The Sorry State of Free Speech in the West

The Sorry State of Free Speech in the West

Few things apart from the bottom rungs on Maslow’s famous pyramid are more important in life than free speech. Free speech is one of the core tenets of our political system. It is what allows us to utilize our brains to think and analyse critically without being dragged off to jail. It is something I value very highly. Therefore, it is deeply troubling that free speech is no longer something we can afford to take for granted. Assaults, both physical and verbal are coming in from all fronts. We can all see what is going on in the US and certain parts of Europe at the moment. People with differing political opinions are physically attacking each other. A sad example of this is peaceful Trump supporters being violently attacked by Antifa in Berkeley and other cities across the US. There are blurry lines between old fashioned “classic” street violence and the new targeted extension of extreme political rhetoric. When the person or party you support gets called “Hitler” there is a short road to physical violence.

Such violence has a chilling effect on expressions of free speech. Do you really have the right of free speech if you’re afraid to use it? Technically on paper North Koreans enjoy a variety of political rights, including that of free expression. Of course, we all know that if you say anything at all critical of the regime, your whole family will be dragged off to a prison camp. Having a right on paper is not the same as feeling comfortable in exercising said right. Further, the lack of response from law enforcement is deeply troubling. Growing up I used to think of police as violent and prone to abuse people’s rights. It is therefore a strange experience for me to watch videos from riots where the police are passive. There have been very few arrests of violent demonstrators both in the US and elsewhere (excluding dictatorial regimes of course). Demonstrators prone to violence are seemingly free to attack both their political opponents and the police themselves with little risk of consequence. We all saw the video clip of burning police in Paris coming under Molotov cocktail attack.

When the response of police is to do nothing, it is giving the green light to those willing to commit acts of aggression upon others peacefully exercising their free speech rights. A lack of denunciation from political figures is also troubling. It is not just physical threats that are limiting free speech. I personally live in Europe and I feel that there is a very small Overton window of acceptable opinions. I put in a great deal of effort to hide my own political opinions at work, due to rational (or irrational) fears of potential consequences.

I’ve recently finished the book “The Tyranny of Silence” by Flemming Rose. The book chronicles the period surrounding the publishing of the infamous Muhammed Cartoons and the aftermath. Rose was the culture editor of the newspaper Jyllands-Posten at the time of the Muhammed Cartoon Controversy. I feel a bit ashamed that I didn’t know more about what happened until I read his book. There was a great deal of opposition to the printing of the cartoons. Politicians, civilians, international organizations such as the UN and others have attempted to encroach on the rights of people to print. People that are not standing up for the rights of others allow those that are most fundamentally opposed to control the debate. The “going along to get along” sentiment has severe negative far-reaching consequences. Self-censorship allows free speech critics to state that “no reasonable person would insult the X (religion etc) of others”. A slippery slope then follows. We must be aware of what signal we as a society are sending around the world.


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