Inside the Free Speech Debate

Having the freedom to say what we want is something we’re very proud of in the democratic society. This freedom, however, is a hot topic of debate worldwide, and since recently on our campus as well. Often confusing it with hate speech, some argue that free speech is nowadays being restricted in the pursuit of political correctness. To show why this discussion is so relevant today, I will examine its relationship with democracy and see how they go together.

As already mentioned, an important distinction often neglected in this debate is the one between freedom of speech and hate speech. They are regularly equated in making an argument against restrictions of public speaking, but it is much more complicated in reality. Just like all other laws, hate speech laws prevent people from harming each other. This is somewhat a new concept, as it relies on the belief that harming someone’s mental health is on a par with hurting them physically or financially. These laws, however, don’t prohibit well-argued and cultured debates about those same societal issues, they just require mutual respect between the parties involved. So the distinction between free speech and hate speech does exist, but unlike some individuals have recently pointed out, it does not imply that the society is afraid of ‘different ideas’. It just means that we value politeness and treating others equally.

Such public debates about current issues are certainly something we should encourage in the democratic society. By giving everyone who is 18+ a right to participate in politics, we assume they will be educated and informed enough to make a decision they consider the best. But, if we ban hate speech and thus restrict free speech, we are obviously diminishing people’s right to stay informed, right? Not quite so. By banning hate speech, we don’t destroy the ideas it might convey, we simply require them to be defendable and possibly backed up by some evidence, as opposed to unjustified, baseless insults. We can still debate over racial issues, religious matters or gender relations for example, but keeping it civil assures that those debates do indeed have a point to them. After all, if everyone started offending each other publicly, most of society would feel maltreated and no one would know who to vote for, thus undermining democracy itself.

Another importance of freedom of speech and public discussions is that they guarantee our understanding of the beliefs we hold. According to a famous British philosopher John Stuart Mill, if no one challenged the beliefs we hold true, they would soon become dead dogmas. He defined dead dogmas to be the beliefs people hold without knowing the reasons why. These are potentially very dangerous in a society where the people make political decisions, as that kind of beliefs can’t hold up to scrutiny and are easily altered by skilled rhetoricians. This phenomenon notably affects the democratic process, and is something easily recognised in today’s politics around the world. This is why freedom of speech is so valuable in a democracy: it allows questioning of others’ beliefs and makes people understand what and why they stand for.

This is where the recent rector elections come into play. The whole process was just one big clash of ideologies filled with controversy. The most scandalous candidate was, of course, Milo Yiannopoulos. He had many ideas that polarised the campus, but here I want to focus on the one about free speech. He insisted that University should be the place where students are exposed to different ideas which helps them develop their personality. For that reason he wanted to lift the hate speech bans and abolish trigger warnings and safe-spaces, among many other things. Seemingly he had a valid objective for saying those words – that students should develop their thoughts and beliefs while in Uni by coming across ideas they normally wouldn’t. This idea, however, is not plausible because he collapsed hate speech with free speech considering them inseparable, which does not hold, as I showed. His way of communicating also says a lot about his intentions. He deliberately insults minority groups, openly admits he is hypocritical about religions, and opposes political correctness, proving to be nothing more than a provocateur.

Freedom of speech is certainly an important topic in today’s society, and isn’t as black-and-white as it can often be portrayed. It is a major aspect of a democracy, and is very influential in political studies. The difference between free speech and hate speech can oftentimes be very subtle, but nonetheless necessary. Following up on Milo’s idea of personal development through exposure to different ideas, I want to conclude by saying that this is still very much possible in our society. But instead of using insulting language, one can simply join a debating club and use the power of critical thinking when assessing new ideas.

[Nikola Anic]


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