In a recent debate on a blog post (Offstumped), the matter appeared to me to be pretty cut and dried. To me, the freedom of speech is sacrosanct (to the extent that anything about the world is sacrosanct to me) and absolutely non-negotiable. Why?
Because to me, ideas matter. Ideas are what distinguishes us from other terrestrial life forms and in the ultimate analysis, lies at the root of all progress any human civilization has made anywhere. There are two other very important facts. First, not all ideas are good. Second, humans are not infinitely wise and rational. Therefore, it is not usually possible to determine a priori which ideas are good and beneficial. That leads to certain difficulties and the only way out is to let all who wish to express their ideas and the rest can examine them and accept or reject those ideas that don’t make sense. It seems to me that if the any entity arrogates to itself the job of determining which ideas are legitimate and which are not, then we are in for trouble.
The institutions of organized religions — particularly those that arose in the middle east — have always attempted to put a lid on ideas and indeed have burnt at the stake many an author who was foolish enough to bring up ideas that were somehow not acceptable to the powers that be. The European Renaissance was the triumph of ideas over church power. In India, since Indian religions are not organized, that conflict never existed. Ideas did not face organized opposition till monotheistic invaders arrived into India.
Human societies that allow the free expression of ideas do better than those that don’t allow new ideas. The evidence is all around for us to see.
For those of us who value human civilization and human progress — or even those who are merely interested in economic growth and development — our best tools are ideas. The source of these ideas is free people who have the freedom to bring forth new ideas. We progress only by looking at things in new ways, which is what ideas allow us to do. The minimal condition necessary for ideas is the freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech and expression has value in itself but it is also instrumental in giving rise to good ideas. The ancients in India realized the power of ideas. A Rig Vedic prayer roughly translates into “Let Noble Thoughts Come to Us From All Directions.”
It’s a war out there. The war is eventually one of ideas. Those who are short of ideas, are forced to resort to weapons. Suicide bombings, terrorism, rioting in the streets — all these are done by people who have no good ideas and are so threatened by the power of ideas that they seek to destroy those who have good ideas.
Look around and see who are the terrorists and suicide bombers and rioters. They don’t have ideas, and perhaps know that they cannot compete and lash out in their fury to show that they do have some power. Terrorism is the weapon of the powerless and the idea-less.
Surrendering the freedom of speech is stupid. It is stupid to surrender the most potent source of one’s strengths.
It is a mystery to me why some apparently smart people don’t understand the need for the absolute freedom of expression. Don’t they get it that that is the source of all progress?
Here’s an example. Shashi Tharoor is clearly very intelligent. Yet, in a debate with Christopher Hitchens, he is clearly wrong. See for yourself. (I think this debate took place around 2007 or so.)
I have only watched parts 1 and 2 of the nine parts. I look forward to the rest. Have fun.