It may be a sign of the times but isn’t it strange that those who say “I may not agree with what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” are more apt to actually prevent you from saying what you want to say?
Incidentally, Voltaire never actually said those words. It was written by his biographer, the writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall. In any event, it speaks to the utterance of free expression as our lot as human beings, for it is an avenue for us to fully flourish as individuals. Truth is a necessary component to such flourishing. Yet truth is not achieved solitarily. It must be debated, refined, and shared. Hence the significance of language and the ability to express our thoughts freely and without fear.
Put another way, we have the right to free speech because it arises from our responsibility to know the truth.
Nevertheless, to protect only those speech that we agree with is inutile. Because, what then is the point? Freedom of speech (and of the press) is there, all the more so, precisely for speech we disagree with. That we find intolerable. Revolting even.
The reason, so wrote Villanova University law professor Robert Miller (“In defense of disgusting speech,” July 2011), is that speech “disgusting and vile may turn out to be good and valuable. Reflect that the educated, cosmopolitan, highly literate Romans of the first century regarded the preaching of the Christians as disgusting and vile.”
The point is that an idea or belief, no matter how sure that portion of the population believes they are right, could — by the nature of reason and dint of human experience — still be wrong. And hence the need for opposing thoughts to be expressed. As Professor Miller puts it, whether it be about politics, history, and most specially science: “being sure is not good enough, because even when you’re sure, sometimes you turn out to be wrong. There is no principled way to make exceptions in your own favor here.”
This is the only way for a dynamic and prosperous society to exist. In fact, it could be said that civilized societies actually only came to being when people learned to welcome dissenting thought.
“Dissent, in primitive societies, was normally punishable by death. The upshot of this was that a society’s core body of knowledge and doctrine tended to remain almost static, especially if inscribed in writings that were regarded as holy. It was against this historical background that the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece introduced something wholly new and revolutionary: they institutionalized criticism. From Thales onwards each of them encouraged his pupils to discuss, debate, criticize — and to produce a better argument or theory if he could. Such, according to [Karl] Popper, were the historical beginnings of rationality and scientific method, and they were directly responsible for that galloping growth of human knowledge.” (Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher).
The inanity and insanity of cancel culture callously disregards all that.
But what about “fake news” and “historical revisionism”? Those are valid concerns but the question is: who makes the call as to what constitutes fake news and revisionism? Should it be the government? The unelected members of those small cliques that is the media or the academe?
When the government (Congress or the Executive branch) imposed laws against fake news (e.g., Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended by Republic Act No. 10951; or RA 10175 or the “Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012”; or RA 11469 or the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act”) it nevertheless was unable to provide a workable definition of what constitutes fake or false news.
Indeed, while there are situations that require limiting speech, yet that should be done with the utmost circumspection. What the foregoing demonstrates is the utter difficulty of simplifying complex issues requiring nuance and depth (e.g., determining the truth and actualities behind the Marcos martial law years), and that such cannot be left in the hands of a select few. And definitely not those select few that seek to shut out and silence any contrary or questioning voice.
Professor Miller is right: “I would rather live in a coarser nation that upholds that principle [of free speech], secure that my own freedom to say what others may deem vile and disgusting is protected, than in a more genteel nation that may someday take that freedom from me.”
As the present times show, those who proclaim they are acting for our own safety, whether it be from COVID or historical revisionism, be they politicians, news media, or academicians, more often than not simply want to dictate to everyone else how to live, or what to say and believe.
It shows a distrust and lack of respect for our people and their ability to think for themselves. That is no way for a society to be.
Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.