Saturday, 21 February 2015

There Is A Question of What We Should Say To Each Other, But It Has Nothing To Do With Limits To Freedom Of Speech

Following recent bloody events in Copenhagen and Paris, with two very similar coordinated deadly attacks against symbolic targets of freedom of speech and religion, there has ensued a completely confused public discussion on the limits of freedom of speech, not seldom implicitly suggesting that maybe the cartoonists at Chalie Hebdo and Lars Vilks (the Swedish artist who co-organised the debate on blasphemy and freedom of speech that was one of the targets of the Copenhagen shooting) had it coming to them. I note that the other two targets in both cases where symbols of Jewish religious practice – a kosher store and a synagogue, respectively – so, I suppose this regards these two as well (?).

The problem with these debates, however, is that they consistently confuse two completely separate normative issues about public communication of information and expressions:

1. What should one publicly communicate / express?

2. What should one be allowed to publicly communicate / express?

Somehow, it seems that almost all of the debaters who have found reason to raise the issue about what the butchered cartoonists in Charlie Hebdo have expressed with this or that picture (mostly in total ignorance of French satirical tradition and using heavily biased selections of images) and Lars Vilks' various actions as an artist and debater (especially the latter is far from nice, aligning himself with semi-fascist groupings, such as Dispatch International), think that this somehow actualises a question of the limits of the freedom of speech. Of course it does not. Not in any way whatsoever.

Freedom of speech is a legal institutional arrangement, whereby the state takes upon itself not to prosecute public communications / expressions (and to protect people from other people's attempts to prevent or punish such acts with unlawful means). All liberal democratic states have limits to these arrangements, but as a rule, these limits are only about independently defined crimes, such as libel or unlawful harassment or threat, or endangering public order, instigating riots, violence or other criminal acts of others. The issue of whether or not a public communication / expression is morally OK has nothing to do with it. Of course, these limits mean that all people enjoying this type of right have a reason to moderate their behaviour. Moreover, if they want to have as wide license as possible, they have reason to act in their public communication in ways not approaching the legal limits, e.g., in line with the classic example of J.S. Mill, avoiding inflammatory tones and biases in front of large masses of angry people in order not to stir up a riot, while still expressing criticism of some person of phenomenon. However, the issue of whether or not this expression is morally warranted or not is of no consequence at all for determining such limits of free speech.

Having said that, there is, of course, a moral question of how we, as individuals, should behave towards each other. We may have reasons to be considerate and to moderate our ways of communicating our opinions and feelings. In general, we have reason not to harm each other in any way, unless there are good reasons for it. This includes things such as upsetting others, making them feel disrespected and so on. In other words, when communicating publicly we all owe consideration to each other, in a way no different from other kinds of actions. And, of course, it holds equally for all agents (in proportion to the good and the damage they may do) – e.g., religious clerics, political campaigners, journalists, and so on. But, of course, this reason may be balanced by other ones, such as the value of undermining the authority of oppressing institutions and practices, of having victims of such institutions experiencing public support and so on, of promoting worthy causes, and so on. But, and here we are, none of this has anything at all to do with the limits of the freedom of speech. To demonstrate that beyond all doubt, we may only reflect on the simple fact that the moral considerations just described hold entirely independent of whether or not a state enforces freedom of speech or not. We would owe each other consideration also under the most oppressing of tyrannies.

So, in light of the obvious fact that the recent attacks are deliberately directed against the institution of the freedom of speech – they tell us: if you keep this freedom, we will murder you for using it – in light of this, raising the moral issue is completely out of place. Its only fathomable function can be to muddle the water as to the weight and importance of standing up for the freedom of speech. In effect, it unwittingly (I hope!) sides with the attackers. For, to side with the victims of the murders – to declare "Je Suis Charlie!" or whatever other expression of solidarity is – of course! – not to condone them as morally splendid people, but to take stand for the freedom of speech. The same holds, of course, for the victims of the attacks against religious Jewish targets – to side with their right to practice their religion without being murdered is not to side with or even like Judaism, or religion at all for that matter.