Eich and Sterling
Freedom of expression has seemingly risen up the worldwide news agenda recently, with Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich being forced to resign due to his stance on gay marriage (expressed through his donation to a US anti-gay marriage campaign)and a life ban being given to at LA clippers owner Donald Sterling over recent racist comments he made. As such, I will argue that this issue isn’t just something for fancy intellectuals to ponder in a trendy Bloomsbury coffee shop, but is absolutely fundamental to the exercising of our humanity. That assertion might seem rather Hollywood and hyperbolic but I stand by it, and in what follows I will explain why.
Defining freedom of expression and why expression is so important
Before I do so however, it’s important I set out what exactly one means when discussing ‘freedom of expression.’ In my view, a good definition would go something like this: ‘The right and ability to exercise conscience in terms of speech, behaviour, movement, action or any other associated act without sanction from any organisation, group or individual.’ Having set out a working definition, let’s consider why upholding this freedom is so important.
Let us consider the following question: ‘What is the prime factor in determining the way we speak, behave, move or act?’ Whilst undoubtedly elements such as genetics and environment play a role, it is my view that greater than both of these is belief. That is, my beliefs about who I am, who others are, the role I have in this World and so on play a crucial role in driving my behaviour in all areas. More importantly, an individual, group or organisation might feel that particular beliefs have the potential not only to change their own lives, but the lives of others with which particular beliefs are shared.
To give a working example, somebody who believes in the existence of God can, will, act or speak in accordance with that belief, and will (depending on what they feel are consequences of this belief for others) want to share this belief with others, the same being true for those who hold that there is no God. Thus, whatever the belief, the point here is that our beliefs are fundamental in defining ourselves as human beings and can have life altering consequences for both ourselves and others. Hence, our beliefs aren’t somehow detached from us as some would suggest, rather they are crucial in defining who we are as human beings.
Influencing the expression of others
Therefore, if freedom of expression defines our humanity, any attempt to limit this by sanction or otherwise deserves to be taken extremely seriously. Does this mean that freedom of expression should be allowed to be manifestly expressed without any sanctions whatsoever? Not necessarily. It is clearly the case that human beings do not operate in vacuums independent from one another. It is quite possible for someone in exercising their own right to express themselves might in doing so hinder the ability of someone else to do the same. For example, if I were to express my belief that someone was annoying by punching them in the head, I would through injuring them be limiting for a certain period of time their ability to exercise freedom of expression. Herein lies a conundrum, should the risk of limiting others freedom of expression by the expression of another’s own result in sanctions being imposed?
I believe there is a line to be drawn. Sanctions on expression through murder and physical harm on the account of belief are justified for a number of reasons. Of relevance to this article, if you kill someone, you permanently prevent them from expressing themselves! The argument is similar regarding physical harm, albeit you might not (at least physically) prevent expression forever. In addition, it’s worth noting that in comparison to offence (discussed in detail below), physical violence is far more ‘concrete’ in terms of what does and what doesn’t constitute harmful physical violence, is less time sensitive (what physically harmed someone 10 years ago will harm someone today), and in my view is far more likely to have a negative impact on limiting another person’s ability to express themselves. I should also add that the same applies regarding incitement to murder or physical harm.
A question of offence?
Clearly however, someone can still be offended, hurt, angered and experience a whole host of negative emotions due to someone else’s non-physically violent expression of their beliefs. Yet whilst offence can be unfortunate, I do not believe those labelled with causing offence should face sanctions. There are three reasons why I hold to this, and they are outlined below.
Firstly, if we really do believe that the UK and rest of the world should be a nation of tolerance and diversity, as our politicians are all too keen to publicly say it should be, then there should surely be room for different cultures, and different people groups to reside and play a healthy role in UK civic life. Few I’m confident, would object to this vision. Yet if we really do desire a diverse and tolerant world, then there should surely be room for differing opinions and views that reflect the diversity of cultures present in the UK (and much of the world). At the moment, it seems all too often that constructions of what is acceptable and what is not are dictated by an empowered metropolitan elite. Further, instead of shouting ‘bigot’ at those we find offensive, why not engage in constructive dialogue with such people, challenging their views in a robust yet respectful way? I believe using this tactic both engages the ‘offender’ and increases the potential for understanding and progress. This dialogue centred approach is in my mind is what true tolerance looks like, and has been seen to work in combating racist views, just ask Margaret Hodge. Thus, if we ditch this ability to truly tolerate one another, even in spite of disagreement and the potential for offence, we lose this true tolerance which many seemingly so desire.
Secondly, what if causing offence turns out on a longer term basis to have a positive impact on individuals, groups and wider society? I can think of many examples of where this has been the case, from minorities in decades past standing up against the racism practised by the societies around them, to the many people undergoing radical and positive world view changes due to being exposed to views considered by many in society as unpopular. The point here is that what is considered ‘unacceptable’ in one point in time, might not be considered as such later on (this is not to say that some of the things we find offensive today are not.) This brings into question who decides what is and what isn’t offensive. Whilst difficulty in answering this question shouldn’t mean that the notion of offence should be thrown out altogether, the sheer fluidity of what is and what isn’t offensive, to whom it is offensive and the time sensitive nature of offence should prevent us from sanctioning against expression on such grounds.
Thirdly, and returning to what was said at the beginning of the article, denying freedom of expression on the grounds of offence is not just an restriction on expression as a concept in itself, but also on the ability of those deemed to have offensive views to exercise a vital component of their humanity. That is, preventing people from expressing what they believe to be vital not only to their own existence but also others is a very great offence indeed.
So in summing up, whilst we must be aware of the fact that in exercising freedom of expression we can limit another’s ability to do the same, it is imperative that we promote a system in which everyone in society, including religious, ethnic, sexual and socio-economic minorities can freely express themselves without sanction. Whilst doing so might cause offence to others, this risk is not grounds for limiting such expression. Thus, we must find ways in which offence can be turned into something positive, whether it be through debate, social participation or the means to respond through legitimate channels. One is not naïve however, and whilst it is unfortunate that offence could have profound negative impact some people’s agency to express themselves, this is by no means a reason to impose from on high an framework of what is and what isn’t acceptable and apply sanctions. Thus, we in the UK are in comparison to other nations are blessed in terms of the freedoms we have; there is a valid argument to be made that the direction of travel is moving the wrong way. Therefore, we must be vigilant in upholding and protecting this most principal right.