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Freedom of speech is precious to us all, whatever your age

First published in the Express 11/07/2020


Against a recent backdrop of toppling statues, online shaming and social media-provoked sackings, 150 or so prominent writers and academics this week felt the need to write an open letter to Harper’s Magazine defending the universal right to free speech and condemning a growing ‘intolerance of opposing views’. JK Rowling, whose comments on transgender rights have seen her shunned by many fans of her Harry Potter books, was among them.

I thoroughly enjoyed the letter but, listening to a follow-up radio interview with another signatory, I was surprised they floated an idea that there is perhaps a generational difference in attitude towards freedom of speech. As a millennial in my twenties, I fully support and will always defend the universal right to freedom of expression. I would add that, though online shaming is a clearly a modern phenomenon, millennials did not invent so-called ‘cancel culture’ – the boycotting of someone (usually a celebrity) for expressing an opinion that may dissent from a ‘norm’. Astronomer Giordano Bruno, a far-sighted and celebrated free-thinker of his day, had the audacity to suggest that religions and philosophies should coexists in tolerance and mutual understanding back in 1600. He was burned at the stake for expressing his views.

Humans have a long history of intolerance. Shutting down debate and shutting people out, will push them to express themselves elsewhere with calcified beliefs. To end ignorance and prejudice, we should instead engage in civil, informed debate and examine if a belief or decision was based on uncorrupted logic and reason. If it wasn’t, we should replace it with a decision that was. Follow reason, follow facts. Everybody makes mistakes. The real danger is becoming so enamoured with one’s perspective, one ignores evidence that contradicts it. To make progress as a society we need to acknowledge our errors and change our ways. Freedom of speech is essential to this progress. The other essential component is the elimination of the fragile ego that tempts us to call for suppression of voices it does not like hearing.

As Nobel Laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo explain in their phenomenal ‘Good Economics for Hard Times’ – we know that people will go to great lengths to avoid evidence that would force them to revise their opinions, as admitting they were wrong in the first place, can damage their view of themselves and their self-worth. Unfortunately, it does not follow that people are particularly thoughtful about forming these initial opinions.

Extremists are all too keen to weaponise public discourse for political gain that dehumanises any ‘other’. This is where ‘hate speech’ differentiates itself from speech you simply hated. To quote the UN Secretary General António Guterres ‘addressing hate speech does not mean limiting or prohibiting freedom of speech. It means keeping hate speech from escalating into something more dangerous, particularly incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, which is prohibited under international law’.

So, as battle lines are drawn over free speech, I would like to see us all be more civil. It’s too easy to be disrespectful to someone online behind an anonymous screen. But you are responsible for what you say and write. If you do come across an opinion that offends you, first, deal with your emotions about it, and then (if you must) respond with reasoned words. Be better than them. Or better still, do not add fuel to the fire. A lot of these attention-seekers just want the clicks. Do not re-tweet them, do not vote for them.

Secondly, normalise saying ‘I do not know enough about this to have an opinion’ and then research the topic in private. As philosopher Harry Frankfurt eludes to in his ‘On Bullshit’ many of us are called on to talk about matters of which we know little; in a democracy we are expected to have opinions on a range of political issues, so we offer them to avoid saying ‘I don’t know’. The problem is, most of us (myself included) know very little about a lot. The Dunning-Kruger effect demonstrates why it’s not PhD scholars that get into twitter arguments.

Thirdly, normalise changing your opinion after learning new facts that contradict it. In the internet age of intense partisanship, it’s difficult not to indulge in confirmation bias – the tendency to look for information that confirms your beliefs and ignore information that challenges them. It’s ok to be wrong. It’s good to learn new facts. I urge you to be more open-minded.

Above all, please always remember, to progress as a society, it should never be more important to be popular than to be right. The truth may not be obvious immediately, it takes time to gather facts. That’s why all kinds of voices must be heard, even if they are unpleasant at the time, they could be the ones we need to hear, they could be the truth. Freedom of expression cannot be selective; it must be universal.



Friends of Voltaire

I think the time has come to be a bit more honest

About how fragile egos are stifling our progress

No matter what, we’re determined to believe

We’re so difficult to teach, so easy to deceive

Each of us upholds, of ourselves, our own ideal

Of someone ‘smart, decent and earnest’ as quite real

We’ll go the extra mile, to protect our virtuous image

Before ourselves and others, basking in our visage

Too often, we’re too fragile to admit we might be wrong

Digging in our heels, becoming more headstrong

But everybody makes mistakes, the real danger is adoring

Our view, while facts that contradict it, we’re ignoring

To make progress, we must first accept our errors

Concede and change our ways to ways much better

Or we’ll end up producing, a sad, corrupted world,

Where facts don’t sway opinions and logic gets ignored

We often shield, ourselves from our own bias

Hiding it in language, we believe to be quite pious  

Avoiding information, that would force us to confront

Our moral ambiguities, at times a touch corrupt

Instead we look for evidence, that must mean we must be right

Each scrap we find, we overweigh, sustaining our insight

Careful what you consume, as confirmation bias

Is a foul, addictive poison, that slowly, us all blinds

The cruelty of delusion, one thinks they are omniscient

Shouting ever louder, with insight insufficient

I think the time has come, to put our pride aside

Yield, learn to disagree, and set the record right

It should be seen as normal, to not have an opinion,

On a subject you don’t count, as part of your dominion

It should be seen as normal, to change your mind on something,

When learning some new facts, that may in fact, surprise you

Why do we expect, when we hear things we don’t like,

For them to be suppressed, scrubbed clean or purified?

I may dislike what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it

No matter what, I will uphold, your freedom to express it

As far as I’m concerned, to our unsound ideas

Exposure, scrutiny, amendment – this antidote will free us

Follow reason, follow facts, and please always remember

Amendments, no matter what, can always be amended

But some people expect censorship, and often prosecution

Yet shutting down debate, is not a sound solution

So long as they’re just words, it’s still a contribution

However ill-informed, contradiction’s not persecution

Do not let the extremists, weaponize our discourse

Do not let them divide us, fomenting hate, their resource

Do not let bigotry and loathing, rise at every turning

Hate can be dispelled with an open mind and learning

The difference between ‘hate speech’, and speech you simply hated

Addressing ‘hate speech’ means keeping it from escalating

Into an incitement of hostility and discrimination,

Illegal actions such as violence and other altercations

But even if we stay, within the legal limits

Too many have grown cozy, in their anonymous image,

Being grossly disrespectful, without any consequences

Relishing in causing, waves of mass offences

You are responsible, for what you say and write

If you’re claiming facts, give evidence you cite

If you’re slinging slander, do not be alarmed

If legal action comes from those you may have harmed

But if you’re just expressing, whatever’s your opinion

Say, a critique of the government of your dominion

I defend your right to do so, your freedom, I implore,

Censorship’s the first step towards nineteen-eighty-four

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