Practicing Respectful Free Speech

10 Principles for a Connected World


Timothy Garton Ash has published a new work, “Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World” (Yale Press), which lists 10 Principles. He begins his chapters with these titles:

Lifeblood (we must be able to express ourselves);

Violence (we neither threaten nor accept violent intimidation);

Knowledge (we allow knowledge to spread);

Journalism (we allow uncensored media);

Diversity (we allow open and civil expression of all human difference);

Religion (we respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief);

Privacy (we must protect both privacy and against slurs, but also protect scrutiny in the public interest);

Secrecy (we must challenge all national security limits placed on information); Icebergs (we defend the free internet); and

Courage (we decide for ourselves and face the consequences).

The problem he sees is that we are living in an overconnected society, swamped by social media, yet there is very little discussion of the important issues we face. Besides that, we see a breakdown in that ancient virtue of civility, the capacity to treat our opponents in a polite and courteous way as we differ in our viewpoints. Ash wants more people who are concerned, “netizens”, to influence the flows of events in public life and affairs, to create those virtual communities which are so vital to a healthy democracy.

It is not a question of everyone doing and thinking the same thing. There can be diversity, as Barack Obama stated so well in his farewell address in Chicago, “Democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they know that democracy does require a basic sense solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”

Another quote worth repeating from that speech was, “For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds. We become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.”

What is important about this new work of Timothy Ash is that his insights can generally be accepted by any reasonable thinking person. His appeal and plea is that we return to a place and to a mode in which it is possible to discuss and debate those vital issues which touch our lives so profoundly. Shouting and condemning wildly benefits no one. Insulting another far too often is a sign of a weak, lazy brain. We need intelligent proposals to solve thorny questions, not clever sound bites which gain points.

So we judge the quality and degree of democracy by how much freedom people have to express their views, without fear of reprisal or punishment from authorities. Silencing opposition restrains and limits a society to dictatorial conditions. To despotic control. After all, who would defend restricting the flow of information about current events or not allow people the right to organize and express oneself?

When Ash discusses religion’s role in the market place, however, his attempt to clarify matters have created the seeds for confusion and conflict. His reasoning begins to break down as he tries to make a distinction between the tolerance necessary and permitted for a believer to hold what he believes vs. being free to act and perform with a total lack of appraisal respect for its content. In other words, if one’s religion supports your policy choice, your personal belief may be tolerated, but not necessarily acted upon or respected. It belongs to the private – a protected – area. No one can take away your belief but neither can your belief overcome another’s disregard of the same.

Obviously proponents of major religions will never agree to this principle. They say that this is trying to keep the faith trapped in the sacristy. There is room in the public square for religious contributions to social questions. All political and social issues are subject to evaluation and critiques. The crux of the question is who is to decide which (religious) criterion may be invoked?

Let us take the question of abortion, for instance. If the Supreme Court basically said that if other experts cannot decide and come up with a clear position, who are we to decide what can be done? Thus it struck down former laws, creating what some now call a constitutional right to choose.

What room, therefore, exists in a democracy for a person to hold his or her own personal beliefs, appealing to a higher law (e.g. divine) to back up a position that is contrary to what his community’s majority or magistrate has come to accept as legal? Christians have to struggle with the dilemma that when they hold that abortion is about killing a child (not permitted), how can radical Moslems be condemned who want to eliminate non-believers? Each appealing to a higher authority. So the shouting goes on.

Is there a source above and beyond the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? Who decides? The Supreme Court? Congress? University professors? Pastors and theologians?

Where do the challenges between the First Amendment (free speech) and the 14th, (which protects our immunities) end? Obviously, no one wants to protect misinformation or fake news. But once again, who decides what is the truth?

Hopefully more public debates with courteous discourse, cool reasoning and investigative research, will permit a diversified society like the American experience to reach a consensus.

Father Donnell Kirchner, CSsR, received a degree in moral theology in Rome and taught for 39 years as a Redemptorist priest in Brazil, teaching at a regional pastoral institute in Manaus. He is currently working with theologians in Hyde Park, Chicago.

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2017

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