Free Speech, Right Speech: Teetering on a Razor’s Edge

I support the principle of free speech and stand in solidarity with the French in the aftermath of yesterday’s terror attack. I am sure most all of you do as well. But today I am not inclined to give myself over to expressions of outrage and defiance, which seem to me right now as little more than mere emotionalism and sloganeering. I have seen too many news reports of terror attacks in my years to be outraged. I am too weary to be very defiant. Instead, I have questions.

UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri articulated the questions in my mind rather well at the opening of the 83rd session of The U. N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last year in Geneva:

Where does the right of expression, which we all want to respect, stop and the need to sanction and prevent hate speech begin? What is the point in time when one right has to recognize that it cannot be exercised if it implies the violation of another one?”

Does free speech go too far if it is harmful to others? It’s a rather old question, actually. It was debated by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly a hundred years ago in Schenck v. United States, (1919), a case that revolved around free speech during World War I. The court concluded that the defendant (Schenck) had no First Amendment right to express freedom of speech against the draft during the war. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote the unanimous opinion that included this line, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic . . .”

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)

Thus, it was Holmes who gave us the famous metaphor of “Shouting fire in a crowded theater.” I don’t get how he reasoned that to express one’s opinion on the morality of a wartime draft presented a “clear and present danger,” but that is another discussion.

In a free society, everyone should have a right to hold and express any opinion. Justice Holmes qualified his decision with the word “falsely.” So, one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is, does opinion need to have a factual basis? Usually, no. But that does not mean it is wise to offer opinions that are based solely on supposition, assuming facts not verified.

The second question might be does the right to free speech include a right to offend? In this most recent case, the alleged offense is against religious sensibilities and beliefs. What we see in the West as relatively harmless satire is to many Muslims, even moderate ones, hate speech.

Yesterday’s attack was against Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper. The cover of a 2011 issue depicted a cartoon of the Islamic prophet Muhammed and teachings based upon the Quran forbid the creation of visual images of Muhammad. This religious dictum does not justify the savage murder of 12 people. But it does provoke questions about whether journalists, even those engaged in the business of satire, should be more sensitive to religious beliefs. In the global public sphere, does the sacred dictum of the West that “nothing is sacred” trump Islam’s sacred dictum regarding images of the Prophet? Just because we have the right to free speech, is it always wise and/or proper to exercise it?

Religion was often the target of Charlie Hebdo’s satire.  Religion isn’t as popular these days as it once was. Even those of us who are “spiritual” may have little use for “religion.”  In being dismissive, need we be disrespectful?

As a Buddhist, I can’t help but wonder how we might strike a balance between free speech and “right speech,” an ideal found in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path: “And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.”

The Dasabhumaka Sutra says,

“Whatever speech is unpleasant, whatever hurts one’s own nature or others, that is speech the bodhisattva avoids . . .”

What hurts one’s own nature or others can take many forms, and can be born from misunderstanding and thoughtlessness as well as hate and prejudice. When I was younger, I would have been tempted to simply dismiss Muslims as thin-skinned, denounce their violence, and leave it at that.  Nowadays, disgusted as I am, having been a witness to these unrelenting cycles of violence for so long, I am more interested in how concepts such as right speech and deep listening might be pathways to solutions. I am more interested in trying to understand the other side than I am in placing blame and demanding accountability.

Writing now, something else occurs to me, about to what extent religious sensibilities are used as political weapons. Muslims seem to be a devout people; yet many of them have no problem using their religion a propaganda tool. Arab Nations like to cast themselves as spiritual warriors righteously fighting a religious war against “infidels”, and they use this same ideology to agitate believers against the West. We do much the same thing, only we are the champions of democracy and free speech.

Where do we go from here? Do we encourage journalists to censor themselves? And if so, is it an act of tolerance, or is it just doing what the terrorists want us to do? Or, perhaps, the outrage, the defiance, the condemnation is exactly they want to see. Are we only displaying our wounds for their pleasure?

Why do we never get an answer when we’re knocking at the door
With a thousand million questions about hate and death and war?

– The Moody Blues

I don’t have the answers. Just suggestions, what ifs.

Je suis Charlie. I, you, we are all Charlie but if the world is ever going to change at some point we must also be Abdul and Fareed and Rabiya. I wrote above that I wanted to avoid sloganeering. But here I go. Not afraid. Without a doubt, we should not be afraid in the face of terrorism, never forsake our liberty of expression. Fear, though, can be a double-edge sword. Not afraid should also mean not fearing to use our liberty to express right speech, kind speech, and to open our hearts to the concerns of others. Why is it that when responsible leaders suggest offering an olive branch of understanding to Islam and the Middle East they are vilified for it and labeled as weak? It seems to me that kindness and understanding and empathy are strategies that have not yet been employed in this long, long war between our two cultures. Not afraid? I wonder  . . .

Protestors in Place De La Republique in the centre of Paris (Photo: Heathcliff O'Malley/The Telegraph)
Protestors in Place De La Republique in the centre of Paris (Photo: Heathcliff O’Malley/The Telegraph)
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3 Comments for “Free Speech, Right Speech: Teetering on a Razor’s Edge”

philip brett

says:

I’ll stand alone on this one. If you goad me into a fight by disparaging my mother I may go to jail for beating you up but I’m right and you’re wrong.

says:

I don’t think you stand along there Philip, but in company with a whole load of John Wayne style moralists who probably see the world in black and white terms. The problem with using force to enact justice on those who dare speak against others, who insult in one way or another, is that it inevitably leads to a skewed moral landscape and it can backfire with you actually getting beat up for attempting to offend someone’s honour. Your last statement is a real gem: I’m right and you’re wrong. It’s exactly this sort of thinking that highlights so clearly why free speech has to be without restraints. By the way, if you insulted my mother, I would expect her to laugh at you for wasting your breathe. She’s got a great sense of humour and would find it rather sad that someone would feel the need to offend her.
I’ve written my own take on Buddhism and free speech at my site on Post-Traditional Buddhism. Mr Riley, why not take a look. I think the notion of right speech needs challenging as it can make self-censorship a natural result of adhering to vague parameters such as ‘avoid upsetting others’ or ‘do not offend’. Aung San Suu Kyi speaks of ‘intelligent speech’ rather than right speech and I think that we in the West should consider the role of intelligent critique in establishing a 21st century take on the Buddhist set of ethical principles: they are after all guidelines. As for satire, long may it live and continue to upset and undermine the madness of religion and secrecy of politics.

http://posttraditionalbuddhism.com/2015/01/19/free-speech-and-buddhism/

David

says:

Thank you, Matthew. Your post brings up many good points, too many to address in a short reply. Overall, though, I am not too sure that categorizing a desire or inclination to be “nice” as idealism or utopianism really hits the mark. Censorship should always be avoided, and meanness, too. Your mother may laugh off an insult, but someone else’s mother may think it is mean. You mention George Carlin – he may have been caustic at time, but he was never mean. Too many of the purveyors of comedy and satire today don’t grasp that distinction. They fail to use wisdom, which to me, is what “intelligent speech” implies. I think it goes hand-in –hand with Thich Nhat Hanh’s “deep listening.”

In any case, this is a complex and difficult issue. It is good that there is a public discussion about it.

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