On Freedom of Speech and Ideas

To create a safe environment where we all feel we belong society ushered in the use of inclusive language through political correctness. This has partly evolved into the ‘Cancel Culture’, which has shown to not only repress the views of people but also shut down any possibility of dialogue. In the end, failing to redress the issue that remains. This culture has fuelled ostracism of opposing views and public shaming as we prefer to be judgemental for self-protection, or to feel good about ourselves and how “woke” we are. It has become a prickly landscape making it quite difficult to have any progressive discourse regarding equality. Instead of creating opportunities to exchange viewpoints, form mutual understanding and a fairer society, the scene has heavily shifted. Now it is constrained by the fear of offending some individual or group.

Our society depends on shared truths, which brings into contention where our baseline of right and wrong is. Any ideas or moral interpretations should be subject to challenge and scrutiny to validate their weight, or we run the risk of dogma and enforcing conformity. We should be able to welcome a diversity of ideas to avoid a distorted form of ideological imperialism, while also acknowledging that not every idea is valuable.

A brief look into the history of science identifies groups within society that were offended and reacted disproportionately, in the end impeding the very progress our society always strives for. Whether we choose to look at the physicist Galileo who was considered a heretic by the catholic church and arrested for his evidence that the earth revolves around the sun, or the Persian physician Rhazes who was made blind under the order of a Muslim priest for the compendium he contributed to the field of medicine, because the priest had taken offence to his work. This is only but a short list of such examples. Trevor Noah aptly captured this when he mentioned how people love what you have to say, until you have something to say about them.

On Moral Duty

Are we protecting a group within our society or are we protecting an idea?

We bear such firm intolerance to different ways of thinking and that drives polarisation and extremism. Freedom of speech should not merely be subject to one’s feelings of a particular matter. For the critical question would then be, who would we assign the responsibility to dictate when it’s appropriate or not? This question is quite subjective because it is difficult to quantify our emotions. We can learn the importance of upholding every individual’s freedom of speech from Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. He asked a man whether he would break the law to punish the devil, to which the man said he would cut down every law to do so. Then the question was posed, to whom the man would then look to for protection when the devil turned to confront him, with all the laws having been cut down. He ends the scene by saying “I would give the devil the benefit of the doubt for my own safety’s sake”. The structures within our society are meant to be challenged by our ideas, whether held by consensus or not.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Victor Frankl

What we think we deserve and therefore expect is in contrast with what we experience. So, in certain cases we think of changing the world before we are critical with ourselves first. We lack the emotional agility to articulate our feelings without falling into an urge of intensely expressing our discontent. The problem is not the negative emotions, but rather how we identify with them and choose to express them. In his letter De Profundis, Oscar Wilde describes what he referred to as the “Oxford temper”, which is the idea of exploring ideas in intellectual matters in a respectful and measured manner. How we react is framed by how we choose to perceive an issue. So, it is not just about whether the act or person is wrong, but also how self-absorbed we are in our judgement. For we have control over the latter.

On Shared Truths

Human thought and action are considerably driven by comparative reasoning. Our lives are littered with uncertainty and the complex issues of morality are testament to that. Yet we remain entrenched in our views, choosing to look at the world through a binary lens.

We express our outlooks with such certainty for we are more concerned with being right than we are with gaining understanding of another perspective. It proves how we can learn to approach an issue by trying to grasp where our reasoning may be wanting and not through proving how right we are.

It takes humility to acknowledge we all lack understanding in varying degrees. Having perspective on a particular matter simultaneously makes you blind to another view, so when we consider issues of morality, we can only hold partial truths. If we can accept that, then we can begin to pursue understanding instead of the validation of being right.