Defining Free Speech

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Written by Alasdair Bell

If I were forced to pick a word to summarise the nature of public discourse today, it would be hard to turn away from contention. The driving aim of most conversations is a desire to be right rather than to be effective. Inevitable, perhaps, in a society divided and categorised at every opportunity; placed on the left or right, red or blue, this or that. And it is this binary simplification that erodes away at different topics of discussion, important topics of discussion, to leave behind ruins that can neither show us their origins nor assist the progress of the conversation. One such issue is free speech. 

Freedom of speech and its counterpart, censorship, have been at the heart of societies since the sharing of ideas has been possible. From the classical public debates of Greece, you can follow the thread throughout history, all the way up to today. Using an example from one of the most tumultuous periods in British history, our civil war, we can see John Milton defend free speech in his Aeropagitica, rhetorically asking, ‘who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter’?

He makes a good point. For progress to occur at the benefit of a whole society, ideas must be allowed a platform for expression where they can be discussed objectively and openly. Allowing for debate, conversation, compromise, change. Given this, the ‘truth’, as Milton puts it, can be found from amongst the haystack of opposition that is necessary to define it. 

But Milton existed in a different society. The arena for this debate was sealed to parliament and circulated papers (like the pamphlets Milton wrote), not spread out over a whole digital landscape. The number of people involved in this discourse was insignificant against the millions we see today. But the main difference is that Milton is talking about ideas, weare satiated with opinions. 

I am aware that this will be classed as an opinion piece so perhaps we would be assisted by some definition. By opinion I mean impulse, words ejected from the mouth (or fingers) before thought has had a chance to shape them. Words which malign, are filled with venom, but would never find their way into the world given a morning cup of tea. Often words that can materialise online but would never dare be spoken without anonymity. I think we all know what I’m talking about.

This is not an attack on social media but an attempt to explain why, when talking about freedom of speech, we rarely begin to touch on the subject. The debate usually finishes with the defender of free speech struggling to find an answer to questions on why homophobes, racists and criminals should be given a ‘platform’ for their opinions. Why are we giving voice to purveyors of hate? Well of course we shouldn’t. I should hope that conclusion needs no supporting argument. But those examples are not relevant to the question of freedom of speech. And it is because of those examples that we remain ignorant to the necessity for the freedom of ideas.

If we were to try to put our fingers on the pulse of where free speech lies today, between the poles of complete liberalism and complete censorship, it would be hard to see anything other than a clear shift towards the latter. There is a reason ‘cancel culture’ is already a clichéd term. In more ways than one, this shift is driven by laudable aims. The events of the past few months have shown us our need for tolerance, acceptance, reflection and above all, change. There is no question about that. But for change to occur, as Milton attempted to show, ideas must be given the freedom to interact, develop and emerge all the more rounded for having done so. 

For reasons already explained, this is easier said than done. To part the red sea of opinion, creating a path for ideas, is a task of truly biblical proportions. Perhaps a task simply impossible given the scale and prevalence of social media. But we can at least begin to recognise the need for this task to be undertaken in the first place. For change to occur, the censor must fail in their aims. And, as this intolerance is present on both sides of the political spectrum, change will become unattainable. 

I want to let an aphorism of Kafka hover over this article: ‘The fact that the only world is a constructed world takes away hope and gives us certainty.’ The censor sees the world as calculated in advance, constructed and fixed in place. But movement can’t occur when opinion is treated as final and any difference is censored. That is why freedom of speech, or freedom of ideas, is needed in a society in the process of progress.