It’s much too easy (in the name of “free speech”) to fall into the hypocrisy of permitting what the whole world recognizes as hate speech while only censoring certain speech we particularly hate. The movie Citizen Kane contains excellent dialogue and two of my favourite lines are spoken by a close friend of Mr Kane. When asked if he remembers a particular occasion he had with Kane he replies: “I can remember everything. That’s my curse. It’s the greatest curse that’s ever been inflicted on the human race: memory.” He then goes on to describe Charles Foster Kane: “Charlie wasn’t brutal. He just did brutal things.”
‘Freedom of Expression’ is surely among the most difficult issues mankind in civilization has ever had to grapple with. What should be blessing, a pillar of democratic society, increasingly seems more like curse.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) votes to adopt a “statement of freedom of expression and academic freedom”. That’s fine — if it is all really as simple as it is made to look. The problem with this is that, in the past, such policies elsewhere have resulted in freedom of speech for some people and some topics but not for other people and other topics. That may be inevitable and would be the exact opposite of what MIT is aiming to achieve with this new policy.
While it’s easy to criticize such goals, it’s difficult to propose better options. If asked, I would probably say “let the people decide what should and should not be permitted within free expression.” But that would be no solution. In the past the majority of people (within a population) have sometimes voted for or endorsed policy/legislation that affected “others” (a minority of people) negatively.
It is strange when certain speech some people hate they exclude from free speech but all other forms of hate speech is included. A commitment to freedom of expression is important and necessary (easy part). It’s always the question of where to draw the line: what we permit and not permit (hard part).
MIT lists ‘plagiarism’ as among only a handful of types of speech to be censored while other “injurious” and “harmful” speech will be allowed. Many are celebrating this MIT statement the way people around the world celebrated the creation of the United Nations in 1945. As if that intergovernmental organization would be the end of all conflicts between nations.
As a minimum, the freedom to express harmful or injurious speech must be confined within an atmosphere of debate and mutual respect (like in the United Nations). This is important especially in an academic setting in the search for truth. But harmful speech, hateful speech or misinformation should not be given a free platform without a countervailing presence. Free speech should not mean free reach and freedom to express should not automatically mean freedom to impress negatively on vulnerable people.
Read also: Experiencing freedom within boundaries
I recently attended an online event organised by The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). The event promised to “examine the desire among some members of the public to have a democracy without parties or professional politicians, an idea which has its roots in the ancient world.” Towards the end of the event, an LSE professor (among the panel) was asked by a member of the audience to consider the importance of minority rights, in the context of the discussion. The professor said that his own position is old-fashioned utilitarian: only what benefits the majority of people is important.
He said there is too much identity politics these days. He wasn’t challenged because there was no time or perhaps because he was a professor. Only those present in-person could comment directly or speak. The professor was entitled to his speech. He was not entitled to the free reach he enjoyed unchallenged. In the spirit of healthy debate, within the quest for truth, strong statements like that should not be censored but must be challenged.
What immediately came to my mind was the rights of the physically challenged, the blind, the deaf, the ones wheel-chair bound, the ones stricken with disease from birth…these are minority and to deny them human rights? It was awful. (Hey, Prof, it’s not a zero-sum game. It’s not either/or. Please include the minority, and consider them, when you give rights to the majority. It’s that simple.) A different question would have been, “Prof, what do you think about the opinions of the minority?” That very different from asking “Prof what do you think about the rights of the minority?”
Omoregie is co-author with Kirsti Ryall of the book Misinformation Matters (Taylor & Francis Publishers), [email protected], @UyiosaOM (Twitter)