Free Speech absolutism does not exist | Thoughts #35

For the past week a lot of ‘stop insulting’ and ‘freedom of speech’ has been going on. There are two observations that are not so conspicuous, first is that what does one mean by ‘freedom of speech’ and second why shouldn’t insults be allowed. Now I’m going to talk about this issue in-line with the recent French controversies, which I’m sure most of you are aware of. I won’t go into the religiosity of it, but will elaborate on the secular premise.

Most people talk about concepts such as ‘Freedom of Speech’ and or ‘Freedom of Expression’ like its a Divine law, as if some deity (with the connotation that a deity is the ultimate source of knowledge) came chanting its song. “Human rights are considered the offspring of natural rights, which themselves evolved from the concept of natural law. Natural law, which has played a dominant role in Western political theory for centuries, is that standard of higher-order morality against which all other laws are adjudged. To contest the injustice of human-made law, one was to appeal to the greater authority of God or natural law.” The reason why you must understand the roots of Human Rights is so that you put on your critical lenses, and not take those laws for granted, as they themselves aren’t free from ideologues.

First thing that one must understand is that why should there be ‘Freedom of Speech’, if at all there must be a premise as such of “Speech”. To deal with this, with the notion that we have, which is of Human Rights, the realisation of the ‘competition of values’ must take place. Why should I allow my competitor to speak, my enemy, my friend even, my parents? This is where John Stuart Mill knocks the door, who is arguably the inventor of the concept of the ‘Harm Principle”, that is “you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm anyone else”. According to this Liberal deity, there are objectives of ‘Freedom of Speech’ , these objectives are as follows (paraphrasing): FoS should foster human flourishing and authenticity. Classically FoS was understood to be a means to achieve important virtues, including progress, truth and accountability, specifically political accountability. Mill himself limits FoS, to demonstrate that its absolutism is impossible for the virtues of humankind and its proper flourishing, he uses the 19th century corn dealers as an example, “he suggests that it is acceptable to claim that corn dealers starve the poor if such a view is expressed in print. It is not acceptable to make such statements to an angry mob, ready to explode, that has gathered outside the house of the corn dealer.” “The difference between the two is that the latter is an expression ‘such as to constitute…a positive instigation to some mischievous act’.” This is important to understand because the founder of the principle himself limits it based on harm, which nullifies the blanket statement that one can say or express however and whenever they like because of ‘Freedom of Speech’.

FoS emerged to empower the weak, to take to account the power of the time. The Catholic Church in Europe censored and prevented intellectual progress, it was a coercive power, the Principle came to challenge the power structures of the society. Now how that is to be done is the matter we shall now look at: should insults, offensive language and degradation be allowed on the back of FoS? To dissect this issue we must recall the objectives of FoS, which is essentially of human progress, which would lead to the necessary changes in society. There is no logical connection between the objectives of FoS and freedom to insult, in most cases it is actually counterintuitive to those objectives. Insults in most cases prevent progress. If someone is trying to convince someone of something, or promoting their ideals, or as the progressivists say ‘my truth’, it requires good argumentation, persuasion and civility. Insults act as a barrier to the process, hence preventing the ‘truth’ and therefore limiting the objectives of FoS itself, while ironically claiming to be exercising it. An intellectual dialogue is not threatened by being civil and being averse to insulting others, one can disagree while maintaining intellectual tone.

Every society, take any country, even those that one considers to be a liberal democratic one, even they will have restrictions on Speech, e.g. to not insult the flag, the national anthem et cetera and essentially debunking the general understanding of FoS as absolute. Now replace flag and anthem with religious texts and their ‘deities’ or ‘founders’ – you get the point. This restriction of speech was highlighted in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by David Van Mill: “The first thing to note in any sensible discussion of freedom of speech is that it will have to be limited. Every society places some limits on the exercise of speech because it always takes place within a context of competing values.” There is no escaping restriction on speech, its clear that with absolutism you hinder progress through discourse which itself is the objective of FoS.

Now some might say that no matter what, insults or not, FoS must be absolute because else we would get a oppressive state for the society. The mentioned Encyclopedia battles with this issue as well, by noting how the door opens both ways:

“Those who support the slippery slope argument tend to make the claim that the inevitable consequence of limiting speech is a slide into censorship and tyranny. It is worth noting, however, that the slippery slope argument can be used to make the opposite point; one could argue that we should not allow any removal of government interventions (on speech or any other type of freedom) because once we do we are on the slippery slope to anarchy, the state of nature, and a life that Hobbes described in Leviathan as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”. It is possible that some limits on speech might, over time, lead to further restrictions—but they might not. And if they do, those limitations might also be justified. The main point is that once we abandon the incoherent position that there should be no limits on speech, we have to make controversial decisions about what can and cannot be expressed; this comes along with the territory of living together in communities.”

Now a philosophical question can be raised about who should draw the line of restrictions. As David Van Mill points out that those decisions will have to be according to the communities living together, for co-existence, which goes hand-in-hand with the Human Right of choosing any religion for example. It is restrictions for basic civility that allow for the possibility of any productive speech at all, without restrictions for accommodation of discussion, the essence of FoS is lost. As I’ve mentioned before, in light of the recent controversies I will explore the FoS issue in that regard.

France has been getting major support from trying-to-be-liberal countries like India and boycotts from mainly Islamic countries, I will try to shed light on the hypocrisy of the liberal state of France. On the back of FoS, as being a liberal principle, it is claimed that the satirical cartoons that were drawn were fine, which is ironic because Article 433-5-1 of the French Criminal Code punishes outrage (grave insult) of the national anthem or the tricolour flag, which for all intents and purposes can be equated with blasphemy as is understood in Islamic countries. Furthermore, in France, there is a legislative injunction that stops people from denying Holocaust as defined by the Nuremberg Trails, it’s called the Gayssot Act, essentially impeding FoS. This goes to show that they themselves know that total FoS is impossible for proper functioning, to not hurt a minority groups sentiments they passed the legislation, the question is why isn’t a consistency shown on this principle in the case of the cartoons that hurt the sentiments of the Muslim minority. If FoS is to be used as a pretext for all offensive actions towards any group, then satires mocking the Jewish, Blacks, and other sects should also be allowed and if offending of one sect is to be restricted then by principle all should be.

The cartoons were made by Charlie Hebdo, which is a French satirical magazine, a political cartoonist by the name of Maurice Sinet who worked there for 20 years was fired in ’09 for his cartoons mocking the relationship of former French President Sarkozy’s son with a wealthy Jewish woman – so its fine to restrict ‘FoE’ on the basis of politics but not religion? The height of hypocrisy comes when one gets to know that a French court injunction banned a Jesus based clothing advert mimicking Da Vinci’s Last Supper, ruling that the display was “a gratuitous and aggressive act of intrusion on people’s innermost beliefs”. If one had to be consistent then the Jesus advert shouldn’t have been banned, Sinet shouldn’t have been fired and Article 433-5-1 shouldn’t even exist, but we know very well that that won’t happen. The reason for that is simple, FoS by its own diction comes with restrictions and how one uses those restrictions (which at least should be logically consistent) is what matters. FoS from being a notion to keep in check the power, has now become an instrument of tyranny for the authority. The idea of FoS absolutism hopefully is out of your heads, because to think that that’s the best form of speech is frankly incoherent beyond imagination. Thus the idea of using FoS in justification of insults is also incoherent, and how insults are defined are by the co-existing parties’ unanimous decisions, and if one is overpowering the other, that is no ‘freedom’ but imperialism.


  • Freedom of Speech, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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