voice part 2

This is going to be another opinion/rant type post, so, if this is not your thing, please skip over this one and perhaps take a look at some of the other fine publications on this blog as they may offer more to your taste and reading enjoyment.  That being said, I have a few things that I would like to say about a topic that is very important to me and one that I feel is vitally important to humanity over all.  The topic in question is freedom of speech, which is a dangerous thing to discuss, but I am ripping open this can of worms.  My thoughts have changed over the years in regards to this freedom and they may evolve of course still further but at the moment the following ideas are those that I truly believe in based on my own observations and experience, which is all we ever really have to go by anyway.

I believe the freedom of speech is a basic right of anyone, period.  I don’t think this will be too hotly contested, but you never know.  My second belief is that in order to be effective this freedom is absolute, which means that I truly and with every fiber of my being believe that anyone can propound whatever they wish without fear of censorship or reprisal.  What someone says may be foolish, it may be full of hate, it may be ignorant, bigoted, narrow minded, or incendiary, but they have the right to say it, to be heard, just as I have the right to say something in contradiction, to rebut what I believe may be wrong with what they are saying.  Just because you don’t like something does not mean that it should be suppressed, just that you don’t like it.  That is your freedom as well and I think quite often for no reason I can see clearly that the idea of complete freedom of speech is somehow tied to the loss of the freedom to intelligently discriminate by the audience.  I personally have both read and heard numerous diatribes involving racial superiority, jingoism, homophobia and any other number of ideas that I would never subscribe to and while I do not like the idea that there are those out there that think that way and it makes me rather sad that they do exist I do not believe that their right to say these things should be taken away.

I have two principle reasons for believing as I do, which are as follows.  Firstly, in order to censor something a criteria must be established for what is acceptable and what is not by which to judge any material that might be censored.  One may argue that this applies to any behavior and by my reasoning invalidates any control by any body over the individual.  The thing is, I am not arguing for the freedom of action, but the freedom of speech, which are two different ideas.  I do not, for one second, think that people should be allowed to DO whatever they want, but that they can SAY whatever they want.  Actions may be used to directly injure, impair, or rob an individual of their essential human rights.  Words, no matter what you might think, cannot in fact do this.  Words have only the power we give them, and don’t get me wrong, this can be a tremendous power for both good and bad, but in the end, if someone SAYS hateful, obscene, or violent things it is fundamentally less injurious than if they actually DID them, but I digress.  The principle here is that if a group is nominated to pass judgement on what can or cannot be said this group fundamentally has control over our ideas, because our words are our ideas given expression and an idea without voice is impotent.  So, who gets to decide what we can or cannot say?  Who would you trust with this ability?  I would argue that no individual or group can possibly be trusted this such a responsibility.  Censorship is a slippery slope and once you start down it, where do you stop?  I am very sure someone is going to be offended by what I am writing here but does that give them the right to stop me from writing it at all?  It is the very ability of the people to voice their grievances that is so very fundamentally important to what I believe over all, in the end is a just society.  We can question our government, question the ideas of what is or is not acceptable, debate, call for change, call into question ideas that may up until now have been viewed as truths and this is how we evolve as a society.  There are examples throughout history of how ideas change the world and if those ideas are suppressed then we will stagnate as a society and doom ourselves to eventual destruction.  Nations, churches, corporations and many other groups with power have in some cases brutally wiped out ideas and their proponents which where in contradiction to their interests and if those ideas had been completely suppressed we may not have gone beyond the idea that the earth was the center of the universe or that any one individual is invested with absolute authority by divine mandate.  Freedom is painful, it is chaotic but it is growth, it is change and the freedom to speak is one of the most powerful tools we have to effect this growth and change and any attempt to proscribe limitations on this freedom is both dangerous and fundamentally wrong.

Secondly, by censoring something you still give it power of a sort, power which it may not otherwise have.  If someone writes a column stating that all Jews should die, in a society with freedom of speech someone can then come around and write a column refuting this, to show how the idea is wrong, contemptible, to cast ridicule on it and thus defuse its persuasive power.  If, on the other hand, that column should be censored, more than likely at least some people will still have read it and the act of censorship will seem an act of fear, that the censoring body feels that the work is dangerous because of the truth it propounds and must be silenced.  This in turn lends credence to the idea and may make it more persuasive in the end which would be a greater evil than letting it be said in the first place.  If something is said, it can be refuted and just because something is said, does not make it true.  I would rather have an atrocity stated openly and be able to argue against it than try to have it hidden away where it might be allowed to fester into something much bigger than the words that it started out as being.  Ultimately, censorship is truly futile as the idea will get out there as many dictatorships have found to their ruin.  But if you allow the idea and counter it with something better, it will actually rob the idea of its power and make those who still believe in it appear foolish or ignorant and ultimately impotent.  Just because what is said may not be acceptable to the majority still does not give the majority the right to say that it cannot be said.  We happen to be currently living in a fairly tolerant society in North America, and while I realize it is far from being as open minded and accepting as some may claim, it is still in a place far better than it has been in the past and far better than others currently are.  That being said, if we still lived in a time when the idea held by the majority was that other human beings should not be considered as such and therefore not given the same rights as human beings would that mean that those who did speak against this popularly held and acceptable belief would be wrong to do so and should be prevented from voicing such distasteful, immoral and incendiary thoughts?  There have been a great many things we now hold as true and right and good that were not considered to be so and for many when they first heard them these ideas caused them anger or fear and they didn’t like them being said, but they had to be said none the less.  Something may be unpleasant, but still necessary and not knowing what may or may not ultimately be important we cannot, should not limit what is said.  The idea we outlaw could one day be the idea that saves us all.

I don’t know if I am right, I believe I am and there is a difference.  There are more than likely any number of arguments that can be made against what I have said, some of which might even be able to convince me to believe other than how I do now.  I am not nearly arrogant enough to believe that I know the ultimate truth, nor am I fanatical enough to think that this and only this is the right way of thinking.  All I can say is that with any freedom, it does cut both ways and while we may not like this, the freedom in order to be effective must be held as absolute.  This is why we don’t live in a truly free society as freedom without any restraint is anarchy and that is just as destructive ultimately as complete order.  I am not suggesting that all freedoms must be allowed but that those freedoms we do deem to be important and necessary be just that, completely free.  I welcome any comments, rebuttals, or obscenity studded rants those out there feel the need to post.  In the end, if I truly am honest with myself I believe in the following words without exception, I may not agree with what you say, but I will die for your right to say it.

10 Responses to “voice part 2”

  1. Ann Kristoff Says:

    Well said. As the old saying goes, ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.’

  2. blackwatertown Says:

    Well – to get a debate going – I’ll let you know I disagree.
    Sure, it’s hard to know where exactly to draw the line, how to avoid sliding down that slippery slope or who adjudicates.
    But I would start from incitement to hatred. Someone broadcasting “Kill the cockroaches” as an incitement to slaughter Tutsis and moderate Hutus should, in my view, by prevented, stopped, prosecuted – if possible as soon as possible, if not before hand. I’m willing to sacrifice freedom of speech to prevent that.
    Does that mean banning all “hate speech” – where does incitement to harm others blur into snide remarks/expressing prejudice/verbal bullying – those are difficult ones.
    But you could say that I’ve basically conceded the principle that speech should not be free. Generally speaking I think it should. But not universally.
    So that’s my messy and doubtless inconsistent position.

    • I have always taken the point of view of individual responsibility. If someone makes a speech inciting others to preform some act of violence, while distasteful, is not in and of itself criminal. Just hearing something or reading something does not compel anyone to action, the individual chooses to act. The action is criminal and I do believe that any such actions should be prevented, however, I do not subscribe to the idea that if the individual had not heard/read document X that this would have ultimately prevented that individual from acting. I have heard some vicious speeches in my life which have recommended some fairly reprehensible behavior, but I did not immediately go out and bash in someone’s skull. It takes more than words to incite an individual or group to violence. Yes, a given work could be said to be a catalyst, however the catalyst could just as easily be an event that finally pushes the individual in question to put something they have probably already contemplated into action. There are so many things that could potentially motivate violence and censorship as some form of preventative just doesn’t fly. Charles Manson was inspired by the Beatles’ White Album, stating that it was a call to arms for a race war with “Helter Skelter” being the key to this message. Now, if we ban hate speech to prevent something the might happen, do we also have to then ban any work that may possibly be construed as hate speech to prevent someone from interpreting it as a call to arms? Again, we arrive at the slippery slope. You may be able to prevent some violence or other harmful actions by banning hate speech, but you will not be able to stop all of it, nor will you ever actually prevent those who are going to say those things from being able to say them. Is someone wrong for saying that the world would be a better place if all of the Muslims were wiped off the face of the earth? Yes, they are wrong. Is it wrong that they have the ability to say it? No, it’s not and that is the crux of my argument I suppose.

      • blackwatertown Says:

        I know, it’s very difficult to define exactly what I would want banned and where exactly the line would be – which is why incitement to hatred laws in the UK have been successfully used so rarely.
        But I suppose I’d quote part of what you said back to you – “You may be able to prevent some violence… but you will not be able to stop all of it…” – fair enough. Price worth paying for a messy compromise.
        But maybe someone else should come in with their perspective.

  3. emisformaker Says:

    I think dialog and communication are more effective than censorship. As has been said, simply stopping the words will not stop actions that are the inevitable consequence of a set of circumstances. The many attempts of the conservative, “family values” set to ban and censor various works – Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music, comic books, etc. – are the alchemical result of ignorance in the face of tragedy (youth suicide, violence, etc.) Yet, upon closer examination, the majority of these works contain nothing one might deem inherently hateful or offensive. Nor were these works of themselves responsible for the resultant tragedies. What happened was going to happen, given the totality of circumstances surrounding the individual. Censoring does nothing. Communicating, on the other hand, has the potential to save lives.

  4. blackwatertown Says:

    Guess that all makes me outnumbered three to one.
    What’s next then?

  5. Words can be as fatal as a bullet and therefore should be treated as such. Mistruths are still under the category of freedom of speech and has literally helped to incarcerate and sometimes execute individuals who were innocent. Others have had their lives torn asunder. I think the same responsibility should be given to the words you speak as the weapon you carry. Words, “often born illegitimate of love or consequence. Under the guise of freedom.” The individuals who ordered ‘kill the cockroaches’ knew exactly what they were saying and the consequence of that. They knew very well they were given weapons to the masses and what the consequence would be. Therefore, that individual(s) should be held accountable for the obvious ‘intent’ of their words. Freedom is given to us, but when we harm others or commit crimes, that freedom is forfeit. There are crimes of words as any other action we take.

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