Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Free Speech

"Comrades, our dear leader has decreed that now is indeed the time to offer us the gift of free speech. From Monday, if anyone wishes to say anything at all - even wicked lies critical of the state, they may do so by visiting one of the free speech-booths set up all around the country. You may enter these sound-proof constructions and say whatever you want! No more can people complain about the lack of free speech! Lies uttered outside the booths will continue to be punished severely. Long live the revolution and our leader!" (Original Source: Free Speech, by Alan Haworth)

A real satire isn't it? The inherent irony of defining free speech is akin to defining what "human rights" mean. Most textbooks on Ethics and Morality define two types of rights - absolute rights and context-dependent rights. Free Speech is often put into the category of context-dependent rights, although there are many vociferous debates on how something as fundamental as speech ought to be an absolute unquestionable right to us humans. Most of us are familiar with this debate and the positions adopted by a democratic government to balance this debate. However trite this topic maybe, I have never previously thought or written my thoughts on this, so here I go.

Any kind of freedom goes hand-in-hand with its equivalent responsibility. When one is given the right to free speech, s/he carries with it the obligation to be responsible for the consequences of that right. If the freedom is used to malign, slander, abuse, or falsely accuse, then such a "freedom" leads to a collective sweep of negative consequences within a community and threatens to disturb the balance of harmony. Are we humans wise enough to be trusted with such an absolute freedom?

Well, here's an account of a recent video I watched on road rage. Driver A cuts in front of Driver B. Driver B gets pissed off and uses the F word on Driver A. Driver A reciprocates with more swear words. Driver B shouts out more profanities, all the while racing Driver A at a ridiculously high speed. As the drivers race, Driver B thinks Driver A was aiming a pistol at him, and hence to defend himself, Driver B takes his gun and shoots at Driver A 16 times and kills the passenger. At prison, when Driver B is asked what he would have done differently, now that he has learnt his lesson, the response was, "I don't think I would have done anything differently. If I don't have the basic right to swear a few profanities to someone who is not a good driver, and to defend and express myself by showing my anger, what sort of a free country are we living in?"

Clearly right to free speech cannot be made absolute till people like the above exist, who can't be responsible enough for their consequences. The above example also leads us to the topic of freedom of expression. It's much easier to categorize freedom of expression as being context-dependent, else like the above scenario, murder would also become an absolute right. While contrasting this with speech, right to free speech appears more innocous. Speech does not constitute any physical action to lead to any physical damage- so why should it be taken so seriously. Isn't it easier to ignore words, and not let a series of vocal noise disturb or affect us? Many great peace advocates reiterate on this - "someone can abuse you with words only if you choose to take it". So why can't the right to free speech be absolute? But isn't the pen mightier than the sword? Speech enfolds ideas and thoughts. It does something more dangerous than murder - it can crawl into our minds and reprogram our thinking. It's like making our computers open to any sort of program. And often, thoughts influence actions, just as a virus can crash multitudes of servers.

Unfortunately, no one can come up with a code that describes acceptable and unacceptable speech as we can objectively distinguish between safe and viral programs. The question of good versus bad is a fundamental question, and the quest for its answer plagues every one of us. Till then, to me, right to free speech is much safer being context-dependent.

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