Monday, July 17, 2006

Liberty of Thought and Expression

A couple of weeks ago I started asking questions about what Liberty really meant. I’ve been reading John Stuart Mill’s take on the matter in his book, On Liberty, and he’s got some interesting things to say. With that reveal, I’d like to start exploring Liberty of Thought and Expression today.

In America we call it “freedom of speech” and it’s guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Mill considered all encroachments on the free expression of opinion to be illegitimate, even if sanctioned by a government. He said, “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose . . . the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.”

Humans have never experienced a time where opinions were free from all error. We may like to think our opinions are perfect and right, we must acknowledge that we are all fallible. (The irony of me stated the opinion that all opinions have errors hasn’t been lost on me.) If we make the assumption, though, that human affairs can only progress though the exchange of ideas, and the ability to see and rectify mistakes in the light of discussion, disagreement, and experience, where does that leave us today? Is wisdom gained by exposure to a variety of opinions? I’d like to think so. Mills said, “The strongest foundation for any belief is a standing invitation to prove it unfounded.” If this is true, social tolerances for ideas, and a free press, are vital to a free society.

Do we really have a free society, then? Social stigmatization of non-majority beliefs has been with us for decades, and persists to this day. Our social system is so splintered, however, that we find ourselves in the strange situation where majority beliefs are stigmatized in certain circles as well. Just look to the rants of the various talk shows and op-ed pieces that masquerade as “news” on television, radio, and the newspapers. It seems to me that, as a people, we haven’t left open the possibility that our own opinions, even our most deep seated convictions, can and should be disputed in open forum. We don’t tolerate the circulation of opposing ideas.

Even the threat of social intolerance of a particular idea is enough to prevent its expression and circulation. I would contend that one position can’t be fully understood until its opposite has fully seen the light of day. Our near fatal tendency, as humans, is to quit thinking about something once we’ve made up our minds. We begin to make the most errors when we consider a thing to be no longer in any doubt. This includes science as well as religion.

If this is true, that free speech is part of our fundamental belief in Liberty in the United States, do we protect all speech? What about hate speech? Do we protect a person’s right to disseminate that? Where does free speech cross into libel? If we can praise people, can we also malign and slander them? What if what we say is true? What if what we say about someone is not true? When we write things like, “At least he’s quit beating his wife” we are implying that a person did, at one time, beat his wife. But what he never struck her in the first place? “What? You haven’t quit beating your wife? You cad!” Of course he hasn’t quite beating his wife. He never beat her to begin with! And yet we see this kind of half-baked slander all the time on the 5:00 news. The press protects itself from being accused of libel by saying, a person “allegedly” did something.

It’s even worse in the political arena. Most political arguments these days contain only partial truths. Each side quietly suppresses half of the argument. Because they refuse to acknowledge the remainder, a useful dialogue is impossible. Only a conversation with all the facts can lead us to a stronger resolution than the ones we had before.

So, do we live in a society with true freedom of speech? Ten years ago I would have told you no, there’s no way. Even today, “political correctness” rears its ugly head and stops the free expression of ideas. In the name of “political correctness” many have misread the meaning of free speech. It’s not that all ideas, cultures, and ideologies are equal and good, as many would have us believe. They’re not. I refuse to buy into that idea. A culture that values slavery in any form, whether formalized as it was in the early days of this country, or through social stigmatization and cultural violence, is not good! It’s that the expression of either side of any argument is right and good.

Freedom of speech means I have the ability to use any means of non-violent expression I want, be it words, music, dance, or whatever, to share my opinion. Blogging is one way I do that. In order for my opinion to have any strength, though, I have to allow you to fully express your dissenting opinion, even if I find what you have to say distasteful and evil.

Feel free to disagree.

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