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Freedom of speech (with limits)

7 March 2008 at 23:57 | 1019 views

By Julian Baggini

The Kilroy-Silk debate has thrown the spotlight on an age-old dilemma - how can you uphold free speech while preserving social order? Something always has to give.
The unthinkable has happened: Kilroy has started a national debate on an issue of fundamental importance. The fallout from his rehashed article in the Sunday Express is refusing to settle.

The debate, however, is not primarily over what he said, but his right to say it. The status of Arab regimes is not at the centre of the stormy debate, but the freedom of Robert Kilroy-Silk to express his opinions, free from "censorship" or "political correctness".

On one side of the argument are those for whom freedom of speech is sacrosanct. They argue that it is the mark of the civilised society that renegade voices are heard and defeated only by rational debate, not by gagging.

On the other side lie those for whom it is non-negotiable that all members of society, whatever their skin colour, nation of origin, ethnicity, sexuality or beliefs, are granted equal respect. Prejudice has no place in the public sphere, and that includes the sphere of public discourse.

What both views gloss over is that in real life there are difficult cases. We may yearn for a simple principle that tells us what is right or wrong in every case, but such principles do not exist. We must be prepared to grapple with the complexity of the world and the competing demands of sometimes incompatible values.

Consider freedom of speech. Hardly anyone actually supports unrestricted freedom to say what we want. Many of those defending Kilroy-Silk, for example, would be horrified by the extreme freedom of speech in Denmark, where pro-paedophile groups are allowed to speak with impunity. This would be a freedom too far.

But why? In his classic defence of liberty, John Stuart Mill distinguished between offence and harm. We cannot stop people doing or saying anything simply because it offends us. Too many people are offended by too many different things. We should only constrain the liberty of others if what they do causes harm.

Power of words

Champions of freedom of speech tend to assume too quickly the "sticks and stones" principle: that words can only ever cause offence, never harm, and so freedom of speech is absolute.

But as another philosopher, JL Austin, pointed out, we do not just communicate thoughts and ideas with words, we can actually do things with them. A priest, for example, can make two people married by saying "I now pronounce you man and wife".

Words can incite hatred, inspire violence and create fear. When people use words in this way, it is facile to protest that they are merely expressing opinions. Their words cause real harm as well as offence.

This is why we rightly limit the freedom of people to utter hate speech. Racist words can make people live in fear. Homophobic rantings can legitimise discrimination. Sexist words can buttress sexist practice. It is not "political correctness" to stop people using words to harm others, it is simply fairness and justice.

Does that mean Kilroy-Silk should be suspended? Not necessarily. In all the outrage, few have read the entirety of his controversial piece. I have, and though I think it grossly misjudged in tone and often wrong in detail, it is essentially about Arab states, not Arabs. Whether he has stepped over the line from offence to harm is here a judgement call, one on which intelligent people can disagree.

Perhaps we really should be reflecting on another sacred liberty: the freedom of the press. For what is almost certainly the case is that more hatred and prejudice has been stirred by the coverage of the piece than the piece itself.

By emphasising the ways in which the piece could be seen as anti-Arab rather than anti-Arab states, the media furore has taken the limited capacity of Kilroy-Silk’s words to harm and intensified them. The press has poured fuel on the fire and has basked in the warmth of the blaze it has created.

With freedom comes responsibility, and arguably neither Kilroy-Silk nor the media as a whole has used their words responsibly.

*Julian Baggini(photo) is editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine.

Source: BBC News.