to satisfy these objections, there is a ratchet effect – putting ever more subjects and groups off limits. That ratchet effect is a response to a liberal striving for equality before the law, but also to the lobbying power of particular groups.

If you follow this logic, then the more diverse your society is, the more taboos there will be. Ultimately, you reach the comprehensive position expressed in Section 153A of the Indian penal code, which threatens with up to three years in prison anyone who, “By words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion, race, place or birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities…” (my italics). On the face of it, that looks like the ultimate modern multiculturalist recipe. In fact, it goes back to the days of the British empire and a penal code written by the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. Its logic was one of colonial oppression: keep the lid on those restless natives, by having the power to lock up anybody for saying anything offensive to anyone else. By stopping people from publicly expressing these thoughts and emotions, you don’t stop them thinking and feeling them. Those thoughts and feelings are merely driven underground, where they fester – eventually re-emerging in more poisonous forms.

Taking offence

Such legislation also has the perverse effect of encouraging people to take offence. Do we want to be the sort of human beings who are constantly taking offence? (“It is the mark of a weak position, not a strong one,” observes the South African writer JM Coetzee, “that its holder, when challenged, takes offence.”) Do we want to educate our children to see themselves as victims? Even if you think law should be used in a symbolic, expressive way, to “send a message”, is this the right message for it to send? Or do we want our children rather to grow up understanding that the human being demeaned by an unfounded insult, be it racist, sexist, nationalist or ageist, is the person delivering the insult, not the person at whom the insult is directed. There is an old English saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” As a descriptive statement, that is clearly wrong. Words can hurt deeply. Take it not as a description but as a prescription and you discover a different meaning: I want to be the kind of person who cannot be hurt by offensive, insulting language. In a world where we are daily confronted with the intimacy of difference, we all need to grow thicker skins. Yet clearly that is easier said if you are a rich and powerful man belonging to a dominant majority than if you are an impoverished woman belonging to an ostracised minority. Our voluntary code cannot be confined to saying, “We must all get thicker skins.” It must take account of the difference between the weak and the strong.

Towards robust civility

For expression to remain free, we must have the right to offend; that does not mean we have a duty to offend. We need to find ways of speaking frankly about difference without insulting the basic human dignity of those we are talking to or about. There are many paths to robust civility, and they vary greatly with context (which is another reason one-size-fits-all hate speech law is so bad at regulating this most complex form of human interaction). Much humour, for example, consists precisely in transgressing the usual lines of civility. Half the jokes in the world are, taken at face value, outrageous ethnic or sexual slurs. To give a very mild example, Omid Djalili says, “I’m the only Iranian comedian in the world – and that’s three more than Germany.” Sometimes, the difference between a Jewish joke and an anti-Semitic joke is who is telling it. Without thinking about it, we all adjust our civility settings many times a day. There are things you say freely to a close friend in the bar that you would never say at grandma’s dinner table. Committees, schools, clubs, factories, universities, offices all have their own formal or informal codes. These are often more restrictive, or at least, more insistent on formal courtesy, than those we use elsewhere. Most publications and websites have their editorial and community standards.

Free speech as navigation

The philosopher Michel Foucault tells us that the Epicurean thinker Zeno of Sidon argued that free speech should be taught as a skill, a techne, like medicine or navigation. I don’t know how much of that is actually Zeno, and how much Foucault, but it seems to me a vital thought for our time. In this crowded world, we must learn to navigate by speech, as ancient mariners learned to sail across the Aegean Sea. We cannot learn if the state never allows us to take the boat out. A good example of a community thrashing out its own rules of civility is Wikipedia. We have tried to do the same in the community standards of this website. If most of us can agree, in frank and civilised debate, what should be the voluntary, self-imposed limits to free debate in a particular community or context that is an achievement both of free speech and of civilisation. What do you think? This is a complex, sensitive subject. Some of our advisers disagree with the argument I have made here. Jeremy Waldron, for example, thinks there is a much stronger case to be made for European and Canadian-style legislation. Do have a look at those contrasting views. Then please add your own here.

Comments (13)

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. All taboos are different and thus be treated differently.

    One the one hand, taboos exist in a way that hinders efficient decision making. For example, criticizing anyone who is homosexual, of a certain ethnicity, of a certain religion etc. for things completely unrelated to the aforementioned traits, can cause a disproportionate amount of controversy, so as to render any discussion impossible. An example that comes to mind is regarding the Israeili community in the US. There was a book called “The Israel Lobby” written by Professor Walt and Professor Mearsheimer. While the book was merely attempting to point out that US policy may be influenced too much by AIPAC, it was criticized by certain members of the pro-Israel community as anti-semitic. Anything critical of the Israel community being dubbed as anti-semitism discourages healthy debate. Same goes with racism and homophobia.

    On the other hand, I believe some taboos should remain in place. I used to be the most carefree liberal person I knew in the past, a staunch practitioner of subjectivism. One day I met someone who pronounced publicly his support for zoophilia, and said “anyone wishing to debate me on this issue is welcome, for I will crush your arguments”. Even with my laisser-faire attitude at the time, I sensed a great discomfort. I heard about zoophilia for the first time because of him. (I wish I can un-learn this.) Truth is, debating about zoophilia on a wider scale, will only serve to educate existing perverts in society to pave the way for actual practice. A debate won’t change them. Logic works both ways, so there many never be an end to the debate at all. And those who are against it, will be against it anyways, without discussion. Same goes with paedophilia and incest.

    개인적으로는 특정 사회적 금기가 존속했으면 좋겠으나, 민주주의 원칙과 양립하지 않는다는 문제가 있죠. 민주주의가 무엇을 위한 것인지 재고를 필요가 있다고 봅니다.

  2. You state: “Freedom of expression helps us get closer to the truth.” It seems to me that you are here applying an observer-independent view of reality. Please correct me if I’m wrong. – I ask: Who’s truth? Where do you have that truth? From an observer-dependent view of reality, which I apply, your principle doesn’t make much sense. Here truth or ‘reality = community’ (in Heinz von Foerster’s very simple words).

    • Je suis également gênée par l’usage du mot ‘vérité’. Quelle est la fonction de l’article défini, s’agit-il vraiment de ‘la vérité’? Peut-il y avoir plusieurs vérités? Serait-il question d’une vérité subjective plus que de ‘la vérité’? Est-il préférable de laisser ce terme défini par son seul article ou l’idée qui se cache derrière bénéficierait-elle d’un adjectif (ou deux) pour la rendre plus claire? Et en fin de compte, qu’est-ce que ça veut dire ‘la vérité’?

      I also feel uneasy with the use of the word ‘truth’. Why is there a definite article here, are we really talking about the truth? Could we conceive many truths? Can this truth be a subjective one more than ‘the truth’? Would it be better to leave this term with its article as sole definition or could the idea behind it benefit from an adjective (or two)? Actually, does ‘the truth’ mean anything?

      Ich betrachte auch das Wort ‘Wahrheit’ mit Unbehagen. Warum gibt es ein bestimmter Artikel hier, sprechen wir ja von ‘der Wahrheit’? Können nicht auch Wahrheiten bestehen? Kann diese Wahrheit subjektiv mehr als ‘die Wahrheit’ sein? Ist es besser das Wort allein mit seinem Artikel zu belassen oder wurde die Ansicht, die hinter ihm steht, mit einem Adjektiven (oder zwei) mehr verstehbar? Im Grunde genommen, bedeutet ‘die Wahrheit’ etwas wirklich?

      • The typical modern approach that “All truths are subjective” may only be valid on a narrow sense, in a sense that we are trapped in our own perceptions. But to take this argument to its extreme, one could say, “I brutally murder children and that is how I achieve truth in life”. One can say then, that “human rights” is the absolute norm. But that would require the presence of an absolute truth, which would be self-contradictory.

  3. “Even false challenges can contain a sliver of truth. The mind’s muscles, like the body’s, must be stretched to stay strong.”

    So why all the use of the intolerant word ‘denier’ esp over climate change? True freedom of speech involves standing up for the right of those who you disagree (or even hate most )with most to say (and be heard) what they think.

  4. There are some things that shouldn’t be discussed ever, like pedophila or terrorist-promoting materials.

    • Can you elaborate? How can we tackle paedophilia if we never discuss it? I also don’t think it’s a clear-cut case with materials promoting terrorism. Who decides what constitutes a terrorist act? There is no legally binding definition in international law. Plus what if I set up a “terrorist” website but no-one reads it? I’d be interested to hear what you think.

  5. Auch mir erscheint dieses Prinzip als zu schön, um die Probleme zu lösen. Natürlich läßt sich niemand durch ein Verbot, durch ein Tabu davon überzeugen, dass ein massenmord, eine systematische Vernichtung von Menschen stattgefunden hat. Die Leugnung der Ermordung von Milllionen unschuldiger Menschen in Deutschland und durch Deutsche isgt aber nicht Ausdruck einer bestimmten Meinung sondern es dient der Provokation und Verächtlichmachung der Ermordeten und der Überlebenden dieses Massakers.
    Und ein zweites Problem: die Freiheit der Verbreitung von Wissen muss möglicherweise Grenzen haben beim Urheberrecht.

  6. The problem is not only “allowing” the discussion and dissemination of knowledge, but also making sure that it happens.
    One the biggest issues related is determening the definitions of such words as “genocide” and its use. These words carry very large negative conotations, and it is no secret that wording used in describing an event can easily sway the public’s opinon. Keeping this in mind, I think it was a mistake to mention only authoritation, totalitatian and non-western countries (as Turkey). True, the United States government may not persecute it’s journalists for claiming that what happened in East Timore from 1974-1999 was a systematic “genocide” of its citizens by Indonesian army, but that is because barely any do so, reason being that Indonesia is a close ally of the USA. Similar events happened when the Kurds were persecuted and killed by Iraqis and Turks. The amount of times the word “genocide” was used to describe the actions of Iraqi army was by a very significant margin larger than the amount to describe the Turkish military army actions, despite the fact that their (Turks) actions were by far way worse (in terms of number of casualties, displaced people etc.). And once again it was the relations of the US with these countries that determined the treatement of the events in the media.
    Therefore, I think that this priciple, despite me agrreing with it, is too idealistic for the world 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. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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