Updated: Aug 5, 2021
In the first instalment of our all-new 'Philosophy in Action' series, Neville tackles what the digital age means for freedom of speech, and whether it is possible to find a 'grey area' compromise.
“North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
President Donald Trump
I fear the title of this article might place me in hot water; however, the purpose of such a piece is not to incense political factions, but rather highlight something of philosophical importance. We are now, undoubtedly, in a digital age where speech, of all permutations, can be disseminated and heard.
Messages can be sent back and forth between multiple parties at terrifying rates. News can be learnt at the tap of a screen. Information is so accessible it enters our lives whether we want it or not. And with this inter-connectivity, comes the ability for people to voice their opinions. Indeed, the smartphone and technological explosion of the 2010s has given everyone the ability to make the internet their own Speaker’s Corner.
The result of this is awesome – in the literal sense of the word. Anyone, for any reason can express whatever they desire, at any time. Who better to elucidate this point than the current United States of America’s President, Donald Trump. Trump was famous for his tweets before he was elected, and has become increasingly more infamous for his tweets after his coronation. His tweets have caused extreme controversy – often being branded as rude, offensive, sexist, racist, xenophobic, or all of the above.
Now this article is not here to pass judgement on the dear President, but rather highlight as to what this behaviour represents: in a digital age, has freedom of speech gone too far? And if so, should it be curtailed or censored?
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
The Philosophical Importance of Freedom of Speech
First, let me define ‘Freedom of Speech’ (for further ease, I shall abbreviate such to, ‘FoS’). FoS is defined by the British Institute of Human Rights to be:
"[The] right […] to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers".
Now, before the digital age, to exercise one’s right to FoS, one would have to engage in some kind of physical activity. For example, one might have to join a protest, write a letter, or speak on the radio. However, in the technological era of today, one expresses such a right simply by interacting with other media online. An interaction, such as a ‘like’ on Facebook, is a public expression of opinion (and effectively speech) which can be seen and understood by all. This means, in effect, one, by simple online interaction, has utilised their FoS – they have publicly spoken about what they like, find amusing, and so on.
I should hasten to add that such digital FoS is not limited to trivialities such as ‘likes’ on Facebook, but can stretch to invaluable purposes. In the definition of FoS, it highlights the importance of sharing information and ideas. The implication here is that such sharing is beneficial to humanity. Indeed both J. S. Mill and J. B. Bury point out how humanity benefits from such sharing of ideas.
For a contemporary example, one should look no further than applications such as WhatsApp or Telegram. These kinds of encrypted communication allow individuals to communicate, share ideas, and so on, without fear of being watched. This is especially important in war-torn areas, or where there is a tyrannical regime; communication in these areas is essential, but dangerous, and here FoS is a necessary, but incriminating practice, which ensures the rebels’ survival.
I do wish I could elaborate further on the importance of FoS but suffice it to say that FoS is of significant importance as it allows humanity to collaborate on the same ideas, eliminating unnecessary duplication of efforts, and create better qualities of life in the future. For some further examples of when FoS has been exercised to a great (large in magnitude, but not necessarily ‘good’) effect see:
Westboro Baptist Church [warning: distressing content]
[The fictional events detailed in] George Orwell’s 1984
The Liminal Nature of Freedom of Speech
So, FoS, as I have hoped to show, is of great use and importance. So, what is the catch? Well, the answer, I am afraid to admit to, is that, FoS, in excess, or of the wrong sort, can be extremely damaging. If one takes the absolute notion of FoS (that is to say, there should be freedom to disseminate all ideas, opinions, and thoughts) then Pandora’s Box will have been opened.
An example of this would be the case of Abu Hamza, who used the EU and UK’s own laws, which protected freedom of speech, against them by spouting terrorist and radical fundamentalist propaganda. In this instance FoS allowed an individual to espouse hate speech and encourage violent action.
This example, and others like it, highlight how FoS cuts both ways: it can either be used to expand individuals’ minds and promote progression, or it can be used as a weapon that harms people, and obstructs the course of justice.
“The problem with today’s world is that everyone believes they have the right to express their opinion AND have others listen to it.”
Hated In The Nation
Of course, in Western society, as you might be aware, we neither have complete censorship of speech, nor do we have absolute FoS. Our laws govern that we have something in the middle: you can basically say or express whatever you would like, provided that it does not harm individuals (a large simplification). However, that leaves a very grey area: how, in this age, are people meant to know what speech does or does not cause harm?
Take, for example, President Trump: he has expressed, on occasion, that he believes (or knows) that Mexican immigrants are bringing in drugs to the US. In making this statement, Trump offended many Mexicans who were appalled that he would paint all Mexicans as drug traffickers. They were clearly hurt by the statement, and the reputation of Mexicans was arguably damaged. However, does this infringe the bounds of free speech and descend into hate speech? If I play Devil’s Advocate for Trump, then I might argue that Trump based this statement on some statistics, or that what the Mexican people inferred (that Trump meant all Mexicans) was wrong, and that is the fault of the recipient of the message.
What classifies as a breach of free speech, and a descent into hate speech is itself a grey area. This is because if there are some forms of speech that are permitted, but others banned, it becomes very arbitrary as to where the dividing line falls. As such, political figures who try and draw the line are castigated from both sides – bastions of FoS say that the state is censoring too harshly, and those who are censored say the same.
It is a lose-lose situation for the legislature and the citizens who are ruled under it. For an example of this in action, see the case concerning Count Dankula, where a YouTuber, who made several tasteless jokes regarding the Nazis and Jews was hit with a criminal conviction.
One only needs to venture onto the comments section of some forum or video to be greeted with a microcosm of the cesspit of insulting, rude, and downright disgusting remarks that plague the internet. On these digital battlefields, users take great pleasure in ‘trolling’ (in essence sowing discord and causing arguments, often via incendiary comments) and causing distress or annoyance amongst other users.
“We have freedom of speech, but you got to watch what you say.”
Personal Perspective on Freedom of Speech
This is all very well, but where does this leave the everyday user, such as yourselves? Well, once again (say it with me now…) it is a grey area. The majority of individuals can navigate digital platforms with ease – however, those who are opinionated and like to express their views might run into trouble.
Language has a beautiful characteristic: it can be interpreted (much to the delight of my English teachers who insisted that ‘the curtains were dusty’ meant far more than dirty). That means what you say, how you say it, and who it is received by, all plays a part in whether or not what was actually said is harmful or not. This in turn informs whether what you have said is a breach of FoS and in fact hate speech.
Due to speech’s moral quality being determined in the eye or, in this case, ear of the beholder, legislation cannot draw a dividing line between what is a legitimate exercising of FoS and what is not. Hence, for the likes of you and I, we have to guess, and just hope that we do not end up saying something that crosses the invisible line. For most of us, there is no danger of that – but for comedians and political activists, it is a dangerous game to play, as one misstep can cost not only your career (as seen with Danny Baker), but perhaps your livelihood.
“I think my first album opened a lot of doors for me to push the freedom of speech to the limit.”
So, what it all boils down to is this:
FoS is great in sharing ideas and advancing humanity.
Absolute FoS allows for hate speech which is unacceptable due to the harm it causes.
Censoring all FoS inhibits the spread of ideas, stunts human growth and leads to tyranny.
The middle group is a grey area where people do not know whether what they say is criminal or legal.
Now, I admit, that sounds rather bleak – but, as I have mentioned, we most likely will never cross the invisible line. We have very little to worry about, so, in the meantime, relax, say (virtually) whatever you’d like, tweet as much as you desire, and watch celebrities…or Presidents make the mistakes for us.
Blog Post Crafted by Neville
Neville is currently working towards his BA in Philosophy at Warwick University, having bagged three A* grades at A Level.
He has entered the Times Advocacy Competition three times, and each time was shortlisted into the top ~20 candidates in the country. In his free time he writes his own scripts, as well as other fictional and non-fictional works.