#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 The salons, forums, debating halls of days past have been replaced by different structures; also, the previously mentioned institutions were not necessarily equitable and accessible for all.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.