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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 05-Apr-15


Sunday 05-April-15

The Puzzle of Free Speech, Insult and Harm

Free speech is a bastion of what we call the free world. But is it? While we can stand on our soap boxes and rant, we are also constrained in what we say by legal, organizational, and other rules. And those rules are changing, reacting to shifting social and technological forces in an increasingly globalized world.

A challenging element of freedom of speech is the freedom to disagree, to say things that others would rather you did not say. But what happens when the things you say are taken as an insult? What if it causes distress? What if it causes harm?

Insult has long been a weapon of argument, arousing anger and provoking heated debate. It is also a political tool, used to belittle opponents. And it permeated culture, with jokes about wives, in-laws, various nationalities and so on, over-spilling into casual conversation.

With rising concern for equality and defending the vulnerable, the system of formal and informal rules has, in recent decades, changed to effectively prohibit much insult. This is good for minorities and the oppressed, who now have the power to respond to insulting and distressing comment.

And, in the manner of power, it is also abused when the excuse of being insulted is used as reason for damaging retaliation. Even in simple conversation, playing the 'I'm insulted' card can stop a rational argument in its tracks. It is easy to wonder if we have become overly politically correct.

Which all leads to a rather fuzzy puzzle. If we want both free speech and protection of the vulnerable, where do we draw the line? What should be allowed and what should be banned? If we place the bar too low, we risk radicals and trolls spoiling society and hurting people by preaching hate and preying on the vulnerable. Yet if the bar is too high, free speech is choked as the weak get high on crying wolf and the powerful subvert laws to hide corruption from prying journalists.

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