Free speech. It’s one of those vague, ubiquitous ideas that everyone seems to agree with. It’s what we proclaim when we argue with people and say disagreeable things. It’s what we claim to champion when we argue for the freedom of the press. In short, free speech seems something that is quite inextricably tied to the idea of a democracy itself. However, if this is the case, then why does to seem that increasingly, all over the world, the idea of free speech itself is under attack?
At this point you may be thinking that I am talking about the recent violence at Ramjas College in Delhi University, or about President Trump’s war on the American mainstream media or about the killings of secular Bangladeshi bloggers for expressing their opinions. You are right. I am talking about all of those issues. However, my argument here runs deeper and I fear that behind all of these issues there is a deeper malaise. It is the idea that somehow freedom of speech is not good for society, and this idea permeates.
This sentiment surfaces in different places in different ways. In America this manifests in situations such as the protests at UC Berkeley against Milo Yiannopoulos. The protests were held by students who disagreed with Milo’s views and thus did not want to allow him the opportunity to express his views. In India, this has manifested in the rise of the term “anti-national”, which has morphed into a derogatory slur to be used against anyone who holds views in opposition to right-wing orthodoxy.
The opposition to free speech creates multiple difficulties for a functioning democracy. It limits the range of opinions from which to make meaningful policies while at the same time it gives the impression that some views are more correct and more legitimate than others. This runs the risk of making a large section of society feel voiceless in their own land. Furthermore, it is often forgotten by individuals seeking to limit other’s freedom of expression that the very fact that they are able to voice their displeasure with the opinion of others is because of the constitutional guarantee of free speech. What the thugs at Ramjas college do not realize is that they were able to protest the invitation extended to Umar Khalid because of the right to free speech. However, what they must also realize is that free speech is not a one way street. So protesting the right of others to speak out is in fact one of the most hypocritical things an individual is capable of.
Moreover, the right to freedom of speech is what guarantees us exposure to differing views and experiences. Psychologists have long known that human beings are prone to confirmatory biases i.e. we only like to hear what we like and discard what we don’t. If the freedom of expression is taken away from us then we will be doomed to stay trapped within our own tiny bubbles. Already studies show that political polarization has reached its highest levels in recent decades. If things continue as they are, we will soon reach a stage where it will be quite impossible to reach compromises. At such a stage, the least we can do is allow others to have views which may be different from our own.
Like Voltaire said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.”