Tuesday, May 21

Free speech is not the only value nor an absolute value

This month a 21 year old was arrested in the USA in relation to the classified leaks about the Ukraine war. He is charged under the US Espionage Act and likely to spend decades behind bars if convicted. Leaking classified information about a government is not considered part and parcel of free speech. And it’s very simple why it isn’t. Free speech is not the only value relevant to a modern liberal democracy. It is trumped by the national security interests of a state. There are other restrictions on free speech too: defamation laws, copyright laws, not lying in court, not impersonating a doctor and so on.

Historically, all societies have understood that to maintain social harmony and to allow a society to continue to function normally restrictions are to be placed on speech, what citizens can say and where they can say it. Underlying the idea of free speech are other values, too, besides social harmony. Citizens in a democracy have the right to vote for their government of choice, and this can only happen if people are able to express themselves and openly criticise the government. This is the only way to hold a government accountable for its actions, and free speech is essential to it. Another important idea behind free speech is that people genuinely disagree on important matters, and it’s important to allow healthy public debate and discussion to reach a consensus. The only other option is conflict, imposing one’s values by force instead of convincing people of its merits.

What the Far-Left is doing is elevating one value over others, people’s desire not to get offended and hurt by words, — through cancellation mobs, “tomato saucing”, and refusing to engage in serious debates — to justify its censure of free speech. However, people’s sensibilities and feelings do matter sometimes. For example, I went to Easter Mass to get a feeling of what Christianity is about. I remember sitting there and thinking what if I just got up and started shouting in the middle of the service that Jesus was a fake messiah. That Christianity made a religion out of a guy who ended up, arguably, failing miserably and getting crucified. I am sure every one of the faithful congregants would have been deeply horrified and offended; I would have been kicked out of the church. Rightly so. Christians have the right to privately worship and celebrate their religious holidays free of insult. But this is not what the left is arguing for. They are saying you should have the right to never be offended, no matter the context. Your feelings matter all the time above other considerations.

But I believe the Right also gets free speech wrong.

I think the Right, correctly, advocates for freedom of expression; but the problem is it increasingly thinks it is the most important value and an end in itself. Top of the hierarchy. I think momentary reflection would say otherwise. Free speech is an instrumental value. Its ardent defenders chiefly argue that a society that is based on freedom of expression is a happier society to live in, because it allows individual freedom. Free speech, then, is a means to an end: a free and happier society. But this end is now muddied and conflicted. What is the end of human life? What is a happy life? Doesn’t it all depend on our perspective? What is crucially missing is the idea of the “good”: what is a good life and why that life is worth protecting? Nowadays, it’s very difficult to have meaningful discussions with kiwis about important life topics because everyone is entitled to their opinion and there is no right or wrong way to go about it. So, what tends to happen is that many people just end up getting offended. Marriage, raising a family, working, having friends, education, knowledge, gender, sexuality… are literally whatever you make it. 

Modern western society is committed to the idea of the neutrality of the “good” or the lack of the “good”. Provided you don’t harm others, it’s up to you how you live and what values you hold. The government’s job is to only regulate how people go about dealing with each other. It tells them not what to aim for in life but only the legitimate ways to get to those aims. This is where the crux of the problem lies. No wonder why Chris Hipkins wouldn’t say what a woman is when asked. He wants to be neutral. It’s up to his voters to decide what that is; free speech allows citizens this decision.

Doesn’t it?

If the state is to be secular and neutral when it comes to religion, can it not be neutral when it comes to flat earthers and gender controversies? I remember studying Chinua Achebe’s book When Things Fall Apart in high school, which is about the colonial impact of Britain on 19th century Nigeria. I never thought back then why we were taught this book. I believed because it was the truth, and it was important to know what the truth is. But now if the truth itself is a controversial idea, and it’s all a matter of opinion, then perhaps it’s hard to say what a woman is? And if we can’t know what a woman is, then how can we say anything definitive about colonialism. Why teach that colonialism is bad? Why not present the other side: colonialism can be good too, after all it introduced modern liberal values, modern technology, and democracy to many “barbarian” countries. Or maybe colonialism is “non-binary”, neither good nor bad. You see where this is going.

What the west is struggling with is a crisis of value and a crisis of “Truth”. No government can be entirely neutral. It must draw the line somewhere. The West has abandoned the paradigm that was Christianity, which gave it structure and meaning, which drew perimeters around a “good life”. It has lost that worldview now. Free speech on its own is not going to save a declining West. More is needed.

I don’t know what the answer is to this dilemma, only that we need honest and open discussions and healthy debates to flesh out a new “model” for our times.