Limitless free speech seems to be the new religion in the West. Yet, if free speech becomes as the right to “say whatever you want to whomever you want,” without moral constraints, it easily becomes the means to demean, lie and defame others. It becomes the opposite of a free democracy, where diversity and plurality are respected and encouraged.
Historically, the concept of free expression was introduced to the U.K. House of Commons in the 1600s, as a means to ensure that speakers were not interrupted in the middle of a political argument. It did not mean that everyone was allowed to say whatever he wished, disentangled from good manners, politeness and civility.
Today free speech has become something completely different than its original meaning. In a twisted way, “limitless free speech” has become the very weapon used to shut down the historical Western value of respecting differences and different opinions. In much the same way, “freedom” has been redefined as the “right to agree” with the extreme-liberal elites. If you avert in any way from that which is considered politically correct, you are instantly abused and demonized as someone who is “opposed to freedom.” This has become a totalitarian push away from the civil liberties and respect for plurality that once defined freedom in the West. Lack of respect for others has become the ideal – rudeness is the norm and the means of coercion.
When right becomes wrong and the moral codex is no longer respected, society disintegrates into a remarkable form of anarchy. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote in the “Apology of Socrates,” that the hatred toward Socrates was immense, because he taught the young virtues in his quest for humility and wisdom. Socrates lived in a time much like ours, of massive mainstream media propaganda, when the truth is called a lie and criminals are hailed as heroes.
Another weakness in today’s definition of “free speech” is its sole focus on rights, not moral duties. The whole concept of morality – of politeness, kindness and respect – somehow got lost in our culture. In 1949, when freedom of expression was stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it was advocated as a human right. Article 19 states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Yet, the U.N. declaration does not define the ethical limits of free expression or the required framework of manners when engaging in debates, in order to maintain the respect for one’s opponent. The U.N. charter eloquently speaks of rights, but remarkably less of man’s duties and obligations.
In essence, man’s rights to free expression were established, but not their corresponding obligations and duties. The U.N. charter failed to acknowledge that free speech is an ideal that needs to work within the framework of morality and ethical boundaries. Rights need to correspond with duties. If these constraints are not addressed and clearly defined, “free speech” becomes counterproductive and a tool for the exact same repression it seeks to eradicate.
If practiced without the constraints of conscience, civility, politeness and rationality, free speech ends up weakening democracy and turning it into the rule of the ruthless mob. The famous French author Alexis de Tocqueville spoke about this in “Democracy in America,” as he traveled America in the 1800s and worried about how easy it is for a democracy to turn totalitarian. He said that if democracy develops into a tyranny of the majority or the tyranny of the mob, it is in no way dissimilar to any form of totalitarian dictatorship. The anxiety is the same: Expressing an unpopular opinion can have frightening consequences, both in democracies and in dictatorships.
The West calls itself liberal but is in effect permeated by a small elite who seem to control politicians, the media and the public sphere, with remarkably illiberal values. The mainstream media are permeated by all kinds of techniques to suppress, subdue and silence those considered “enemies of the state,” those who have other worldviews than the extreme liberal establishment. Host of the liberal talk show “The Rubin Report,” Dave Rubin, famously speaks about “the regressive left.”
It’s time to rethink what free speech really is and bring back civility and good manners as we voice our opinions.