The topic of freedom of speech came up in a discussion I had with a group of friends tonight. I was a little surprised to find that other than myself everyone believed in legally limiting the expression of ideas.
To clarify, I mean broader ideas not personal defamation and I'm talking about ideas, not the use of speech to intentionally create a dangerous situation (like shouting "fire" in a crouded theatre). I'd also accept limitations on free speech in situations where you do not have the option to not listen, like a school or workplace. However my friends were actually advocating laws to stop people expressing ideas that certain groups may find offensive.
The specific subject at hand was whether it should be illegal to publicly deny the holocaust. I was the only one arguing that it is wrong to legislate against it. It does not matter that it is to totally unsupportable position or that it strongly offends a large number of people. It is an idea... and an idea should live or die through debate and not censorship. If someone says something you dissagree with you respond, you explain why you believe they are wrong, you do not demand that they be arrested, otherwise next time it may be you who is expressing an illegal opinion.
The law should get involved when ideas become actions, Words themselves to not infringe on anyone else's rights... and that's the only time the law should ever limit your rights, when you start to take away the rights of another.
I don't believe that people have a right to never be offended. That's impossible. I'm offended by the push to teach creationism and creationists are offended by real scientists pointing out that they are talking nonsense. It's impossible for everyone to remain unoffended, not even censoring both ideas will achieve that because I'm offended by censorship. So at best we can protect some people from being offended some of the time. How do we decided who gets preference? Do religious sensitivities outweight racial ones? Do we please the majority at the expense of minorities or do we try to please as many minorities as we can?
My opponents made 4 major points that I will try to convey as fairly as possible to facillitate discussion (strawmanning the arguments of people not present to defend themselves is not really going to get me anywhere here)
1) We need to function as a society. As such we need to avoid offending the people we have to get along with.
2) My point of view is simplistic and immature since I have no experience of being in a marginalised minority and being abused in other's expression of free speech.
3) We live in a democracy (Australia, really a constitutional monarchy but close enough) so if laws are passed by the majority to limit free speech then that is what they want and therefore it is right for that society. We don't have many limitations but we do have some, mostly along the lines of not offending racial groups.
4) If free speech is not limited leally those offended will find other ways to silence you, generally by digging up dirt on you that may lead to criminal conviction anyway. Limiting freedom of speech protects us from reaching that point.
This was a rather frustrating argument, mostly because I was taken totally by surprise (I really had expected those present to value free speech), but also because of my 2 main opponents (the others were mostly quiet) One got very emotional about minorities being offended and the other believed his democracy (the majority is always right) argument was the end of it and would smugly refuse to accept further discussion in that direction. That is why I'm posting here, partly to get these ideas out so I'll actually be able to sleep tonight but also to try to have a better discussion of a topic that I've generally considered a fairly straight forward moral question.
So to answer the above a little better than I did in the actual arguement...
1) Human beings are social animals but not hive animals. Yes we need to be able to cooperate but we are individual sentient beings not components in a machine. To limit the individual's right to express their ideas is to limit the individual's individulaity. Are we prepared to limit that which makes us human in the name of total harmony? Wouldn't a better idea be to learn to live with hearing ideas you don't agree with rather force people to play along? Yes, in many cases we may choose not to rock the boat but that should always be our decision to make, it should not be made for us
2) I'm offended every time this argument is used against me (although I wont try to have it banned). Fine, I won the birth lottery. I'm a white male. My parents are financially secure and we live in a wonderful country so whenever an issue about minorities is discussed my opinion is automatically worthless. I don't know if there's any way to respond to this that will satisfy those who use it against me but I'll try...
This time the argument was used in response to my saying that the law should not protect people from being offended. That if you take offence it's your problem, not the speaker's. You can choose not to listen or you can choose to explain why the speaker is wrong. Aparently this is simplistic because I have not been on the recieving end of attacks on minorities. Well personally I think that's a joke. I was bullied through most of primary school and high school. I mean daily verbal abuse, frequent threats and at many times physical violence. I was the primary target of anyone who wanted to make themselves look/feel tough and very much alone. It wasn't because I was black or gay but just because I was me (never quite figured out why that was although I've developed many theories). From my point of view at school I was the smallest minority there is, a minority of one. I don't think the reason for being victimised really makes a difference.
Not that it matters though because this is an ad hominem attack. It's simply saying my point of view is invalid because of who I am rather than the merits of the arguement. I'd also suggest that it is the minorities that have the most to loose if freedom of speech is not protected. Could indigenous Australians have won full citizenship if the idea had been silenced? I'm sure it upset a few people at the time. What about women's sufferage (not a minority I know but usually included in discussion of minorities) What about the end of slavery?
3) It's hard to answer this one because it attacks the question from a totally different point of view. Yes if it is what the majority want then it is democratically decided right at the moment, since in the end there is no absolute measure of morality we have to accept the current popular opinion. My point though was to argue for a changing of opinions, based on discussion of the rights of individuals, and therefore change democratically decided right and wrong as it has always been changed. Any moral argument becomes pointles from the democratic morality argument since what is currently accepted is what is right - end of discussion.
4) As far as I'm concerned it is the people digging up dirt that have crossed the line, not the person saying something to offend them. Whether the speaker is protected from those who choose to be offended is another discussion and I think a grey area but I do consider it the individual's right to decide if they want to take that risk while expressing a controversial opinion.
I'm sorry If my thoughts and spelling are jumbled, it's late and I'm tired but I can't sleep because of all this. Freedom of speech is something I value over almost everything else. I'm confused by how prepared my friends are to give it up for something as unimportant as brief emotional discomfort and how strongly they believe that it needs to be given up.
What are your opinions?
Oh, a lesson in not changing history from Mr. I'm-My-Own-Grandpa!