The priceless value of free speech?

May 17, 2021 10:32
Photo: Reuters

The comedian-philosopher John Cleese exclaimed “You’re offended? Please explain why your inability to control your emotions translates into me having to censor my opinions?”

Why is it that our days are clouded with so many people unable to control their emotions that merely holding a different opinion can now be characterised as treason, sedition or some other emotively pejorative term?

What has happened to civilised discourse?

Those on opposing sides of the Brexit issue injected a venomous strain in their dischord, pitting family members against one another.

As for the bankrupt exchanges between pro and anti-Trump in America, politics can surely never have sunk so low.

My professional life revolves around argument for and against a proposition. Can you imagine how swiftly a courtroom would descend into pantomime circus if counsel indulged in unlicensed vilification of their opponent’s submissions?

If we start from a basic proposition that nothing, but nothing, is perfect, it must follow that everything in life is subject to change and, hopefully constructive evolution.

That involves, of necessity, disagreement with the status quo.

If differences of opinion are to be entertained, that requires that the opinion be heard first, otherwise how to know that it conflicts with the view of the listener?

In essence, this is what is meant by freedom of speech; the ability to express an opinion whether or not you agree with it.

Unquestionably, some views and ideas offend against universally recognised concepts of decency, honesty and integrity but perhaps these are the ones that most need to be ventilated so that their fundamental flaws can be exposed.

Logic and reason dictate that before you criticise someone else’s opinion, first you must hear and understand it.

Ideas that are suppressed tend to flourish in the dark but perish in the full glare of exposure.

The ‘woke’ currency that refuses to give a platform to people whose views do not coincide with theirs is every bit as much a denial of free speech as the worst autocratic regimes.

Regrettably, it is the working model of an autocratic system to shut down views opposed to what the system perceives as correct or, expressed diplomatically, its concept of the received wisdom.

How does a viable free society cope with extreme attacks on its institutions? A potent example was England’s Daily Mail libelling as “enemies of the people” the UK Court of Appeal judges who decided that the British government needed the authority of parliament to give notice of intention to leave the EU.

Happily, the sweaty nightcap journalists of the gutter press could do no more than hurl abuse, the judges treated it with the contempt it deserved and ignored it.

Though the Mail’s choice of words was ill-conceived and inflammatory, the paper undoubtedly gave voice to a segment of the population that regarded Brexit as a sacred mission.

As he enjoys the privilege of living in a liberal free society, the Mail’s editor was not ‘disappeared’ and his printing presses were not smashed. As he saw it, he was doing his duty in holding the judiciary to account.

The press does have a fundamental constitutional duty to hold authority to account, which is why it is called The Fourth Estate.

For those too young to recall ‘Watergate’ it was the journalists Bernstein and Woodward who exposed the criminal activities that led to the downfall of President Nixon, a high point in the history of investigative journalism.

Where, then, does this place journalists in Hong Kong?

Apprehensive, some would say terrified, of the repercussions of criticising any aspect of the National Security Laws, journalists who do not write for a Chinese Communist Party propaganda organ tip-toe around issues that a mature society ought to debate openly.

We are embarked on an era of self-censorship.

The great 18th century writer Edmund Burke observed that ‘A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation’.

Logically, change imports a departure from the existing state of affairs which, in turn, means disagreement.

But if I dissent from your opinion or I am critical of the state of the law, that does not equate to disrespect, even less does it connote rebellion.

Equally, it is a far cry from incitement to violence whether unambiguous or equivocally couched, à la Donald Trump.

The problem, it seems, lies in the autocrat’s delusion of infallibility.

To the best of my knowledge, the only human being who has institutionalised infallibility is the Pope, at least in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

History teaches that once someone has had the taste of power, they tend to gravitate inexorably to the mantle of infallibility which is one step short of tenure for life.

No human being is infallible.

Problems arise when the mere expression of disagreement with the official fiat is classified as heretical or, worse, revolutionary.

The zero sum game of suppressing free speech, to quote Edmund Burke again, is a ‘barbarous philosophy … the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings.’

Malignant autocratic rule reduces mankind to subservient automata.

Worse, autocracy’s sycophants are full of sound and fury against its critics, yet their brickbats, like their spurious rationalisations, crumble before ever they leave their hands.

Because the condition and circumstances of mankind are ever changing, the rules promulgated to promote the wellbeing of society must, necessarily, change too if they are to reflect society’s needs.

As Burke said ‘Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny.’

So, let us hear no more rabid criticism of those who seek to improve upon the laws handed down to govern any given community.

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Queen's Counsel