Educating for Free and Deliberative Speech

Hearing criticisms of your own convictions and learning the beliefs of others are training for life in the multi-faith society. Preventing open debate means that all believers, including atheists, remain in the prison of unconsidered opinion. The right to be offended, which is the other side of free speech, is therefore a genuine right. True belief and honest doubt are both impossible without it. John O’Sullivan

indexI have been a pretty standard liberal Democrat all my life, but recently I have been more critical of the left’s retreat from First Amendment protections. I’m talking about the left’s willingness to restrict symbolic expression that is critical of an ethnopolitical group or identity group of any kind. A recent article by John O’Sullivan in the Wall Street Journal takes up the issue of the new limits on free expression in the name of protecting religious and ethnopolitical group sensitivities. The article is an excellent treatment of these issues and I highly recommend it.

The harsh and anti-democratic strand of jihadist Islam has successfully scared enough people into restraining free expression in the form of restricting criticism of religion and political culture. Earlier in the history of free expression, O’Sullivan explains, the predominant restrictions on speech were with respect to obscenity, pornography, and language that was sexually explicit. The purveyors of these restrictions were moralistic and believed themselves to be defending proper standards of society. Political speech was strongly protected. But now, the calls for restrictions are designed to limit the political speech of others and consider off-limits the entire array of topics surrounding religion and politics. Obscene and pornographic speech was limited on the basis of protecting the broad moral foundation of the culture, limiting speech that is critical of religion is justified on the basis of particular groups with each making their own demands.

Burning an American flag is considered political speech and symbolic expression that is protected. I can legally burn the American flag in the center of the town square as a symbolic statement of opposition to some aspect of American foreign policy. But if I burn the Koran, which would still be legal in the United States as politically protected expression, it will cause a different reaction. There is a suggestion that the US endorse an international blasphemy law that would define the Koran as so special that burning it constitutes a particular offense, rather than simply protected symbolic expression.

The traditional approach to protected speech is to ignore the content of speech but simply disallow symbolic expression that will cause imminent danger (yelling “fire” in a crowded theater).Yet feeling free to limit speech because words are supposedly so powerful and dangerous is a slippery slope that will slowly erode freedom.

The Answer: Education

One does not come into the world with established political ideology and sensitivities to managing group differences. Democracy and freedom of speech is advanced citizenship in a democracy and must be taught. Free and open societies, where citizen participation is rich and required, necessitate learning the habits of pluralism and democratic processes. The legal environment surrounding freedom of expression has drifted toward an oversensitivity to categorize speech is injurious and in constant need of management. We should not be in the business of restricting all sorts of pure symbolic behavior. Living amongst one’s fellows in a pluralistic, multi-faith, diverse environment requires living in a world that is not of one’s own making and is constituted by differences. These differences must be managed through the deliberative communication process which is by definition “contestatory.”

The lines and distinctions implied here are difficult. For example, do we allow street gangs to deface public buildings with racist slogans and call it “freedom of expression”? I presume it would be possible to define such activities as sufficiently harmful and capable of producing imminent danger, but it will depend on many factors. Slow and long term as it is democratic cultures must continue civic education that includes democratic values.

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Posted on November 10, 2014, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Democracy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Educating for Free and Deliberative Speech.

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