How Free is Free Enough?




The limits of free speech have been discussed since ancient times. Particularly today, we find ourselves confronted with the need to weigh free speech against other values like inclusivity, respect and tolerance of other viewpoints and religions. We look at the arguments of philosopher Ronald Dworkin in defence of free speech.

Today, we are almost too ready to accept the censoring of political speech in the “free” West and the regulation of speech in online media, primarily where race, antisemitism, and sexuality are concerned. Online censorship laws are on the rise in all countries, and what is sometimes called “cancel-culture” by its enemies has to be questioned as to whether it is a beneficial development or not, whether it’s necessary, as its proponents say, or the end of free, secular, democratic culture, as its opponents claim.

Of course, the debate on free speech is much older than that. Socrates is not only commonly seen as the father of philosophy, but he is also the father of all those who are being killed to silence them. Since then, the powerful have always tried to restrict speech in ways that suited them, while the dissenters have tried to defend their right to speak up. The more recent development is that today not only the rulers, but the citizens themselves attempt to censor the speech of other citizens if they find it offensive.

Today, we are almost too ready to accept the censoring of political speech in the “free” West and the regulation of speech in online media. 

Interestingly, on the same day and page where The Guardian reported on the Salman Rushie stabbing, one could read about the censoring of a comedian at the Edinburgh festival, whose show was cancelled “over ‘extreme racism, homophobia and misogyny’”; and a column by Simon Jenkins on why we need online censorship. It seems that our condemnation of censorship is pretty selective, even within the ideologically somewhat homogeneous group of Guardian writers and readers: we are quick to defend our own right to insult other cultures, but we are not willing to accept similar challenges to our own views.

Let us begin with an exceptionally clear and well-argued article by Ronald Dworkin from 1994 [1] – long before the censorship of dissenting views in our own society became commonplace. More articles on the topic will follow. If you don’t want to miss any, you can subscribe right here:

Which rights are strongest?

Dworkin begins by recognising that the most problematic threat to free speech does not come from those who traditionally tried to control it: governments and “the despots and ruling thieves who fear it” (p.9). Instead, we today have a situation where free speech has a number of “new enemies”:

… who claim to speak for justice not tyranny, and who point to other values we respect, including self-determination, equality, and freedom from racial hatred and prejudice, as reasons why the right of free speech should now be demoted to a much …

Originally appeared on Daily Philosophy Read More