Sunday, 25 February 2007

Why single out the freedom of discussion

It’s exasperating when quite distinct ideas are conflated to make a mockery of a crucial principle. Just look at how the important case made for the freedom of discussion has been thrown into confusion by interpreting it as a license for every kind of irresponsible behaviour imaginable.

You start by defending the value of allowing people to exchange ideas and evidence, then suddenly someone pulls along a bandwagon and on to it jumps advocates for the unrestricted freedom to do just about anything. The essential freedom to discuss the merits of any given claim – so that its justifiability can be openly and rationally tested – is in no time stretched beyond all recognition to cover the freedom to insult, deceive, provoke, threaten etc. But why should anyone be free to ‘express’ oneself irrespective of the harm that could cause to others?

It is vital to remember that the very specific freedom of discussion came to be championed as part of the 17th century intellectual and political movement against authoritarian attempts to stamp out rival claims to knowledge. On the one hand there were the monarchs and religious leaders who had for centuries invoked what they claimed to be indisputable truths to justify their authority over all around them. On the other hand there were the new breed of philosophers and political activists who dared to challenge the veracity of these ‘truths’. What made the latter revolutionary was that they declined to back their own claims by the traditional ‘might is right’ route of scaring people (through the sight of amassed troops or threats of eternal damnation) into submission. Instead they pointed out that the only reliable way for intelligent people to assess if any given claims deserved to be believed was through an open, calm, rational process of evidence-based discussions.

To the extent that what one has to say, how one collaborates with a wider group to decide what to say, or when a group gathers together to give their views, contributes to the quality of the discussion, then it was paramount that people should have the freedom to participate accordingly. Without this foundational freedom to discuss contested claims, there would no non-arbitrary basis to show up the groundless assertions of the powerful and pave the way to overthrow them.

However, this precious freedom must not be perverted into a license for abuse and exploitation which have nothing to do with the rational examination of contested claims. All too many people who have forgotten why the freedom for discussion is really uniquely important have already acquiesced in its mutation into a catch-all freedom of expression whereby individuals can confront others with nasty and hurtful language and symbols, media barons can propagate misleading views to suit their own corporate interests, businesses can promote addictive craving for their products, dogmatists who loathe the freedom of discussion can set up their own schools to instruct children to believe untenable claims, and extremist groups can circulate vile fabrications.

To safeguard the freedom of discussion, we must re-focus on why it needs to be protected in any society which values democratic openness and continuous learning, and weed out the irresponsible behaviour which undermines rather than supports the public and reasoned examination of claims to truth.

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