Why Free Speech matters

Anwesh Satpathy
Feb 22, 2019 · 4 min read

The CEO of twitter, Jack Dorsey, was recently summoned to appear before a Parliamentary panel led by BJP MP Anurag Thakur on
February 25 this year. Last year, Dorsey made a similar appearance in
US Congress defending twitter against allegations of anti-
conservative bias.

Major corporations of Silicon Valley, including Google and Facebook,
face the same allegation as well. More than half of world’s
population is now connected to the Internet. Internet and social
media have provided a platform to a diverse range of individuals to
reach millions of people instantaneously. At the same time, it has
also helped to resurrect regressive ideas of racism, white supremacy,
anti-Semitism and misogyny.

The followers of these ideas are primarily self-indoctrinated online.
Since 2016, the internet has witnessed a sudden explosion of openly
racist and xenophobic websites. It is true that some of these white
nationalist websites, like Stormfront, date back to 1996. However,
many of them gained prominence only in 2016.
In March 2010, white supremacist Richard Spencer coined the term
“Alternative Right” or “Alt-Right” to describe these racist groups. The
Alt-Right organized a rally in Charlottesville led by Spencer to
promote “Neo Nazism, white supremacy and the alt right” in August
2017. The marchers raised anti-Semitic and racist slogans while
carrying semi-automatic rifles with them. More than a thousand
protestors were estimated to be in attendance. Many counter
protestors confronted these protestors leading to a violent clash. A
self-described white supremacist deliberately plunged his car into a
crowd of counter protestors, leading to the death of one person and
the injury of 40 others.
The chairman of one of these alt right websites, called Breitbart,
later joined the Trump administration for a brief period.

Charlottesville would not have been possible without the Internet.
Ideas have consequences and bad ideas lead to bad consequences.
The moment an individual endorses direct violence through speech,
it becomes hate speech. A democratic civil society must allow its
citizens the right to express themselves, even if their ideas are
despicable. However, it should persecute its citizens if they advocate
for violence.

The utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill claimed that a free
exchange of ideas leads to the discovery of truth. Individuals who
claim that a view should be suppressed because it is false assume the
infallibility of their ideas. Mill argued that since human beings are
fallible, it is impossible to say that a statement is wrong only because
the majority thinks so. Opinions should not be censored even when
its wrong as the truth becomes “a dead dogma” when counter
arguments to it are suppressed.

Thoughts are collective constructs but the expression of those
constructs verbally or through writing allows you to get corrective
information from other individuals who are better informed. Free
speech allows you to make mistakes and it provides with an
opportunity to correct those mistakes.

It is important to take heed of the fact that the boundaries drawn
around free speech is often arbitrary. We must understand that
there is a distinction between offensive speech and harmful speech.
Offensive speech should be permitted but harmful speech should be
checked. The outrage against Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic
Verses is an example of offensive speech. Rushdie was forced to go
into hiding after the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa
permitting Muslims to kill Rushdie. A similar incident occurred when
the U.S. conference of Catholic Bishops called for a boycott of Dan
Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code and its movie adaptation for being
“morally offensive”. Neither “The Satanic Verses” nor “The Da VinciCode” advocated for violence against any section of society but they
did offend a section of a group for their discussion of taboo topics.
Radical social change is not possible without talking about topics that
people find uncomfortable. The suppression of the rights of
individuals to express themselves results in them hiding behind a
façade of lies. We don’t want people to hide their true intentions.
We do not want racists to pretend that they’re not a racist. We do
not want misogynists to pretend that they are not misogynists. We
can only call out people for their narrow-minded opinions if we allow
them to express themselves.

A good example of why offensive speech should be permitted was
the moderate rise of the far-right racist British National Party (BNP)
in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The BNP’s
leader Nick Griffin was able to polarize the public by raising concerns
over immigration. As a result, the BNP won an assembly seat in the
2008 London Assembly election and gained one million votes in 2009
European Parliament election. The BBC invited Nick Griffin to appear
on the popular program Question Time. Many people protested
against his appearance. On the program, Griffin was challenged and
allowed to express distasteful comments on the holocaust. Although
Griffin’s appearance dominated the headlines the next day, most of
it was negative. The BNP was exposed as a racist party and lost its
popularity. The BNP wouldn’t have been exposed as a racist party if
its leader wasn’t allowed to express his opinions freely. Free speech
is the backbone of a democratic society. Without it, our society will
be in shambles.

More From Medium

More from Anwesh Satpathy

Also tagged Free Speech

Also tagged Free Speech

Liberty in the Time of Corona

5

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade