February 4, 2006

Are we free to talk?

The freedoms that we enjoy, they sometimes confuse me :p People say, "I have freedom of speech, I can say what I want". And I guess this is right. But what exactly does the freedom of speech entail? What are the boundaries? What can you say and what can’t you say? I guess the general answer would be, "there are no boundaries, you can say whatever you want!" But is this correct?

The whole idea of "free speech" is a veritable minefield as far as I’m concerned. If you insult somebody because you believe what you say is right, you’d think it’s freedom of speech. The other person might think of it as a mortal insult punishable by a beating. Take the same situation, but you don’t believe in what you say – you say it just so that you can annoy the other person. But you’d still be covered by freedom of speech … or would you? How far exactly does freedom of speech go? Can you say anything you want about anybody you want just because you are free to say it?

This is the question which perplexes me. And if you aren’t free to say whatever you want, who judges what you are allowed to say? The government? Your neighbour? The collective opinion of the "people"? Who is to say that any of these people are right in their censorship? Can anybody be entrusted with deciding what can be said and what cannot be said by somebody else? I am not so sure they can.

So freedom of speech has its drawbacks and censorship certainly is not desirable. What are we left with? We can try to impose a (theoretical) code of conduct on freedom of speech such as, "Say what you honestly believe and do not say something that you wouldn’t want said against you!" (I’m just thinking aloud here). Would that work? You know it won’t :p You can honestly believe, based on evidence that seems irrefutable to you, that your neighbour is a litterbug and you might say so out loud and clear. Unknown to you, the littering might be done by another person who wants to implicate your neighbour. Was your exercise of your freedom of speech justified?

Yes, I know I’m simplifying the issue :p Rabid proponents of freedom of speech might say anything ranging from "You speaking out against the perceived littering by your neighbour opens the room for dialog to find the real culprit" to "It’s your freedom to say your neighbour is a litterbug and it’s his freedom to deny it or to call you a name!". Mind you, I’m neither for nor against freedom of speech. I just want to understand how it is supposed to work without it actually being abused – intentionally or unintentionally. For the life of me, I can’t really see it working – not with humans the way they are. Now if we were rational, ethical, non-impulsive creatures, perhaps … but that’s just too much to ask for :p

Posted by Fahim at 7:07 am  |  No Comments