Restating the case for freedom of speech


One thing that’s becoming clear in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is that when it comes to mockery, a lot of politicians and spokespeople have the backbone of a paramecium.  All these people trying to defend us against the insensitivity of mockery have missed something vitally important: Not only is there usually nothing wrong with mockery, there is, in actual fact, often something very good about it – because mockery is frequently a powerful tool for highlighting the absurd and the inane. In such instances the reason mockery usually cuts so deep to offend is that it is exposing some absurdity or inanity in the belief held. To silence mockery is to be in danger of suppressing the wit that exposes the kind of beliefs that can only be held by surrendering the mind to reject evidence and rational enquiry. If we rightly endorse free speech as one of the great human necessities, we should insist the same kind of endorsement for mockery too. Free speech is one of those issues about which it is difficult to say anything original. It has been written about so well by people like John Milton, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine and George Orwell. John Milton's Areopagitica is perhaps the best of all works on this - being acutely perceptive not just about free speech but about the need for a free press too.

Alas, even though these great men make it difficult to say anything original on free speech, if what they've said has been forgotten by modern politicians to the extent that the qualities they propounded are gradually being eroded away by our ever-increasing nanny state authorities, there will always be the need for a reminder.

The general wisdom that has been distilled from these great writers on our liberty of free expression is that we will not agree with every opinion being proffered, but we should defend everyone's freedom to proffer those opinions. We should do this not just to protect the right of the person with the opinion, but also to protect our right to hear opinions too. In other words, in denying someone the right to voice an opinion, we at the same time deny ourselves access to that opinion, so we decline the opportunity to hear something that may differ from the consensus or challenge widely held viewpoints.

We may not agree with everything we hear, and some of the things we hear may be vile, controversial or damn stupid, but we do ourselves an injustice if we fail to hear the dissenting voices, because even the most discordant and discrepant opinions may contain within them at least a grain of truth. Therefore we should be impelled to consider them carefully, for in doing so we force ourselves to question how we know what we do and whether the sources from whence our knowledge came were reliable and verifiable.

When it comes to free speech and mockery, then, so long as no threat is being made, or slanderous or libellous lie about a person being told, or employer/employer protocols breached, it is in our best interests to have complete freedom to say/write/draw whatever we wish, however controversial or repugnant.

Sadly, it becomes ever more apparent nowadays that these important principles regarding free speech are being gradually forgotten, or in some cases deliberately eroded away, by the kind of charmless busybodies who would call for the arrest of a Tweeter or the sacking of an MP or journalist or the condemnation of a satirist who says, writes or draws something they don't like. As is evident to anyone with even the sketchiest understanding of human nature and basic philosophical familiarity, the more censorious we become the more we become prisoners of our interference.