Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Freedom of Speech

Recently in Germany a couple of medium- to high-profile people have been arrested for insulting the president of Turkey. That has raised some eyebrows in the English-speaking world. "How," we Anglos think to ourselves, "Could a progressive, modern country like Germany be so bad on free speech?" Freedom of speech, as we know, is the bedrock protection against tyranny. We disagree with one another but defend to the death each other's right to be wrong.

Germany is hardly the worst country on free speech. Elsewhere in the world we have nations where a person can be assassinated for speaking ill of the president without even so much as a trial.

"Elsewhere in the world", here, is a phrase meaning, "In the United States of America."

Because when your president has a list of people to be killed by drone strike if their location can be identified, when there is no judicial oversight of that list, and when a citizen of your nation *has actually been killed* in this manner with the explanation being: "He was a terrorist" or "It was necessary for national security"; you live in a country where your government can kill you for what you say, or what you do, or what you are wearing. The first amendment may prevent the government from passing a law against saying what you want, but it sure doesn't saying anything about arbitrary execution.

According to the American ideal of free speech, it is no defense to say, "Well, don't worry, Obama isn't going to have you killed if you support the Republicans." Because if the dont-worry defense worked, then what is the point of the first amendment? Why are such stringent defenses of free speech necessary? Why not just not worry?

Some say that in order to protect my right to say how I feel about free speech and presumption of innocence, I have to defend the right of a racist to call for a ban on people from the country based on their ethnicity, or of a misogynist to spout hate on Twitter. That's complete nonsense.

First of all, freedom of speech is neither necessary nor sufficient to acheive political change. Martin Luther King exercised his freedom of speech in 1963 to tell us about his dream and fifty years later it isn't half realized. Nelson Mandela went to prison for things that would have been protected free expression under current US law, but he is credited to being a major part of the revolution against the racist South African government despite being incarcerated.

Secondly, there is this moral relativism to that claim, like we can't tell what's right and what's wrong. If we enter into philosophy-class thinking then maybe we can't tell the difference between a racist society that outlaws anti-racist speech and a non-racist society that outlaws racist speech. In reality there is such a thing as knowing better. At any given time you might be wrong about what's right, most people might be wrong about what's right or even everyone might be wrong about what's right. The solution isn't to throw up our hands and say we can't know anything; to say we must defend stabbing each other to death if we defend cutting vegetables because both are the free use of knives.

The first amendment of the US constitution is not just ineffective at preventing tyranny, it is actively hastening America's descent into being a police state. It is the basis of Citizens United, a ruling that basically says that government isn't even allowed to control how elections are financed, because corporations spending money is freedom of expression. It isn't helping, it is hurting.

That a lousy government could pass lousy laws is doubtless, and we need look no further than the world's bastion of free speech to see that. I also think individual rights are a good thing. Freedom of speech is a good rule to follow in general, and those crazy Europeans who don't follow it absolutely are mostly signatories to the UN declaration of human rights which includes free speech.

But we all know that every right has to be balanced against responsibility. Despite free speech it is illegal to say, "I'd pay $100,000 to anyone who could deliver <person X>'s severed head to me." So why be incredulous that, for example, France would have a law against something as odious as denying the holocaust?

The first amendment of the US constitution, to most of the world, is a good example of how every complex problem has an answer which is simple, obvious and wrong. You can't stop bad governments from doing bad things by writing laws that say they can't do those things. The way to stop bad governments from doing bad things is to live in a soceity based on trust and joint responsibility so you don't end up with a government that wallows in the worst thing that is allowed; a society that would never re-elect a government that broke public trust instead of expecting - and thus preemptively forgiving - such violations.

As for Ergodan, he appears to deserve the ridicule he gets, and the point being made by Germans by insulting him is not being lost. Merkel has already promised to review the law under which they are being charged. Not because free speech is an absolute principle, but because it's a stupid law.

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