On The Importance of Free Speech
Featured / March 6, 2017
Aside from calls to violence and coercion, we should all speak up
Neil Bassan, Contributor
Restrictions on free speech stunt our capacities to reason effectively. Why bother thinking when certain ideologies are placed outside the purview of critique?
To put this another way, people like the Flat Earth Society members serve a great purpose in helping weave our collective moral norms and attitudes. They remind us, as the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens did in 2006 when lecturing at the University of Toronto, that we ought not to “take refuge in the false security of consensus.”
As greater knowledge is disseminated, our beliefs ought to shift away from what is popularly known to be true. This is because the moral majority is always at risk of becoming complacent and out-of-date. Confronting nonconformists with discourse only helps us reaffirm or re-evaluate our positions using rationale instead of emotion.
This can be particularly helpful in our so-called “post-truth” age, where liberty and objective moral progress are lost among confused notions of actuality and falsity, and most importantly, critique and phobia.
Consider members of the intolerant transphobic, islamophobic (for which we have not yet determined a singular definition), even homophobic organizations. There is no doubt that they exist. However, in some cases, we find outraged people taking issue with the groups they belong or belonged to. Some conflate any critique of their affiliations with phobia, hatred, or bigotry.
Just when and how did critique devolve into phobia?
If one is critical of the tenants of communism, for instance, does this make one phobic in relation to the ideology of communism? Or take another, much less banal example: the belief that cartoonists should be killed for caricaturing the prophet Muhammad. Would critiquing such a position amount to phobia, hatred, or bigotry in relation to the doctrine of Islam? The answers, in principle, should be clear.
Which ideas can and cannot be critiqued, anyhow? More importantly, who decides? While your intuitions may lead you far from the moral majority, the more information you take on, the farther you may wander still. Here, only truly honest conversation with yourself and others can help you.
Critical thinking involves thinking clearly, and speaking freely is one method of thought. This takes individual intellectual effort. To rely on the moral majority to do your thinking for you would be to relinquish your right to discover the wonders of truth. Furthermore, protecting the right of unpopular voices to be heard only encourages further discussion. No matter how distasteful a position might sound, reasoning through our disagreements is better than silencing all dissent. When our freedom of speech goes unprotected, not only speakers, but listeners, too, are robbed of an opportunity to engage in honest, critical discourse.
Free speech is a corrective tool that allows us to modify and improve our values without resorting to violence. Merely engaging in conversation becomes an exercise in intellectual gymnastics when expression is restricted.