Freedom of expression is a test of democracy

Perhaps the best way to calm the fiery debate over freedom of expression is to pay more attention to democracy.

It’s said that Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) was the last great philosopher. In other words he was the last philosopher who knew all there was to know. After Leibniz the world changed in such a way that it was no longer possible to know all about everything. And so he remains the last great philosopher.

Now that the world is again in the throes of upheaval and change, I often return to what is maybe Leibniz’s best known assertion: “We live in the best of all possible worlds”. If the last philosopher to know everything about everything came to this conclusion, might there be something to it? It’s a comforting thought at any rate.

Leibniz’s claim allows us some hypothetical fun. What would freedom of expression be like in the best of all possible worlds? In this I use Aristotle as my guide. In his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? the philosopher Michael Sandels discusses Aristotle’s concept of justice using the analogy of a flute. Let’s imagine that I have in my hands the best flutes in the world, and I have to decide who should have them. Should I give them to those with the most money? Or to those who are the most beautiful, or the most talented, or the most socially deserving, or should I cast lots to decide?

Aristotle has a solution to this and he finds it in the flute itself. He asks what is the purpose of a flute and answers that it’s to be played as beautifully as possible. And so flutes are for those who fulfil their purpose, meaning those that play them the most beautifully.

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If we apply this idea to freedom of expression, who, then, in a perfect world would it belong to? To those who “play” it the most beautifully, of course? To those who are able to make fruitful use of it; who don’t use it to pick fights or sow discord; who don’t use it to promote their own interests but rather to search for truth and to learn from the views of others. How would that sound?

If Leibniz were alive today and looked around, he’d maybe think that perhaps this isn’t the best of all possible worlds. The unrest and discord of our time is also reflected in the fiery debate about the limits of freedom of expression.

We know that press freedom is being clamped down on in many countries. At the same time, in many Western democracies there are demands for increasingly severe limits on the expression of certain ideals or views. Universities around the western world have barred speakers whose ideas are seen as offensive or disagreeable.

As if this weren’t enough, corporations in the United States have taken up freedom of expression as a weapon for marketing their products. Tobacco companies engaged in a prolonged legal battle to prevent the printing of pictorial health warnings on cigarette packs that they reckoned violated companies’ freedom of expression.

It raises the question of whether these things are commensurate with one other? A journalist is imprisoned for reporting on matters that are unpleasant to the powers that be. A corporation demands the right to not warn the public about the consequences of using its products. Is the moral and legal entitlement really the same? A lawyer may detect a linkage but the layperson is offended.

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And the layperson may also feel offended by the hate speech paradox. By that I mean the way people who use freedom of expression to hurt others, kindle hatred or proclaim grounds for annihilating certain groups of people, come across as the prime advocates of freedom of expression. Their speech is not worthy, but the fact that they appear as advocates of freedom of expression makes them appear – at least in the eyes of their supporters – somehow worthy and heroic.

So, should hate speech be restricted? In my view the best argument for curbing hate speech is the philosopher J.L Austin’s idea that words are actions and they change the world. I found a good example of this when I recently read Iris Murdoch’s moving novel Nuns and Soldiers. There are a lot of characters in the book, many of whom are deeply in love with one another, but many of them keep their feelings of love to themselves and never tell anyone about it. Why? Because “it could take four seconds to change the world”, as Murdoch puts it. When words are said they can’t be unsaid. The world is forever altered and the repercussions can be unpredictable.

On a more general level, many people will recall the case of Radio Ruanda. The radio station, controlled by Hutu extremists levelled lying accusations and hatred at Tutsis, and this hate speech played an important role in carrying out the genocide. So we can have good reasons for thinking that hate speech changes the world and society, and not in a positive direction. Shouldn’t it be banned?

But… Who am I to determine what viewpoint is allowed and what isn’t? Who am I to draw the line at what’s “sufficient” hate speech that can be banned, and what’s “mild” hate speech that can be permitted? If I claim to be able to decide this, isn’t that also a kind of chauvinism? Isn’t it precisely freedom of expression that’s our best weapon against crass chauvinism?

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To return to Aristotle’s example. What is the purpose of freedom of expression? Someone who has systematically pondered this is Eric Heinze, professor of Law and Humanities at the University of London. When reading his works I have had to examine many of my own preconceptions.

In fact I have always thought that freedom of expression has something to do with the search for truth or discovering the best possible ideas. Following John Stuart Mill, I’ve thought that if everyone can assert their opinion and freely compete with other opinions, the bad will lose and the best will prevail. That’s how we get the best, competitive opinions for our society to develop.

Heinze says that this idea is often repeated in the media but that people studying freedom of expression haven’t believed it for years. Mill’s analogy was conceived at a time when people were in awe at the working of free markets. When products were put on the market to compere against others, the price mechanism in some mysterious way determined the markets’ winners and losers. It was reckoned that this was what also happened in the marketplace of ideas.

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But why do we imagine that freedom of expression – which is just the right to express whatever thoughts and opinions without fear of punishment – would automatically lead to truth or the best possible knowledge? If we want information or truth, why don’t we ask about science? Science is our best method of producing knowlegde and finding the truth.

It’s striking that freedom of expression within science is not precisely the same as elsewhere in society. Within science there is general freedom of expression. Everyone has the right to have their say and so scientific issues can be debated. But science is not a democracy. Not everyone’s words count equally. In science “voting rights” are for those who have knowledge and who have proven their knowledge on their own merits. Those who have not are expected to keep silent and listen.

For Heinze, the core of freedom of expression is not exhausted by the word "right". Sure, freedom of expression is a right, but it’s not absolute in the sense that it should not be weighed against other rights. It’s therefore noteworthy that those practicing hate speech loudly call for their own right to freedom of expression but are the first to demand limits on the rights of the targets of their anger

Heinze proposes that we should think of freedom of expression simply as a basic organ of democracy. Freedom of expression and democracy go together like a lock and key – they exist for one another. So where there’s democracy you’ll always find freedom of expression, and vice versa: where there’s no democracy there’s rarely freedom of expression. That’s why requirements for restricting freedom of expression on the basis of it representing a particular viewpoint are in Heinze’s opinion problematic.

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If you can’t freely express your thoughts, are you then living in a democracy? If you can be fined or imprisoned simply because you have thought certain things and said them out loud, doesn’t it go by a name other than democracy?

Freedom of expression is a democracy test and our time is a good indication of this. Restrictions on freedom of expression are almost always a sign that democracy is in problems. And wherever democracy runs into problems, or people forget its basics, you’ll always come across a heated debate on freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is a good barometer of democracy.

But what about the horror scenarios of Radio Rwanda? Doesn’t hate speech prepare the ground for action? Heinze’s answer is in the term democracy test. In his view, the established and mature democracies – which certainly includes the Nordic countries – endure unrestricted freedom of speech.

Old democracies have their own means of preventing hate speech from escalating into actions, such as by systematically punishing them. In weak democracies, though, things look different. In the Weimar Republic, in Rwanda and in the pre-war Yugoslavia, there would have been abundant reasons to limit the incitement of hatred, because there was no state machine that could (or wanted to) stop killings. In Italy in the 1920s the black shirts began to attack left-wing groups and the police explicitly turned a blind eye and allowed it to happen.

Freedom of expression is a difficult thing. When times are peaceful, it’s easy to make speeches in defence of it. But in times of unrest, freedom of expression requires almost superhuman tolerance. Isn’t tolerance precisely a matter of withstanding something that is unacceptable?

Maybe the best way to calm the fiery debate about freedom of expression is to pay more attention to democracy itself. If we can counter the threats to the demise of democracy and strengthen it; if we can tangibly improve people's lives and sense of life management; and if we can restore people's trust in society so they do not have to transfer that trust into mass movements and charismatic leaders; then maybe people will calm down and we can talk about something other than what we can talk about.

The author is a freelance journalist.

Translation: Mark Waller