Friday, April 12, 2013

Freedom of speech is a dying right

One common sentiment that many people express goes something like this: "Your freedom of expression ends immediately when you hurt someone." It's sometimes described with an analogy: "You are free to wave your arms around, but that freedom ends immediately when you hit someone with them."

This is a rather deceptive sentiment because it's so easy to agree with, when you don't think about it too much, yet it's quite hideous.

There's a big difference between hurting someone physically and hurting someone's feelings. The former is an objective and universal thing. Hitting someone on the face will hurt every single person in existence, and it's not a question of opinion, education, culture or personal preference. It's quite an objective thing.

Hurting someone's feelings, however, is completely subjective. It depends completely on one's personality, background and a ton of other things. What hurts someone may well not hurt someone else. And that's why the analogy is completely flawed.

I'm sorry, but freedom of speech trumps hurt feelings. Your perceived right to not get offended does not trump freedom of speech.

An opinion "hurting" someone is such a subjective thing that if we wanted to limit what opinions are allowed or not, it would come down to subjective opinion. There's no objective measurement stick that can be used to determine what should be banned and what not. More problematically, everybody gets offended by something (and not offended by something else that offends others.) If we started banning everything that offends somebody, quite soon we will have no freedom of speech of any kind.

Moreover, it would transgress to other rights as well. For example, if a world view offends some religion, should that world view be banned? What if a religion offends some group of people? Should that religion be banned? If a political view offends someone, should that political view be banned?

No, just no.

As Evelyn Beatrice Hall once wrote, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." That should be the core essence of human rights. That's the exact opposite of "your freedom ends when you hurt someone." No, it doesn't.

Sure, some people will end up saying very heinous things. On the other hand, other people will end up saying things that change the world. History is full of people who did not shut up because of the fear of hurting someone, and who made the world a better place to live. People with unpopular opinions and who were not afraid to express them. This is something that should be encouraged, not stifled.

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