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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 01-May-16


Sunday 01-May-16

Free Speech, Dignity and Tolerance

In free society, there are two counterbalancing sets of rights and duties. Firstly, the right of free speech allows me to speak my mind without fear of reprisal. This places a duty of tolerance on those who may dislike what I say. On the other hand, there is also a right of dignity, whereby speakers have a duty to be considerate in their speech, self-censoring before speaking.

This creates a continuing tension, where we want to express ourselves while repressing others. This can be seen where opposing people each claim the right and impose the duty that suits them best. A common instance is in religion, where people of one faith are intolerant of people with different beliefs, yet expect tolerance of their own outspoken views

There is a point in here about power, including personal power to speak and act at will, as well as formal power of authority and law. The right of free speech assumes those insulted are powerful enough to silence or take harmful revenge on controversial speakers. Laws of free speech hence give protection to speakers and place a duty on listeners to hold back any desire to attack. On the other hand, the right of dignity assumes many are powerless to defend against those who cause distress or orher harm by what they say. Laws here include those around libel, harassment, equality and incitement.

It is a sad indictment of the human condition that we tend to selfish lack of consideration. When insulted, we feel justified in responding harshly. Worse, bullies gain pleasure in the distress of others as they boost their own sense of control and power. To counteract this tendency, social norms and formal laws form a structure that seeks to balance freedom and protection, moderating more powerful people from using harmful speech or revenge against speakers.

There has in recent years been a steady increase in laws and norms that support dignity over free speech. While the rights of the vulnerable are of course important, this has transferred power to their protectors, some of whom abuse this power as they seek to silence their critics while trumpeting their own cause. The move to dignity rights has also led to increasing sensitivity, where people take insult more easily. Paradoxically, this leads to a more paranoid and less tolerant society. Indeed, the outrage that intolerance provokes can be linked to much modern conflict.

For people of different beliefs to coexist, perhaps we need to rebalance a little, allowing more insult and expecting more toleration than outrage. The happy medium should be both a right to talk without fear of reprisals, and a duty to be tolerant of those who speak their minds. When we express our views, we should be both fearless and considerate, not just one or the other.

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