#40: Enabling Free Speech, or, the Problem of the Public Sphere

Saying that free speech is an absolute value that needs to be protected is one thing. But how do we make this happen?

This is what is called the problem of the public sphere, be it constituted by the marketplace, or – in Greek – the agora, or – in Latin – the forum, or whatever we may have now. There used to be specific places where speech would be allowed and expected in a democratic context, depending on the society. Whatever constitutes a public sphere may value from society to society, throughout time, across concrete or digital spaces.

Jürgen Habermas described The Transformation of the Public Sphere as a crucial problem for modern (or rather, post-modern) democratic dialog. The salons, forums, debating halls of days past have been replaced by different structures; also, the previously mentioned institutions were not necessarily equitable and accessible for all. But if we believe in the concept of democracy, the rule of the people, by the people, and for the people, we will actually need to have the people, namely all people in a society, have a chance to have a say free from fear of domination, free from powers that might limit their speech, free from technological or monetary or ability-related or cultural or religious or whatever limiting restrictions.

Free speech only happens if – first – an active space exists where free speech is possible for all without fear of repercussions. But – second – in order to be democratic speech, it does not only need to happen, it needs to be heard, and engaged with. Free speech requires a true dialog, free from constraints other than it be genuine, peaceful, and respectful of all.

How do we create and maintain such a space? The parliaments of the world are the high church of such a forum, but there are many more levels of society where dialog needs to happen. For that to happen, we need to enable a culture of engagement, of curiosity, of true democratic interest in each other, whether we think alike or not. We need true respect for each other, especially in our disagreements, so that we always assume (whether justified or not) the best intentions of all participants to conduct dialog, and direct our disagreements always exclusively at the content and quality of the arguments exchanged rather than at the people making them.

Such a space thus needs to be open for all, uncensored (with extremely few exceptions like direct threats of violence, insincere communication (trolling and spamming), unnecessary verbal abuse, and justifiably criminal (but non-political) content. Access should not be given by the whim of a corporate or political entity, but should be an institution clearly under the guidance of the people, i.e. the government, following the mandate to allow truly free speech (in the US context thus upholding the Virginia Bill of Rights).

I do not believe we have such a system today, which may explain some of the dysfunctions perceived all over the world. We cannot exclusively rely on corporate players (however genuinely well-meaning they may be, even with their legitimate profit motive) and must shield ourselves from hyper-partisan politics and political interests – outside or inside – that aim to harm the people and will work to exploit our free speech laws by spreading their noxious and disruptive propaganda.

Free speech, and free counter-speech, is what separates democracy from darkness. It needs to be cherished, curated, supported and vigorously defended, true to Voltaire’s motto as told by his friend Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

So say we all?

#39: Free Speech is Absolute

The dividing line between a just society and barbarism is whether free speech is valued or not. With “free speech” I mean any speech, no matter how offensive. With protected, I mean that the only answer to speech you do not like shall be counter-speech. The truth will win out in an equal, peaceful, respectful exchange of ideas.

  • Equal, because we are all living beings on this planet, and in a dialogic situation, equality of discourse needs to be maintained by fostering equity. Free societies understand this principle – we will all be different, but in our most impactful moment of speech, our vote, we are all (ideally) the same.
  • Peaceful, because only an attitude of peacefulness will allow you to listen to somebody else, and also to your true self. Peace is non-aggression, love, true freedom, true strength; only by being at peace can you achieve it. Peace is absolute also: you are only peaceful if you talk in a soft voice, allow for rational arguments be exchanged, do not hurt other beings or things. Be the peace you seek.
  • Respectful, because you cannot pretend to be all-knowing, and need to realize that someone else may hold a different piece of the truth that you may disagree with, but it may still be true.
  • Exchange means that speech flows from person to person after each has been given ample time to make the best argument possible for their case. It also means that you should not mistake a person’s utterances for their true and steadfast opinion; it may just be an argument that needs to be discussed, whether heartfelt or not; also, people’s opinions change over time depending on the availability of convincing facts and interpretations.

Only week societies shut out other people for expressing ideas, holding beliefs, or for simply being obstinate to what may be considered acceptable or correct opinion. Strong societies relish the open exchange of ideas, right or wrong, offensive or inoffensive, in order to correctly gauge the political and cultural imaginary of the state, and to design policy accordingly, democratically, representatively, cautiously, and sustainably.

Only if everyone has a voice, and knows their voice will be taken seriously, and they will not be harmed for voicing it, will they be in a state of mind to listen to your arguments, if you have some, and give you a change to convince them otherwise. Or, you may be convinced by them. And so it will go, in an eternal circle of discourse; true democracy; true humanity; true utopia. (I think Habermas may be sighing somewhere).

The path of disallowing free speech, even in increments, and even if it starts with just a few things that are somehow seen as “offensive” by the few or the many, will lead further and further down the road, where new categories of offensiveness will be invented, and as a result, all speech will become unfree. The logical end point of the banning of speech has many names: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, in fact all Socialist/Communist states, especially currently the so-called “People’s Republic” of China. In such countries, there cannot be any criticism of injustice, intolerance, inequity, inequality, inhumanity.

Those of us in the West fighting against what we see as injustice should never look to become like that, but the road is very slippery. The fight for freedom and improvement cannot be won by curtailing the freedoms and limiting the paths to improvement of those you disagree with. Freedom of Speech is always the Freedom of the Speech of those we clearly disagree with – otherwise, we would need no such commandment.

But in its wisdom, all of democracy, all of justice, all of peace-building work is contained within the demand that freedom of speech must always be absolute.

#21: Media: Don’t Tell People What To Think

Journalism is one of the most important activities in any country. Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Speech, both are cornerstones for any successful society, not just for democracies.

Without a free press and free speech, no society will survive successfully for long. Dictatorships that disallow one or both those crucial components of public and civic life will fail eventually because they close themselves off to the truth, and get eventually stuck in a restrictive worldview that will not succeed to map reality correctly. If a country fails to listen to all sides, to praise and criticism, to all factions, to all possible opinions, it will also fail as a country.

Similarly, If a country’s citizens fail to listen to all sides, to praise and criticism, to all factions, to all possible opinions, they will fail as citizens, as human beings, and they will also fail their country.

The function of the press is as follows, at least from my perspective, I am no trained journalist:

  1. Gather and publish information that informs on an important issue.
  2. Deepen a discussion of that issue, and add analysis and disinterested evaluation to it, to draw reliable knowledge out from the information.
  3. Make a judgement on what happened, based on the information, and your knowledge of the wider context, and try to make that judgement in the best non-partisan way, sine ira et studio, without anger or passion, so that evaluation can happen without unnecessarily falling into a partisan camp.
  4. Give people the facts, but do not tell them how to evaluate it. You may say, “in my opinion, this is x”, but do not assume everyone should draw the same conclusions. Let people come to their own conclusions – if you have laid out your case successfully, they may just as well agree with you. If they don’t, they always have the right to exercise their own freedom of thought. People have a right to disagree without being demonized.
  5. Do not use primitive click-bait ways to draw people in with an incomplete headline, using the hook-line-and-sinker approach all too common now. “You wouldn’t believe what I found in my driveway today, Click here (and here, and here, and here, and watch the ad here, and – what was this about again?)” – anyway.

News MUST be neutral. Commentary MUST be fair. There are no sides, only truth is the side of the journalist, and truth is always neutral. Ad hominem attacks against specific people ignore the complexity of political life. Don’t think you can easily label a person you don’t like or agree with in a way that such a label puts that person – rightly or wrongly – into the anathema corner of human discourse. Things are too simplified more and more, people’s assumed identities determine whether they matter or not, and dissent suddenly has to be partisan.

This is nuts. Don’t tell me what to think. Don’t pretend you can read other people’s minds. Don’t demonize the side you like. Don’t even tell me which side you like! I should not need to care!

You telling me what I should think in order to be a decent human being (according to you!) is precisely how socialist and fascist dictatorships talk to there people. Right-think, Wrong-think, Doublethink, etc.

The Media, if it behaves like that, is a problem. They need to fix this by themselves, and we all need to realize that we, the people, need to hold the Media as much accountable as the other important aspects of our democracy.

The key words here are truth and credibility. But the truth has many sides, and it belongs to neither party, nor group, nor identity, nor belief system. A journalist will run a story even if it is unpopular and goes against network or newspaper editorial opinion. A journalist will not just placate to the base, and hope they’ll support them when the power structures change. A journalist is equally liked and disliked by all, but respected for reliable information, the unvarnished truth, and contributing to the knowledge of all.

We have a long way to go still, it seems.

#16: Coronavirus and Democracy

We all make mistakes. It is a strength of open societies is that those mistakes will eventually all be ruthlessly and painstakingly revealed, so that we can effectively correct our course and improve our response to crises. This openness, while revealing all the uncomfortable messiness, may seem like doing open-heart surgery with cameras rolling. But that is not a bad thing. It is the only thing that can eventually reinforce societal trust and the consent of the governed.

The purpose of Democracy is not just to change the leaders by democratic vote. It is the best way human societies have discovered that allows such consent to be created time and again without creating the upheaval that a change of leadership regularly creates in non-democratic societies.

With regards to Coronavirus, there appears no single country that has not made a series of mistakes. Typically, there has been denial – it can’t possibly get here. Then, there’s been hand-wringing about what to do, and quite legitimately so. The current voluntary economic restrictions are painful, and have to be weighed against the consequences of the virus. Some governments and leaders have tried to be both hopeful and admonishing. Still today, no single country’s approach really seems to align well with the others, even if it comes down to counting and attributing cause of death (Did someone die because of CoViD19, or with CoViD19 in in addition to other conditions? How do you measure the specific impact of the virus?). It would certainly have helped to have global guidance on that, but I guess this is what happens.

Sadly, every crisis means that the entire world is a collection of different laboratories independently having to solve a problem, with some collaboration. It would have been helpful if China had been honest and transparent, and if the WHO had been less independent in its judgements. Taiwan knows well what to think of them both. That does not mean we don’t need global coordination either, but it needs to be improved.

Once this crisis is becoming more manageable, it will be the open society approach that will prove to be the only one to tackle such problems in the future. Both democracy and science thrive on open confrontation, on honesty, on transparency. They also thrive on convincing people to opt into the right approach, out of their own capacity for reason, rather than on forcing them to comply. If people are not given the choice to do their part to help, but are forcibly locked indoors, or held against their will in horrible conditions, they will rightfully rebel. But if they are convinced, by reason and science, to do what needs to be done to solve this problem affecting us all, they may just do the right thing quite on their own. Democracy believes in citizens, not subjects, it believes in treating people as grown-ups, not children. It is by far the more sustainable approach. At least I hope it is; I don’t think I would like to live in a world where this would not be so. Wash your hands.

#3: Don’t Know What to Say

I have absolutely no clue what I am supposed to say. Maybe I should not be saying anything. But I am thinking something. I am thinking and feeling a lot of things during the day. Thus there could be something to say. Could, should, supposed to. Expectations – they are the real problem.

I live alternately in Germany and in Oregon, United States. I should be free to say what I want. I should not fear repercussion. Critique, fine, and everyone’s a critic. That’s how you grow, or learn to live with something or ignore it. Whatever.

I do not have outrageous opinions. But I believe in the value to weigh and test different and sometimes even opposed opinions. I have convictions, well, maybe one. The dignity of life is inviolable. Stolen right out of the German version of its constitution. Deliberate, willful denigration of others, let alone physical harm to them, is anathema, not good, not something I intend to do. Live and let live. But also, be aware intolerance and bigotry arising. But always seek the truth, no matter how difficult. And always be aware that you will be making mistakes.

I guess I have said something after all.