Freedom of expression is that important?

Should politicians always be allowed to say whatever they are planning to implement?  Do we need limits to the freedom of expression? Should the king be protected against offenses? Who decides what is offensive?  Should you be allowed to glorify terrorism? Who decides what terrorism is? If someone is sympathetic to terrorism, would you rather know that, or that they kept that to themselves? Should you be allowed to punch someone with despicable views? How can we resolve differences in a nonviolent way? What does political correctness have to do with freedom of speech?

* Disclaimer: I apologize for any language errors in advance. Do not hesitate to point to any errors. Some of the editing crowd sourced, due to the limited numbers of hours in a day. More info at the end of the post. 


Freedom of speech or freedom of expression?

To function our democracies require a constant exchange of ideas. Take equality of opportunity, opinions will vary widely how to define and how to achieve it. That is great, but to get somewhere we have to have conversation about the ideas. And at some point we have to reach consensus on the course of action to take. We should be able to discuss anything openly, without open dialog there is no democracy.

I prefer the term freedom of expression over freedom of speech as it exemplifies that entails more than just speech. It also includes art, comedy, clothing, and so forth . Within freedom of expression I would also put freedom of religion as this just an expression of your personal believes.

There are serious threats to freedom of expression and open and honest exchange of ideas in general. It is not unthinkable that Donald Trump will close down newspapers if he could legally do it. Anti-Islam politicians in Europe are in favor of banning the Koran. In the Netherlands the argument is that Mein Kampf is already forbidden. On the other side of the political spectrum we see more and more violence to stop people with different ideas from speaking. If you think these people are so wrong, why don’t you debate them? That should be easy, shouldn’t it? At times protesting, especially violently, will make these people actually look much more important than they actually are.


Should you punch a Nazi?

Take the case of a masked protester punching ultra-right-wing white supremacist Richard Spencer whilst he was giving an interview. This action in itself probably gives Richard Spencer more importance than he should have. On top of that the British newspaper The Guardian went on to question: if it is ethical to punch a Nazi? Why is this a question in the first place? Okay, If they had answered, no of course not, it is never ethical to punch anyone, unless it is out of self-defense of a direct threat of violence. But that is not what they did.

They went so far as posting a video of a reporter saying she would not condemn it. Not only that, she also said going high when they go low was the Achilles heel of the left and was a threat to liberal democracy (video at the end of the post). To me this is flabbergasting. If you do not want to get punched yourself, a good start is probably not to punch people, because you disagree with their views. Ironically in the interview Richard Spencer said he is not a Nazi just before the punch.

Who decides who is a Nazi or not? What about punching people who talk to Nazis? What about setting fire to the house of a presumed Nazi? In short, where does it stop? In addition, does doing these metal gymnastics to justify punching a presumed Nazi, not give these people more importance? Maybe it could even cause more people to sympathies with them. If you decide to report on these issues the only way is to condemn any kind of violence. Because escalating violence and shutting down opinions violently is the real threat to liberal democracies. Not the other way around.

I do not agree with any of the white supremacy and identarian views of Richard Spencer, in fact I think they are truly despicable. I do not know if he is a Nazi or not, but to get clarity let us extend the punching logic a bit more. What about punching radical Imams? And punching the members of the gay hating Westboro Baptist church, or other Christian fundamentalists? They have quite despicable views too. And what about communists? With some extrapolation all these people could be a threat to liberal democracies. Maybe we can also easily justify wars against societies that could be a threat to our western value sets. I am not in favor of any of these things. This is merely to point out that once you start not condemning violence against one set of opinions, it does not take a whole lot to justify other kinds of violence against other viewpoints too.


Political correctly you might be a racist

Another problem is using loaded terms way too loosely to call out people. Terms like: racist, bigot, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynist, sexist, Nazi, Islamophobic, et cetera. This kills honest debate about difficult topics that we probably need to have about religion, emancipation, integration, immigration. This will steer away intelligent nuanced people from these conversations. And it might leave us with only the extreme sides shouting mostly nonsense at each other. This will not produce solutions and it is not a society we should aspire to live in.

Before calling someone a racist, bigot ans so forth, think about what would happen if you call someone a pedophile unjustly on shaky suspensions. This destroys the person’s life and he or she will never be able to fully shake the allegation, however false they turn out to be. Now this is of course worse than accusing someone of racism, but it exemplifies how careful you ought to be when making strong allegations. On the other hand, overusing these terms will substantially reduce their meaning. Sometimes we do need to use this words for the real bigots and racist. Are we then going to invent new words for them, because nobody will take the original terms seriously anymore? And who is then going to take seriously the newly invented words and expression anyway. Just Look what happened to the term fake news.

We need to defend freedom of speech and open debate at all costs. Why? Once there is precedent for prohibiting ideas, later this can be used against any other idea. Let say socialists win the next election, maybe they would like to ban “The Capitalist Bible” The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. You might think this sounds ridiculous. But if I had said with a straight face three years ago, that in 2017 Donald Trump would is president of the US and is criticizing the ratings of the apprentice on twitter. And on top of that the UK would exit the EU. You might suggested me to a mental asylum, because then these things looked absurd. This illustrates that things can change quickly.


Should there be limits?

Freedom of expression includes the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. But to avoid nonsense you also have the right to ignore. Therefore we do not have to prohibited much speech by law. In addition, it is better that people with extreme ideas can voice them publicly so we know who they are and what they think. If these ideas were to go underground, they might become much more toxic and dangerous. And we lose the opportunity to reason with these people to change their views in a nonviolent and civilized manner.

Should there be limits? Very few I think, because then we maximize freedom and open debate. And because the next election everything can be used against your ideas. Not sure to what extent, but for sure infringements on other people’s privacy and specific personal violent threats could be caped. We have to hold the right to privacy in high regard (e.g. Hogan vs Gawker case). If we have a freedom of expression with few limits, it does mean that one also must bear the consequences of their expressions. This means that people can ridicule, boycott, intellectually destroy you, and what not. But we can never accept violence, it is very wrong of people who try to give the Charlie Hebdo staff some of the blame. People were killed over a cartoon.

However, if we cherish freedom of expression we should do it for all. Apparently, after 9/11  a France magazine form the Basque Country that was mocking the attacks was banned and even confiscated. At the time, there was no protest against the censorship (Leroy case). However distasteful or disgusting the publications, we should also be against that kind of censorship. So, freedom of expression should also count for flag pissers and book burners in your country. And especially so for glorifiers of terrorism. This might surprise some, but this probably is one the best way to find out who sympathizes with terrorists. Just let them tell us, this will probably significantly reduce the haystack in which to look for the terrorist needle. The only thing we have to do is to cope with sometimes disgusting and offending expressions, but that is way better than dealing with actual violence.


Are you offended? The king is immune

Why are so many people offended so easily? Being offended or hurt feelings mean nothing. We should accept that encountering offensive things, is part of living in a free society. What is an offense anyway? This is extremely subjective, and it is not a counter argument in a true conversation. If I open twitter or switch on the news I can feel offended all the time. That should make me happy, because a world without is far worse. Why are people taking offense anyway? The only thing that does is validating the offender. Just be amazed and ignore them into oblivion, or be extremely polite back. These are the best antidotes, not prohibition. If you completely extend that at times you could even thank the offender for sharing their opinion, not held back by possibly damaging their own reputation or breaching social norms.

The limit for me personally is for people who lie deceitfully to smear another person or people. Should this be prohibited then? Only in very extreme cases, in most cases not, let these people reveal themselves as deceitful liars, more often the truth will overtake them. We have the choice of growing a thick skin and live in free societies. Or else, we end up in downward spiral of prohibiting more and more.

In Spain people get huge fines or even go to prison sentences for disgusting tweets, glorifying 40 year old ETA terrorism for example. It is without much discussion that ETA were terrorists. But if you were to hold a poll In Spain, I am convinced you would find millions of people classifying the Franco dictatorship terrorist together with ETA. The Franco regime is also glorified by some people. Who gets to decide who are terrorists and who are not? It is way too subjective and counterproductive to be just and effective.

Some of the tweets are at least distasteful. But also insulting the Spanish king or the royal family can land you a hefty fine. Will these anti offense laws increase or decrease respect for the king you think? Now there is even talk in the minority government of wanting to prohibit “offensive” internet memes in general, not only about the king. Because these can hurt ones pride. What are these people thinking? Hurting pride, are we regressing back into an honor culture? And where does this end? Because the party on the other side of the spectrum also does not shy away from insinuating they would like to see certain speech prohibited.

Let people, blaspheme, insult, offend, deny the holocaust, burn flags, and so called holy books. There is no easier way to identify the idiots and maybe even dangerous people among us, than by letting them do it themselves without your effort wasted. I am all for civil discourse, but it is truly fake if it is forced upon people (more about this later). People are often already not saying what they really think because of social norms and political correctness. That is already bad enough and causes more misunderstanding than understanding.

Sometimes, it is harmless or even good, to not speak the truth, just to be polite. Little white lies like saying an ugly baby is beautiful, is quite harmless. I do not see much benefit in creating very awkward baby showers. But if you truly have to lie to be “polite” to adhere to social norms or political correctness, I would argue that is actually extremely impolite and harmful. To be truly civilized you have to honest too (more about this later).


Should politicians always be allowed to say what the want to implement?

There are difficult cases though. In the Netherlands, the anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders stood trial for inciting hate and discrimination. At a political rally, he asked the public: “do you want more or fewer Moroccans”? The public chanted: “yes”! Then he said: “Then we are going make that happen”. I find these comments disgusting, and to offer some extra perspective just change Moroccans to Jews or Blacks.

After the comments appeared on national TV many people filled complaints with the police. The public persecutor decided to go to trial. After a heavily publicized court case Wilders was found guilty of group insult and inciting discrimination. He was not sentenced however. I totally agree with the process, if people file charges, the public prosecutor must follow up if there is sufficient reason to believe a crime was committed. And I trust that the judges examined the law properly and he was found guilty in accordance with Dutch law correctly.

However, is the law setup in the best way? What if we restrict this kind of speech, especially for politicians, how do people know what they are exactly voting for? If he had not made these comments publicly because he feared prosecution he probably would have still thought it. When he expresses these disgusting views in public, at least we know the extent to which he is willing to single out one group of Dutch citizens. If expressed, his stance is much clearer and we can debate him on it. Suppose he ever wins the election with much softer standpoints, but once in power he is doing different things than he said, with the excuse that it was illegal to pronounce his real plan.

He also seemed to have become more popular after prosecution. And he tried to make a martyr out of himself by saying it was a political process. He also got a much bigger podium even globally, and his comment and ideas got a much bigger audience and got repeated much more often than probably would have been the case without prosecution.

On the other hand, I do see an argument that it could be threatening if you are a Dutch person from Moroccan decent. Wilders has a large following and I can see that it actually could increase discrimination. You might even change your life plans in the, however unlikely, case Wilders gets enough power to execute these ideas.

For me the difficulty comes with naming Moroccans in general. Especially the second part “then we are going to make that happen”. Had he said: then we are going to try to deport criminal Dutch Moroccans with a double nationality, I would have found it less difficult to accept the comments as legal. I find it very difficult now to say if the law generates the best result. I tend to let this speech free so we can better identify and counter these ideas, but I am by no means sure about it in this particular case.


What about bullies?

The other more complicated area is bullying, especially for children. It is often extremely difficult to cope with that for people. We need to prevent it, but not at all costs. In practice, I think bullying in children usually goes with threads of physical violence. That is a limit for sure. But if you had a very smart bully, who kept saying repeatedly you are ugly or stupid something, without ever threatening to physical violence it is more complex. And to solve this we should look at the intention. If we can prove that a person is targeted by others who are trying to inflict physiological harm repeatedly over a certain amount of time, we can take action against that without getting to the subjectivity of single insults and stifling speech in general.

If it is unintentional than we will have to sit down and talk about things. Take romantic advances in the workplace for example. If it is the intention of one is to seek a good time for both and the other declines then it must stop immediately (though I would never recommend these things in the workplace in the first place). If not stopped it becomes a form of harassment or bullying, and is very serious.

However, we cannot stop bullying at all cost, because that would mean that we regulate all conversation. And in the case of children I think that slowly step by step they also should get used to what is happening in a free society and that not everybody always speaks nice words. If we would regulate all they can do, so that there is no bullying, they will never get used to the real world.


We should start talking to people we strongly disagree with

We have to listen to people with vastly different ideas. And preferably have long conversations with them. If do not do that or we even prohibit certain speech, we might end up in an enormous safe space group-think conformation bias black hole. Much bigger than the social media echo chambers that exist already. Therefore, we have to be very careful with prohibiting speech explicitly with laws or implicitly by overusing political correctness. When I speak to British friends about Brexit it seems that it surprised many people that there is so much racism in the UK. Much of the anti-foreigner sentiment might have been suppressed by political correctness (that does not imply that if you support Brexit or limiting immigration you are racist by definition, that is a very dangerous thought, more on that later). If these sentiments were better known we might have seen a different campaign, and maybe even  a different outcome.

I am a strong believer of having bad ideas out in the open, because sunlight is the best deterrent while maintaining plurality of thought. The left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky said “if we do not believe in freedom of speech for those we despise, we do not believe in it at all”. I think this quote sums up very well what freedom of expression means. It means allowing opinions you do not agree with. If we go in the wrong direction here, it could be a real threat to the properly functioning of democracy. Freedom of expression is the bedrock of a free society. With great freedom also comes the responsibility to use it wisely. I am afraid it is not always used in the most civilized way nowadays. This is dangerous, because it could give right or left autocrats all the more supposed legitimacy create more and more restrictions.

Anybody should be very worried if the freedom of expression gets impeded. You might think it is okay for things you disagree with or even find disgusting. But it is not you deciding. It might be Donald Trump, Nicolás Maduro, Barrack Obama, or the majority, which is quite scary if you happen to have minority opinion. Think about the following three questions. If people are not allowed to say something, will they stop thinking what they think? Is there any other nonviolent way with which we can resolve our differences and change people their opinions? What are all your other freedoms worth if you are not allowed to express what you think?


I apologize for any language errors on the website, I do this all by myself with no editorial help. Do not hesitate to point to any errors. I want to get the ideas out there and I am very bad at spotting language errors and I am certainly not a linguist. Accepting the risk of looking unprofessional, I have decided to crowd source some of the editing to the readers. Thanks in advance. And, if you have any other ideas do not hesitate to let me know trough social media or the contact page. Many thanks for your interest in my work.

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When they go low, going high is not enough – Nesrine Malik – The Guardian