freedom of speech · philosophy · writing

Absolute versus limited freedom of speech and expression

Do you support the absolute freedom of speech and expression? Or, do people with unfettered tongue and pen make you uncomfortable? Are a person that support bold and fierce writers or a person that prefers to be quite and consequently keeps others quite as well?

Christopher Hitchens claimed that the right of others to free expression is part of our own. If someone’s voice is silenced, we are deprived of the right to hear. Hitchens was convinced that if the right is denied to one faction, it will not stop there.

Fortunately, philosophy provides us with various approaches and everyone can find something that suits them. In the discussion about absolute and limited freedom of speech and expression we might refer John Stuart Mill’s division between self- regarding and other- regarding action. Self- regarding action merely concerns oneself. For those actions the individual cannot be accountable to society. This category includes the way somebody thinks, speaks and writes. With self- regarding actions we can defend an absolute freedom because thought, opinion and speech do not cause harm. For that reason they are limitless. They might be found offensive by others, but offense is not equal to harm. This brings very simple solution for all of those who find some books offensive: DO NOT READ THEM and remain in the silenced sphere. Moreover, Mill emphasized that restrictions cannot take place in a free society. When opinions are silenced, there is no progress. In fact, lack of freedom of speech and expression leads to mental slavery or conformism.

The other- regarding actions may concern others. For this reason, restrictions imposed on those actions can be legitimate. The example could be a drunk bus driver. Those restrictions can be applied to the sphere of self- regarding actions when we consider protection of minorities, such as ethic, religious, cultural, sexual and many others. Limited self- regarding actions are related to Mill’s harm principle and tyranny of majority concept. Absolute freedom of speech and expression might lead to harm, such as racist attacks. We should not forget that the social pressure of majority might be very powerful. As Mill stated, the majority has a power to enslave the human soul. Moreover, Mill claimed that diversity is good in itself and everyone has a right to develop own individuality and has a right to make own choices.

I support absolute freedom of speech and expression because freedom is inseparable condition for progress. History shows multiple examples that no development and progress happen in societies with severe restriction of freedom of speech and expression. If you are a writer or you plan to become one, think about the question asked by Salman Rushdie: “What kind of idea are you? Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive; or are you the cussed, bloody-minded, ramrod-backed type of damn fool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? – The kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of hundred, be smashed to bits; but, the hundredth time, will change the world.”

Dear writers, you have the incredible power to change the world! Be courageous, be brave. Question the world around you and challenge the conventional. Do not allow others to silence you. Do not allow others to enslave your soul. Make your work immortal through saying what people might not be ready to read. Your name will be remembered. You will shape the future.

9 thoughts on “Absolute versus limited freedom of speech and expression

  1. Whilst I think freedom of speech is a laudable ideal, I’m afraid I’m uneasy with the idea of allowing absolute freedom of speech to groups and individuals whose avowed aim is to destroy that freedom for others – Nazis as an example, but there are plenty of others.

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  2. I get your point. Although I am supporting absolute freedom of speech, I recognize the flaws of it. There are Nazis, as you mentioned and others that could use it in very bad way. However, we should also take into consideration that limiting one group from free speech leads to limitations of other group. Always somebody can justify why some group should be silenced. So the question arises how to set the boundaries, what is allowed and what is not. Is it actually possible to make a list of allowed and not allowed topics?

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  3. Speech that incites violence, that promotes physical, mental, or psychological harm towards others? But again I’d recognise there would be grey areas for lawyers to fight over…

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  4. It seems there isn’t ideal solution. Only compromise and sacrifice of freedom of speech would work for the better good and protection of vulnerable groups.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I believe in absolute freedom of speech because it’s the only way to assure that ideals like Nazism can be spoken against and not reign supreme. One of the major reasons that type of thinking and the actions that followed were able to take over a country and terrorize regions of the world was because other voices were pushed into silence. Even ideas that are violent, oppressive, etc. — when voiced in an arena of free speech — create debate and allow for the outcry of justice and love in opposition of those ideas. If control of speech is allowed, then that debate can fall into the hands of a small few, in places of power with agendas that shift over time. While they enforce ideas you appreciate, you’ll feel free, but all of it can change in a remarkably short time when those with a different agenda conspire quietly to take the reins of that controlling entity. I’m aware free speech can start riots, but I also believe it’s also the only thing that can restore peace and justice when balance is lost. We just all need to remember to use our voices – as this excellent article encourages us to do. Thanks for a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You made an excellent argument. Only free speech allows to speak against ideas such as Nazism. Actually, this is similar to what John Stuar Mill claimed: wrong ideas can be rejected only through open debate. Thanks a lot for your comment!

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