It’s easy to support the concept of ‘Free Speech’ in principle, especially when the political winds blow in its favour.
Only earlier this year, many united behind the slogan of ‘Je Suis Charlie’, with strong words of condemnation for a media unwilling to show the cartoon for fear of ‘offence’ or ‘retribution’.
Yet, when tested within the daily practice of society, this support is prone to waiver. It is unpopular to defend an individual who ‘offends’, or whose speech has been classified as ‘hatred’.
There should be no shock that our media feared to broadcast the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ cartoons, for it is just a reflection of the society we have unintentionally created. A society which, with good intention, attempts to silence certain views in order to ‘protect’ those within it.
We were able to unite against the threat posed by ‘Radical Islam’, but are we able to stare down our own demons?
Free Speech, as defined under the ‘Harm Principle’, should be considered as the right, or mayhap the duty, of every citizens to voice their opinion, up until the point at which it incites violence. In my opinion, this should be based upon two key factors, precisely what is remarked and the circumstances in which said comments are made.
From this perspective, the same speech given to a quiet theatre hall, should be considered in a different light if made to an angry crowd.
This results in a situation where individuals have the right to ‘radical’ speech, which we in society may be uncomfortable with. As clearly summarised by J.S. Mill:
“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”
An individual’s comments could be considered as offensive by those whom witness them, yet this is no reason to silence said opinion.
This is not just an ideological extreme with no merit in its defence, as one must note the opportunity to learn from this alternative perspective. There is a potential that through critique of this, and your own outlook, you may move closer to the truth. Furthermore, if the truth offended the majority, would it be morally correct to ban it from being spoken in society?
However, the foremost obstacle facing free speech advocates in modern society is a relatively new phenomenon, that historically philosophers have not been required to take account for, the Internet.
Whilst one’s offence is no reason to mobilise against free speech, is the radicalisation of our young people into ideologies of hatred, resulting in actions which they would have previously considered abhorrent?
Maajid Nawaz portrays the modern world as existing within the ‘age of behaviour’, were one’s identity is based more so upon ideas and narratives, than the society they reside within.
Not held back by the limitations of the state, extremists such as ‘Daesh’ have placed the internet at the heart of their propaganda machine. This campaign has been incredibly effective, with Khalid Mahmood MP predicting that at least 1500 British Citizens have been recruited to fight in Iraq and Syria.
Whilst in Northern Ireland we are less likely to face the challenges of radical Islam, paramilitary influence and racism are the most probable negative repercussions of free speech in this new age.
The paternalist would argue that Government holds a duty to intervene, as in the long run these influences could result in violence, as seen via the surge of racist attacks in Belfast. This is as a result of the same logic adopted within the ‘War on Terror’, were if a freedom such as privacy lowers that of security, it should be curtailed.
In essence, as a minority of individuals may take a ‘vile’, yet peacefully orated idea online as a call to arms, we all must suffer.
If we follow this logic, being that an organisations ability to use our freedoms against us result in their abolition, this will naturally lead to a world without liberty. For, even those of us whom are most sympathetic to human nature, do not expect the end of terrorists groups with the intention of eliminating those who reject their worldview.
Furthermore, as requested by Christopher Hitchens, whom would you trust to draw up said limitations to free speech? Who would define what is, and is not for example, racist? As a Conservative, I am highly opposed to my Government attempting to define what is ‘extreme speech’, never mind banning certain speech from society altogether!
Although you may be comfortable with an individual’s ability to voice very specific ideas being banned, what if you hold the next ‘offensive’ view which society leads a crusade against? Is that different as it impacts upon you or is it still for the betterment of society as a whole?
If individuals are unable to trust anyone other than themselves to draw up said limitations, the experiment of limited speech is bound to decrease not only our current strides of progress, but the happiness within overall society.
But how is this all relevant to Northern Ireland you may request?
As we are all aware, during May 2014 Pastor McConnell made a sermon, which was steamed online, in which he accused Islam of being ‘heathen’ and ‘satanic’.
This committed the modern ‘sins of free speech’, being deeply offensive or ‘Islamophobic’, freely distributed online and coming from an individual with authority.
After rejecting an informed warning, he is to be prosecuted.
Whilst rejecting McConnell’s sentiment, his right to attack an idea such as Islam, upon whatever peaceful platform he so chooses, should be protected. He at no moment incited violence against Muslims, and although misinformed, his views should be considered and countered within a societal debate.
Ironically, in my experience, as an atheist, many of the atheists who reject the Pastors’ right to this freedom have been just as offensive about Christianity. One must wonder, would they request the protection of certain ideas or certain individual’s from the limitations of free speech?
One can never ensure that free speech does not result in violence, especially with tools such as the internet, but this is no reason to ban it.
On the contrary, the proposal to ban the free discussion of ideas will likely result in more violence, as those unable to express themselves feel isolated. An important factor within the radicalisation process.
With ‘Je Suis Charlie’ seeming increasingly distant, I fear the political winds have once again turned against us, and the benefits short-lived.
Andrew Wooster, ‘Conservative for Liberty Northern Ireland’.