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Thursday, September 27, 2012

On the right to 'Free Speech' and the freedom of 'Right Speech'

To condemn hateful speech, or call for a protest against those who promote it, is itself a form of free speech. Announcing that you are offended when someone insults you or something you believe in is not an act of censorship. What person would refrain from issuing a rejoinder against those who insult him on the grounds that the right to insult precludes the right to defend? It is worth remembering this in light of The Innocence of Muslims and the hostile rhetoric against those whom it offends... 
Shock and offence are not feelings people cultivate. They are spontaneous emotions that reflect a violation of a person's sense of self. When someone is shocked or offended, it is natural that they would express it. Yet when Muslims offended by the movie or the cartoons do so, they are accused of being an enemy of free speech. There is no excuse for reacting to an insult with violence. But many who peacefully express their condemnation of hateful views are lumped into the same category: "Why Are Muslims So Easily Offended?", goes the refrain. 
Worse yet, the creators of the cartoon are portrayed as heroes for mocking Islam in a country known for its hostility toward Muslim immigrants and fierce state protection of free speech provocateurs. Editorials around the world have lauded the magazine for its alleged bravery, with one author proclaiming, "If free speech means anything, it's the right to say and publish things that other people find objectionable and irresponsible, even blasphemous." 
Such a perspective confuses what free speech does with what free speech means. Free speech allows people to insult, berate, and defame each other, but that is not what most people want, and it is rarely what makes freedom of speech attractive to those who do not have it. Those forced to live in countries without free speech know that one of its greatest values is the ability to speak the truth about one's position, to contest false depictions, to refute bias and slander. 
Free speech means not only the right to offend, but the right to defend. When Dan Cathy proclaims his prejudice against homosexuals, or Charlie Hebdo its hatred of Muslims, that is free speech. But when gay rights groups call for a boycott, and Muslims protest a cartoon or a movie, that is also free speech. Free speech does not mean deferring to people's right to abuse you.
I find the above from this article, 'The Freedom To Criticise Free Speech', poignant, disarming and humbling even, in the way it reminds us that any affirmation of freedom cannot deny others the capacity to refuse—even to say no to freedom itself—if freedom is to be free. To me this raises a question which, perhaps, we've been shying away from because of the obligation it places on the self: what if free speech only becomes meaningful as an expression of freedom to the extent that it allows for the freedom to criticise free speech?

What if the cacophonous clatter of 'Free Speech' (and the associated understanding of 'rights' deriving from a notion of the transcendental subject/atomistic individual) has deafened our ears to the silent plea of what Buddhism calls 'Right Speech' (and the associated understanding of 'freedom' deriving from a refusal of the transcendental subject/atomistic individual)?

Speak only the speech that neither torments self nor does harm to others. That speech is truly well spoken. Speak only endearing speech, speech that is welcomed. Speech when it brings no evil to others is pleasant.
— Sn 3.3

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