philosophy

‘Freedom of expression’ – the word game.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines freedom of expression as “the right of every individual to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas regardless of frontiers.”

This proclamation represents an ideal, not a reality. It is one worth striving for and the greatest obstacle in the way of realising it is not the brutal self-righteousness of zealots on both sides of the debate but the assumption that freedom has no perameters. As long as there is anywhere on this planet a group of people whom we cannot accept as The nature of language determines that not everybody understands the same thing when using the same words. “Expressing” opinion is different to “holding” opinion. We tend to expect that the latter is implicit in the former. Expression is the verbal notification of intent and action is always performed according to strict rules of conduct. Speaking one’s mind always occurs within a specific context. The net of rules governing speech and action prevent thugs from bullying others into submission. History confirms the danger of the rule of bullies. It is at this point that the ambivelence between speech and action emerges. At what point and where do we place the limits of expression? The truth is that we are easily offended and that in most democratic states we have favoured protection of the condition of being offended over the condition of speaking. Generally, we are more afraid of offending than speaking. We don’t yet fully undertand what freedom is. A free society is not one where every person speaks the opinion they hold at all times. Rather, it is a society where opinions are expressed with the understanding that because they may be expressed, they will also have consequences. Freedom is not the abandonment of rules or boundaries. It may be worthwhile remembering that there are very few universal human truths. There are only notions that communities favour as a preferable over others. Everything we consider to be a social truth is a temporary construct reflecting little about the human species but everything about the group to which we belong. We (insert here the proper noun that names your group) have never had complete freedom of expression. It is a romantic and nostalgic illusion. We can neither say nor do as we please. Leadership, for example, is easily offended and blankets the choking of criticism under the guise of national security, protection of … yada yada yada. Once upon a time governments that currently espouse the concept of democracy as a political ideal traded in human slavery and legislated racism. Social truth, like political correctness is fickle. What feels like an insurmountable obstacle today is gone tomorrow and our collective memory is very short. In the context of human history, the commodity of equality has only recently been purchasable by many. And we do buy “equality”. We buy citizenship and equality monthly and render payment as taxation. In return we receive the right There is an old Cold War joke that is chillingly apt. An American talking to a Russian claims the virtue of being American. “I can stand in front of the White House and shout out that I think the American President is a fool and I will not be arrested. I am free to say that!” The Russian replies, “I have the same freedom in Russia. I too can stand in front of the Kremlin and shout out that the American President is a fool and nothing will happen to me.” We claim freedom but not everyone’s understanding of ‘freedom’ is the same. Ultimately, aside from a dangerous minority of thugs (let us not elevate bullies and stupid people beyond that) most of us have never thought too much about freedom of expression. Most of the time we don’t have original opinions on anything and most often we are more scared of offending others than saying what we feel or believe. The freedom of expression ‘debate’ is not a debate. It’s a semantic play-pen.It is a dog chasing it’s tail confusing movement with action. You can hold anything you want, but drop it on someone’s foot and you’ll regret it, get punched, sued or fined. Then it doesn’t matter whether you had the right to hold it or not. Then it’s a different discussion. 20130706_161834

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