What Free Speech Means to Me
Today is International Blasphemy Day – an initiative headed by the Center for Inquiry to raise awareness of limitations placed on free expression in the context of insulted religious sensibilities throughout the world. Of course, this is something I support; as someone who is non-religious, I don’t wish the act of holding the beliefs I do to become a punishable crime. I also think blasphemy laws are silly in general terms. There is not one set of rules for blasphemy – the very state of being Christian is, in some cases, blasphemous to certain Muslims, for example. Suppressing dissenting opinions is a clear indication that you aren’t able to defend your own views very well, and as my friend put it, “if God is so puny that he needs us mere humans to police each other against profaning His Sacred Name, then we are the fools for being duped into worshiping him in the first place.”
But the concept of free speech goes much, much deeper than defending and protecting my own opinions. Free speech, or more accurately free expression, is the guarantee that you will not be forcibly restrained or punished for holding, publicly expressing, or communicating any concept, statement, or belief whatsoever. Sure, that includes beliefs which are blasphemous to any religion, and expressions of those beliefs, such as the cartoon shown to the left which incited murderous riots in Denmark and brought the debate over their blasphemy law into public focus. But, it also includes ideas and opinions which I, and any reasonable human being, would find absolutely loathsome.
The right to express the belief that those who insult Islam should be put to death must be protected. So too must the beliefs that women should be subservient to men, that 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy, that childhood vaccinations cause autism, that the world would be better if homosexuals were exterminated, and that speech should be regulated and censored by governments. It is possible to oppose such beliefs in the furthest extreme while supporting with equal strength the right to hold and express them. More so, I think it is vital for the success of a free democracy to do just that.
I have heard people say that they support free speech in regards to controversial topics, where there are reasonable opinions on either side, but that when speech crosses over into the patently and demonstrably false, or when it becomes hateful, that it is then reasonable to put a stop to it. I couldn’t disagree with this more – I truly see the issue as an all or nothing case. My disagreement mainly comes from an emotional place, in that it simply feels wrong to me to restrict any sort of idea no matter what. I think what underpins those feelings is the belief that no one should have the kind of power that allows mere thoughts and words to be restricted and punished, period. I’m wearing my Thomas Paine shirt today, which contains the following quotation:
“He that would make his own liberties secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
The quotation could be interpreted as a pragmatic argument – if we allow the ruling party to restrict ideas which are distasteful to me, they might then restrict my ideas which are distasteful to them. The response to that would be to say that as long as you only restrict obviously false and hateful ideas, the precedent doesn’t apply to my ideas. That may be true, but I think Paine meant something deeper. I think he was saying that once you grant any measure of power to the majority of a population over thoughts and expressions, and more importantly the ability to define which thoughts and expressions are allowable, you have opened a way to unchecked tyranny. Not to say that tyranny is an immediate or even inevitable outcome, but without solid and uncompromising protections for even the smallest and craziest of minorities, it becomes extremely difficult to reverse the process of slowly turning each minority opinion, one by one, into a crime. At what point will each of us find ourselves in an undesirable minority?
Oh boy, OK, this post has gone in a weird libertarian direction that I didn’t intend. I was having trouble even finishing the above thought, which I will take as a sign to simply move on. The point I wanted to get across is that as we celebrate blasphemy, which most of my readers will agree is a victimless ‘crime’, we should keep in mind that the principles we’re supporting go much further than ourselves, and that the freedom to openly express offensive ideas is not one bit less important when we’re the ones who happen to be offended.
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.