Sunday, 1 February 2015

Tolerating Freedom of Speech/Expression

There are two positions.

You may believe that the freedom of expression is an absolute freedom to be unbounded by any limits or restrictions because any limits or restrictions would dilute or even render meaningless this "Freedom". As the British PM argued, the freedom of expression includes the right to offend.

Or you may believe that there are no absolutes. As someone once explained, "my freedom to swing my arm ends where your nose begins". Similarly, The right to keep and bear arms include the responsibility to practise firearm safety. And so the freedom of expression is necessarily bound by or should be limited by judicious and responsible exercise of that freedom. Pope Francis argues that Freedom of Speech must be practised without offending.

You may believe one or the other. The point of this post is not to convince you of one view or the other, or to argue one view or another. There are lots of articles arguing for one position or the other.

The point of this post is to point out that tolerance is dead. It is a recurring theme in this blog because we are becoming more intolerant. Because we are getting more educated, have access to more information, we think we are better informed, and that our "informed" opinions are correct.

Or as Bilahari noted, we conflate information with opinion and treat both as entertainment.

Alternatively (or additionally), being more educated, more informed, we are exposed to a wide range of ideas and arguments supportive or critical of any idea or position and we have become "selectively educated" about any issue and have the luxury of choosing the arguments we employ to support our chosen position, and for demolishing arguments against our position.

We are "rationalising creatures", not rational creatures as someone far wiser once observed.

What that means is that we respond to any issues instinctively - from our "gut" -  and then we find the reasons to support our gut feeling, our instinctive reaction and response.

So we can choose to cloak our desire to offend under the Freedom of Expression.

Or we can choose to limit "Freedom" by referencing moral responsibility in order to avoid being offended.

The Charlie Hebdo example of "Freedom of Expression" has this rather hypocritical stance: The law allows me to be as childish and immature as I like in order to offend you, but you are not protected by the law and so you cannot respond in a childish and immature manner. You must rise above childishness and immaturity, by acting in a mature manner.

Someone tried to defend Charlie Hebdo by saying that they did not just offend Muslims, they also offended Christians and other religions.

Basically, his defence (if I may paraphrase) of Charlie Hebdo is "They were not just assholes to Muslims, they were assholes to EVERYONE."

And then they were taken out by BIGGER, more IMMATURE assholes.

It is the hazard of being an asshole.

But we are more civilised than that, and in civil society we practise tolerance.

We tolerate views, ideas, practices different from our own.

AHA! You say.

So the terrorists were intolerant of free speech and so are the immature ones!

No, I'll say. The victims were also intolerant of the faith of others, and cloak their bigotry and intolerance within ideologies like "Freedom of Expression", hiding within the protection offered by the law.

Besides being hypocritical, the incident was also one of asymmetry. The law protected the rights of the victims, but offered no protection, no recourse to those offended.

If this is right, if this is correct, if civilisation means allowing offence and to protect offending behaviour, then there is a serious perversion of the definition of "civilisation". Every development in civilisation has been to promote social harmony, even (sometimes) at the expense of individual freedom.

The Charlie Hebdo incident, therefore, is not about freedom of speech and the intolerance of religion or religious fanatics. That is giving the players too much dignity, ascribing high ideals to sophomoric imbecility (on both parties - I am not taking sides) .

The Charlie Hebdo incident, in a nutshell is about Assholes being Assholes and bigger Assholes taking out the first Assholes for being Assholes.

Instead of being a parable for Freedom of Expression (really? What is the moral of the story? Stand up for your freedom - it's worth being gunned down for?), the Charlie Hebdo story should be a cautionary tale of intolerance, arrogance, irresponsibility, and bigotry. In short, "assholery".

And so we should ask ourselves. "What is Tolerance?" Or intolerance?

If there is a nuisance that affects us and we cannot do anything about it, so we bear with the nuisance. Are we being tolerant?

Isn't tolerance more than just forbearance of the unavoidable, the unchangeable? Shouldn't tolerance be more than just the stoical acceptance of (unavoidable, unmitigable) discomfort/nuisance?

Shouldn't tolerance imply some restraint on your part? (and no, not complaining or not grumbling about the nuisance or discomfort is not sufficient as a "restraint".)

Shouldn't tolerance mean having the power or the means to do something about a nuisance BUT refraining from doing so, because perhaps that "nuisance" may be important to others?

So you find the Islamic proscription about depictions of the Prophet to be a nuisance, and an affront to your value of Freedom of Expression. And you can do something about it. And in the process insult and offend Muslims. Do you?

Or should you be tolerant of other Faiths, other beliefs, other values, and choose to respect other Faiths, other Beliefs, other Values, and choose NOT to cause offence?

Or do you decide that your values are paramount, your values are supreme, your values are enlightened, while other values are backwards, unenlightened, uncivilised, and unworthy of respect and so should be shown up as the heathen, backward, uncivilised values that they are?

Do you decide that tolerance is intolerable?

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