To be human – freedom of expression and why it’s so important

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.

Concluding remarks

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.

4 thoughts on “To be human – freedom of expression and why it’s so important

  1. I’m intrigued – I would say that both of those “free speech” issues are actually something different:

    1. The less philosophical bit: Businesses protecting their brand and ensuring their customers don’t desert them. This seems fair enough to me – if your clients use your product (mozilla, for example) largely because of what it represents, or you employ a large number of the people being directly abused and they’re going to strike (all of the players in the NBA, for example), then you have to get rid.

    2. The more philosophical bit: Both of these situations really represent someone attempting to deprive/continue to deprive a minority of some form of agency.

    Free speech is important, and these men have been deprived of none of their rights for expressing their opinion. They have, however, in some way themselves been guilty of attempting to deprive others of their humanity, either by denigrating their race or their sexuality. It is their right to express these opinions, but it is not their right to expect the rest of the world to have a reasonable conversation with them. Margaret Hodge did not reason with Nick Griffin and turn him from a racist pariah into a model citizen. She spoke to the people and they understood. You could argue that is exactly what is happening now – the people rejected the BNP, and they are now rejecting these men.

    Free speech is a right, and an important one. But merely being allowed to express an opinion does not legitimise it as a statement of fact or even as a reasonable statement. And the rest of the world is perfectly entitled to use their freedom of expression to withold their business/labour from them in response. Maybe one day we will again live in a world where homosexuals and blacks are treated differently to the rest of us, but I hope I don’t live to see it.

    1. Dan! Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comments. Allow me to respond to a few of your points.

      Firstly, I used the two cases more to put the wider issue of freedom of expression into some current context. As far as i’m concerned, whatever we might think of Eich’s views on gay marriage, he shouldn’t have lost his job on account of his views on this, i’m highly sceptical for instance that his views would have affected his ability to do his job adequately. In fact, as Andrew Sullivan says, its rather sad that some of those who were subject to harassment for their sexuality and views on sexuality are now guilty of the same sort of behaviour regarding Eich and some of those who have similar positions. Further, I’d argue that Eich has been deprived of his agency in terms of the right to work.

      However, more important than both of these individual cases is the general principles involved. I’d argue that whilst the world might not be obliged to have a reasonable conversations with those we find difficult, it is a lot better for all concerned if we do. Taking the Hodge case for instance, my point was not so much that the aim should have been to reform Nick Griffin, but that in engaging those who were going to or were seriously considering voting for the BNP she suceeded and engaged where many would have condemned such individuals as racist and not engaged. Thus, I stick by what I said there.

      Thirdly, I agree that expressing an opinion does not legitimise it as fact or even a reasonable statement. The issue isn’t whether we should treat unpopular opinions as fact or as ‘reasonable’ (whatever that means in this context!) but whether people should have the right to express opinions (reasonable or otherwise) without sanctions. You make an interesting point about the right to withhold labour/sell products as a response to expression. Would you say this right holds in all cases, i.e. people have the right to withhold their business as they see fit in response to any expression, popular/unpopular or otherwise?

      Finally, the time sensitivity point wasn’t an appeal for minorities to be treated any differently from the rest of us, more a point on the fluidity of the concept of offence.

  2. Forgot to reply to this.

    I’m really sorry Dave but I actually think the your first point is a bit troubling – homosexuals and black people are not in any way guilty of the same kind of harrassment of Eich and Sterling that they are themselves subject to. Your sexuality and your race are parts of you over which you have no conscious control, and both of these men have expressed opinions that this somehow legitimises treating them differently. On the other hand, Eich and Sterling simply hold opinions which are indefensible and are totally free to them to change. And honestly, we’re really not talking about denying them anything – the same free speech arguments you’ve employed explain why this all fits together. If you defend Eich’s right to fund groups to spout his rubbish, then by the same token you have to defend the right of Mozilla’s customers not to fund him. The effect of that is that actually his ability to do the job of representing Mozilla as it’s CEO is severely damaged, and they have to remove him to protect their business. But he has not had his free speech violated – he’s perfectly at liberty to continue saying whatever he likes, and I’m sure he will be extremely well paid somewhere else by another business who’s customers sadly aren’t concerned by such things. In the case of Donald Sterling, on the basis that he is actively discriminatory towards them based on their race, the Clippers players would be well within their rights to withold their labour from him – one of the most basic expressions of free speech and free will – and the fans and sponsors are at liberty to withold their money, at which point the NBA again has to remove him because he is unable to carry out his role within the league. Again, no one is putting him in prison, there are no criminal offences, he can go on TV and tell everyone he thinks that black people are inferior if he wants – but that doesn’t mean anyone has to view that as anything other than hateful rubbish.

    In terms of the right to withold labour/products and whether it holds in all cases, I would argue that it does hold in all cases. To me it’s just another example of free expression, and to your point, an extremely valuable one in promoting engagement with an argument that people like Sterling are highly unlikely to want to have. I guess the one tricky area is taxation, but you get the opportunity to vote to change that every few years.

    So to your second point, I agree that ultimately we need to engage with people and try to change their minds, but I reject the idea that what has happened in either of these cases has made that process more difficult or is incompatible with it. To me it’s just another area of the argument.

    1. Hi Dan

      Sorry for not responding to this. I’ve been thinking about this issue some more and I have slightly modified my thinking. Firstly, I agree that somebody has a perfectly legitimate right to withdraw their labour, or spending power if they do not agree with the way the business is run or the products the business sells. My issue with the whole Eich affair is surrounding privacy, I just don’t think Eich’s personal and private views and actions affected Mozilla’s business plan and profitability. Of course, that changed considerably once Eich’s actions became public. This is what concerns me, everyone should have the right to privacy and to hold views (however unpopular), I think we enter very dangerous waters if we say that everyone’s private views should be subject by default to public scrutiny.

      Secondly, I might have given the impression that everyone should have the right to express themselves without any sanctions whatsoever. I apologise if I gave you that impression. Having thought about this, I do believe in the rule of law and that having freedom of expression doesn’t give people carte blanche to do whatever they like without intervention. Thinking about it some more, I’d modify my view to sound something more like the right to hold views and opinions and to verbally express them without sanction. In holding to this fundamental principle, there should be exceptions (racism, threats of violence or abuse etc.) I guess the debate comes over what these exceptions should be and why they should be such.

      Thirdly, thanks for the conversation, i’ve found it very helpful.

      Fourthly, lets go for a curry and/or drink again soon! I’ll text you some dates.

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