Why have free speech when it creates so much noise?

Peter Normann Waage:
Why have free speech when it creates so much noise?
Lecture,  Bergen Public Library 23/10 2012

It is said that freedom of speech is not just a human right, but the fundamental human right. Without this right all other rights are in jeopardy. Is that correct? If so why? And why should we have freedom of speech when it continually insults, hurts and stirs up groups in society. The question is particularly urgent at a time when «society» is not limited by national boundaries, but has become almost global. We see this, amongst other places, in the huge and angry demonstrations in the Muslim world against a film trailer that an individual put on YouTube. We witnessed the same thing in the Danish cartoon controversy six years ago. In both cases completely innocent people died. In both cases individual utterances were used to stir the Muslim masses against the «West». In other words: Do we not need a freedom of speech with limits, limits that are adapted to our time?

Freedom of speech is intensely present at the intersection between law and ethics – and this is at the core of the problems it creates, and is the basic argument for justifying this freedom. It seems that even if something is ethically correct it is not necessarily legally guaranteed, and something that is within the legal framework, may not be very ethical.

Freedom of speech, like the other human rights, came out of Western reason. I will return to the question if that makes these rights «Western» or universal.

The enemies of freedom of speech were from the first both authoritarian governments and religious dogmas and institutions. It is therefore not surprising the same institutions in many parts of the world are today trying to gag or restrict free speech. Now as before they often stand not only shoulder to shoulder, but are so intertwined that it is difficult to tell them apart. We see it in this year’s stunt by Pussy Riot in the Salvation of Christ Cathedral in Moscow. Let us briefly summarize:

Just before the presidential elections in early March four girls with balaclavas showed up in the cathedral and performed a song with the refrain «Holy Mother of God, chase away Putin,» The police were called, and told them to just go.

A few weeks later the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, complained to the authorities over what he called the girls’ blasphemous behavior. «Three of them were arrested, put on trial and sentenced to two years hard labor. The Court’s rationale was that they had urged religious hatred, offended the faithful and despised religion.

What the judges, officials or church did not say was that the church, as the place where the president celebrate religious festivals, is overall as much a symbol of power as a sacred building and that it is operated by a private enterprise. Income comes not so much from the sale of candles as from a huge banqueting hall underneath and a large parking lot. The punk bands refrain could just as easily have been seen in the context of Jesus chasing the merchants and moneychangers out of the temple. In addition Russia has no state church but four equal religions.

Kirill himself wrote what is called the Russian Church’s social program. Here, a decade ago, he wrote that the church should be politically neutral. Now in during the elections he declared that Putin was God’s gift to the Russians. Perhaps because the former monk Kirill, a man who must not have property, has received a large luxury apartment near the Kremlin from the present government.

This is neither the first nor only attack on art or freedom of speech under Putin. We all know these types of threats to free speech, there is little reason to enumerate them. Whether it is old or new pharaohs seeking secular or spiritual power, they act in the same way towards their subjects, because they seek unfree servants.

We will instead initially focus on other disturbing elements and problematic aspects of today’s fractured interface between religion and freedom of speech.

We live in communities that are not limited by national borders. In an instant information may be conveyed to the world, something that is especially problematic when it comes to pictures. While a message clothed in words retain their context and convey the sender’s intent even when translated or transmitted – if conveyed correctly – pictures are not in the same way self-explanatory. The recipient must the pictures into a context where they can be understood, and understanding here is it is naturally created by the beholder in a cultural context.

We will not find the whole truth about the international controversy over the Mohammed cartoons here, but the new media situation does play an important role. Another element is the sincere insult many devout Muslims experienced by the cartoons.

It is obviously easier to break the taboos of others than one’s own, particularly if one has barely any taboos left. But should one do this, in the name of freedom of expression and speech?

‘No,’ concluded amongst others The Muslim Council of Britain and the Anglican Church. These two bodies tried in 2005 and 2006 to add to the legal prohibition to racist speech. They wanted legal sanctions against what was called «defamation of religion». The British Labour party agreed and the then Prime Minister Tony Blair was so confident of victory that he left parliament before the vote. But outside of politics the British PEN Club and the comedian Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) were at the forefront of a protest movement. PEN published the book “Free Expression is no Offence” with contributions by Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi among others. Atkinson believed he could lose his job if the act was passed. It was not. It lacked one vote. If Blair had not left parliament his casting vote would have passed the act. And this in the country that once led the European struggle for freedom of speech. (1)

A somewhat milder version of the act was passed in 2007. It prohibits threats and intended hatred of a religion and its followers. Under the guise of this act the police acted against UK Channel Four because the TV company produced a program where reporters with a hidden camera and microphone revealed that imams in a specific mosque used hate rhetoric against «Jews, women, homosexuals and so-called adulterers.» (2) Note that it was not the Imams who were investigated, but the journalists. It took nine months for them to clear themselves. My thoughts go to Putin’s Russia.

Both the draft legislation and the final act must be seen in connection with the Organization of Islamic Conference’s longstanding efforts to establish a ban on «defamation of religion» in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The proposal was rejected in July 2011, but the case may be promoted again.

Is this not OK? Shouldn`t believers be protected? We will conclude by returning to the question on broader grounds; First I will consider one of the measures used to protect minorities against abuses in the name of freedom of speech, The legislation against «hate speech», as it is expressed in the Norwegian penal code section 135a. Here we have a ban against presenting hateful or discriminatory remarks against someone on the basis of religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

The provision is rarely used, on the grounds that it is better that frustration, bitterness and hatred come to light, so that, as the Norwegian phrase has it, «trolls can burst (in the light of day)”. Even the most venomous claims must be met with justifiable and rational arguments in public. It is far better that we know what we are facing, and it is better than if such views were to ferment closed rooms.

The argument has its merits, but is also problematic. Firstly the comparison with «trolls who burst in the light» is a rather condescending attitude, condescending not to hateful cries, but to the arguments of others that may seem harsh but that may point to serious problems with specific minorities. And anyway who believes that you yourself are a troll that should burst?

Secondly, the relationship between hate speech and the arguments we meet it with is not simple. Hatred may well lead to more hatred, no matter how it is met at the rational level. Arguments do not necessarily lead to rational reflection. And groups that are constantly discussed in negative terms, can develop contempt for the greater society and turn against it.

And perhaps most importantly: The relationship between thoughts, words and action is a dynamic relationship. To shout out fire in a crowded theater when there is no danger, is an obvious example of an utterance that leads in time to disastrous practical consequences. Calling people names or by objectified them in other ways, paves the way for assaulting the same groups. Lenin used words like «beetles and pests» when he spoke of alleged enemies of the new Soviet state. They were to be cleaned out and destroyed. In Rwanda, on official radio channels, Tutsis were called «cockroaches», which clearly signaled that they should be destroyed – and this was attempted.

In Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses the two main characters Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta are brought to a strange hospital in London. All admissions are non-Western, but transformed into half wolf, half human, to creatures with skins of glass or grotesque assemblages of plants and people: «But how do they do it?» Chamcha wanted to know. «They describe us,» whispered the other solemnly. «Nothing more. They have the ability to describe us, and we now succumb to the pictures they construct.»

One can argue that Lenin and the Hutu radio station in Rwanda were the representatives of power, they were not just using the power of speech. They also had the resources to realize their goals and to transform their fellow humans into the things they called them. But it isn’t that simple: It is often unclear who has definition power in a diverse society like ours – those who currently are out of power, may in turn come out on top, perhaps because of hate rhetoric.

It is no coincidence that most philosophical systems let a moral teaching be the result of an epistemology: An action plan after the investigation into the possibilities of a thought. “Behind every action is a thought, even if it not always the one acting that has though it,» says an aphorism. Equally true is that every thought seeks to be realized, it will lead to action.

Who is responsible for an action taken? The person who puts the idea into action, or the one who provides the ideological justification for it? – This is one of the fundamental questions in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. We are not talking about legal responsibility, but moral responsibility. This does not reduce the dilemma with regard to freedom of speech. As we know, the right is characterized precisely by its existence in the intersection between law and ethics.

There is no excuse to circumvent the problems with the restriction or not of freedom of speech in the interests of minorities, cultural, ethnic and religious groups. What anyway is legitimate criticism of religion? How is satire to be practiced, if it does not hit anyone? And who is the provision designed to protect?

A tentative solution is to claim that only those who are within a group, can criticize it. Only Muslims can criticize Islam and other Muslims. This is obviously an intriguing thought, for with what legitimacy can I criticize the customs of others? How do I know what the problem is and the words that best can meet the criticizable sides of a tradition? Is it not better to allow those with taboos the time to break them themselves? And, finally: Can anyone be forced to modernity? Shouldn`t they be allowed to choose their path towards a free and open society?

Such reasoning is seductive: But if we scratch the surface, they lead to absurdities. In his article «Pressure on Press Freedom» Frederik Stjernfelt refers to the debate surrounding the Mohammed cartoons and quotes one Ian Buruma who argues that only those who are within can criticize Islam. Even Ayaan Hirsi Ali is stripped of the right to speak – because she is no longer a Muslim. The consequence is that only those who agree with a point of view or a worldview can criticize it – which is meaningless. It also implies that all with a particular ethnicity, or who follow the same religion or have the same color, are the same.
They belong to their group more than themselves.

If criticism of traditional customs cannot come from outside or from «apostates,» then it is hard to get rid of old traditions that oppress the individual in the name of culture, such as female genital mutilation or forced marriage. Either you have a culture so intimately conjoined that it looks like a celebratory costume, but is a straitjacket, or you are an individual with rights.

I will come back to this. But first let us first look at some other objections that the demand for freedom of speech meets. Or if you will, a few more examples of the trouble the right creates.

One is described in Aldous Huxley’s book “Brave New World”, and is about the commercialization of utterances. The public space here is flooded with stimuli so tantalizing and tempting that you do not have time or desire to think about anything other than to satisfy your many desires. The sum of vices is perhaps constant. Desires, however, are not. There is always something new, in constantly renewed advertising. And because it is far more pleasant to be manipulated by something you like than something you do not like, the threat of this new and wonderful world is just as nefarious as that which comes from the old-fashioned and authoritarian pharaohs. We just don’t see it as clearly. We are amusing ourselves to death, as Neil Postman put it. The public space becomes without seriousness, it is filled up with sensational journalism about celebrities we can dream about, or advertising that makes us consumers, not thinking people.

Closely related to this are arguments from heads of state, for example in China, that freedom of speech is not so important – look instead at all those people who have been lifted out of poverty and therefore have a better life. As our own Erik Solheim said when he declared Deng Ping Xiau to be the 20th century’s greatest statesman. It’s not about superfluous things, but this argument does nevertheless assume that freedom of speech comes in second place in proportion to food, wealth and welfare.

Both Solheim, Deng and the current Chinese leaders close their eyes to the fact that freedom of speech is not a derivative right. It is a right that guarantees all the other rights. It is a right that makes the rest possible, also the social rights. Looking at China and India in the 1950s we see countries ravaged by famine. In China, it led to millions of deaths. In India, the adverse effects were minimal. In China, there were no channels for information. Hence hardly any assistance came to disaster areas. In India even the smallest local paper reported what was about to happen, and the central government intervened.

We are closing in on the question «Why freedom of speech?»

In the mid-1990s I was in St. Petersburg with the former chairman of Norwegian Freedom of Speech Commission, Francis Sejersted, who had been invited to a televised debate with Governor Vladimir Jakovlev. The theme was freedom of speech.

After the recording, I asked Sejersted how it had turned out. «You know,» he replied, «Jakovlev opened by declaring that certainly we shall have freedom of speech. But what is expressed must be true. And then I had him! »

Those who believe that freedom of speech is so that «the truth should be discovered» so that what is «true» should come forward – or for that matter wants to limit free speech because «the true» is not to be defiled and violated, are thinking in an authoritarian way and have no idea what this is about. The arguments imply that one knows what is «true». It implies that truth is something that comes to one from the outside, that truth is imparted by an authority, a priest, a scribe or a party official, or that it is something you can collect like a package at the post office.

It is not. John Stuart Mill said “We don’t have free speech to uncover the truth, but to find the truth”. This applies not only in its form of freedom of information, it applies to every utterance. Truth is a very personal and intimate concept. It can only be achieved by the individual – and each one must achieve it in his or her own way and find our own truth. All the while all these truths must confront each other in the public sphere.

Freedom of speech is necessary so that each and every one of us should be able to recognize him- or herself, develop and maintain both independence and dignity.

Therefore, it is such an irreplaceable value.

That is why commercialization is such a big threat to it. For what is individual, what is mine to me, what makes my dignity is not present once and for all. I need to capture, train and test it. Individuality is perishable. It requires that I manage to hold onto myself, or at least that I try to figure out what in the world it is.

The «brave new world» is a systematic obstacle to such a process, whether it appears as a chase for consumption or as a fascination for young people who copulate and make fools of themselves on television. Obviously an interesting pastime, but not especially individual.

If we begin with the purpose and core of freedom of speech, which is the dignity and independence of the individual, we will, in my opinion, see the outlines of the solution to many of the dilemmas that freedom of speech creates, and defeat the obstacles free speech encounters.

Let us consider commercialization first.

The structure of advertising and media is the problem. Advertising is controlled by the financial muscles of the different manufacturers. The media have become commodities in line with spaghetti and pizza. The owners give more weight to profits than to media content. Consequently, the media focuses on the issues and perspectives that draw the largest number of readers and viewers.

But if the advertising industry was organized so that all manufacturers of a commodity made payment into a kitty and the makers of advertising decided to make advertising for the products they preferred on the basis of this money, I believe we would be move a tiny distance away from commercialization in this sector. Then sales and income would depend on the individual responsible advertising professionals. The individual would make their mark in an otherwise impersonal world.

The Swedish author and journalist Göran Rosenberg has a similar proposal to halt the commercialization of the media: Journalists should only take up themes and cases that they themselves are engaged in. This would make journalism accountable and a matter for the individual.

In both cases room is cleared for individual autonomy. Individual responsibility and seriousness limit the so-called «blind market forces», and a new voice for meeting the needs consumers did not know they had.

What then about violations of minorities, and what about their freedom of speech?

In the case of violations, we must be aware of how easy it is to confuse an individual’s dignity with a group’s dignity. It also applies to oneself as well. Nationalism systematizes this confusion and lives by it. But nationalism is largely scandalized. Few are in doubt about the excesses nationalism can bring when the nation is put before the individual – especially if the individual in question is part of a foreign nation.

But so-called multiculturalism carries the same threat. It is not the prefix «multi» there is something wrong with – diversity is a stimulating reality – but the rest of the word: it implies that culture is superior to the individual. Culture, not the individual, has rights. But can culture have rights? Would not such a collective right be damaging to the individual who identifies with the group? Are you so sure that a Muslim, Sikh or Christian must agree with everything that other Muslims, Sikhs or Christians say and do? With such a idea of rights we risk letting the most dogmatic and reactionary in each group define the guidelines that apply to the other members.

Originally multiculturalism was an anthropological approach called «cultural relativism.» As a method it made good sense: We cannot understand the unknown without going into the subject matter and then give it a right to speak. All phenomena must be understood on its own terms. Cultural relativism is this insight used in the cultural field: All cultures, traditions and faiths must be understood on their own terms. But then the same thing happened to this method that happened to Galileo’s methodology of science: Measure everything that can be measured, and make everything measurable that is not! Both methods were elevated to the description of reality. The result for the natural science was reductionistic dogmatism: Only what is measurable is real. The result for cultural relativism was that it became an ideology named multiculturalism: All religions and cultures are correct on their own premises and are worth the same. In other words cultures must be preserved, not individuals.

But a group can have no rights. A group – or a mass – cannot collectively be attributed to dignity or cognitive ability. These are qualities only individuals can possess. Each individual must be allowed to join any religion or ideological grouping. But religion as such cannot have any rights. If so members are forced to be subordinate to their group affiliation. Then the individual is dressed in a celebratory costume that turns out to be a straitjacket. Then each individual must be subordinate to what tradition and culture prescribes. Muslim women – and women in low-church groups – become culturally destined to play second fiddle and to entrust the management of their lives to others.

But hold on!

Is not freedom of speech the child of a particular culture? Does it not have specific western assumptions that are strangers in other cultural contexts?

Freedom of speech was perhaps born in one culture group, but I argue that it has universal validity. Antibiotics also come from the West. None would still refuse to export or import it.

In a time when everything is changing and everybody is moving, even if one seems at a standstill – the reality around us is changing so fast that hardly any traditional solution is good enough – it is a crime to argue that one culture, one religion or some other tradition is more sacred than the single individual. This deprives the people living within the culture in question the possibility of finding their bearing in a modern world. Only the ability to make independent decisions independently of tradition is enough in a reality where all cultures and religions so to speak meet in each stairway. Only the ability to stand independently and courageously facing life is enough in a world where even what once was certain, like the boundaries between life and death, have become variable and uncertain. A child born so premature it is almost an abortion can be saved, but at what cost to the child? A very old man can be kept alive, but at what cost to mankind? A child may be born with several mothers and one or more unknown fathers. Who makes the decision? You and I.

Freedom of speech, the individual, dignity and independence are entities that overlap – as unlikely as it may seem in a world where the right to free speech is largely used for harassment. Before I finally get down to that problem, I’ll make a small detour to an often overlooked prerequisite for both the individual and for independence. It’s called the rule of law.

I do not think that today’s so-called conflict between Islam and the West is a conflict between a religious and a secular society. I think it is a conflict between people who live with reasonably functioning constitutional state and people who do not. And remember: Very few have the privilege to be able to trust that a superior authority takes care of one’s rights. The vast majority of the world’s population lives in a reality where one must resort to one’s own for protection and security, to clan, family, religious community. And if you have to that, it is very difficult to oppose those who provide protection. One does not bite the hand provides food. In this case it is easier to believe in authority, that truth is passed from above, that one is not a free individual but a spearhead for family, relatives and traditions.

Those that have been lucky enough to be born under the rule of law can seek shelter in the rule of law. Then it is far easier to be independent and oppose tradition, religion or whatever. That does not mean you have to go in opposition to become independent. But you must have the opportunity.

Freedom of speech can call attention to this. Where there previously was only one authority, there are suddenly many. Then you must think for yourself. Then you have to find your own truth. But if freedom of speech in the West is predominantly used, for example, to mock what Muslims consider to be holy, then Muslims living in a European constitutional state will easily be pushed from state and society and join the ranks. Authority again becomes one: Their own traditions.

I further believe that the commotions we in the West are experiencing from Muslim fundamentalists are not directed against the West. They are side-effects of a struggle within the Islamic world itself, for and against modernization, for and against the idea that each individual has an independent thinking ability, for and against the idea that authority is one – and between all the different authorities that believe that they are the only ones, and naturally enough, who are at each other’s throats.

This is some of the background for the perceived harassment and unfair criticism of Islam among other things.

Personally I feel that one should not break anyone’s taboos, but I will never accept any legal prohibition. When hordes of hysterical men attack embassies and people because they claim they are offended by something they have not seen, then they bring their taboos into my world. I do not want fanatics from the Middle East deciding what I can publish. Nor will I stoop to violence on the basis of a drawing, a movie or a statement. The more threats of violence, or real attacks, the more important it is to hold high the banner of freedom of speech. It is the only banner for human cohabitation in a complex world.

But I also have sense enough to argue that we should show tolerance and respect – with the important addition that respect is something that applies to people. Tolerance is an attitude I exhibit to opinions I do not agree with. Those I do not respect, I tolerate. I will not forbid them, but fight for their right to speak, whilst I criticize them.

The believers of all denominations are entitled to protection. Belief as such has no right to protection, in the sense of protection from criticism.

Although I agree that both harassing, malicious and hate speech – that targets ideas, not the individuals – must be accepted in the name of freedom of speech, I harbor a persistent hope that honesty and seriousness will take first place.

Religious fundamentalism is not best met with something resembling “free speech fundamentalism”, where ones stands on one’s rights without any understanding of other people’s position, feelings and attitudes. Then, we who are free speech advocates fall into the trap called «the liberal dilemma»:  Liberality is so blinding that we see nothing but our own self-satisfied liberality and thereby become repressive to others.

The arrogant attitude of others comes in many forms. The most common, but often overlooked, express itself through the medias one-eyed fascination with fury in Muslim countries, rather than to present the champions of liberal values and free speech that actually exist outside of our own culture group. Thus the champions are isolated between two walls: the opposition in their own countries and disregard from a West that lives in the belief that «all» Muslims are savages who yearn to burn down embassies. This can have serious consequences. For it is absolutely necessary to have external pressure against local dogmatic religious associations – François Voltaire was certainly seen as an outsider by the Catholic Church, and therefore excommunicated. The development towards understanding of free speech and the dignity of the individual must be managed and controlled by people within a religion or a culture. In this sense it is true that only those who are «inside» know what the problem is and which roads lead forward. This is why International PEN and ICORNs work is so important. They help freedom fighters who are in and within. I would also hope that those who demand and see the necessity to publish cartoons of Muhammad or insist on how wonderful it is to depict him as a dog, also do something for those Muslims who have been displaced or imprisoned in their homelands for their utterances. To what degree this hope is fulfilled I cannot tell. But when this happens, then this type of criticism will also be accompanied by respect for the individual.

Freedom of speech raises more ethical than legal issues, even so the legal framework must be as wide as possible. Otherwise it becomes a pseudo right.

Ethically freedom of speech can create both trouble and dramatic situations. This is not something that can be regulated by law. Here utterances must be balanced and considered by the individual himself. To the extent that this occurs with ethical seriousness and through reflection about one self and about those who believe that they are offended by utterances, then the ethical issues will reach a solution. These can only be found when we go back to the foundations of free speech: Out of consideration for the dignity of the individual – both our own and others.