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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 9/30/12

Freedom of Speech, and Other Novel Concepts

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Recently, the new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi addressed the U.N. General Assembly.  He said many things I found agreeable, in particular regarding Syria and Palestine.  Understandably, he condemned the video whose aim was to insult Islam and Muslims.  Yet he betrayed a certain lack of understanding when he proclaimed, "Egypt respects freedom of expression.  One that is not used to incite hatred against anyone.  One that is not directed toward one specific religion or culture."

Arguably, freedom of speech is not a universally accepted value.   It is a modern concept, a "Western" concept, and perhaps arrogantly so.   It is, however, inextricably linked to another modern "Western" and arrogant concept called "democracy".

Much of the world lives under regimes that promote what might kindly be called a "collectivist" philosophy - that it is the fundamental duty of the individual to work for the good of society, to subjugate their personal needs, desires, hopes and dreams in support of the Motherland or Fatherland.   It may be promoted from a theocratic perspective, or in more pragmatic terms, arguing that "society is needed to protect and nurture the individual", and therefore should have primacy.   In operation, these systems often devolve to "rule by the few" who are somehow embodied with the wisdom to know what it means to "nurture" the individual, and often involve forced austerities that serve to enrich the few.    

Perhaps the most radical concept advanced in human history is the notion that legitimate society exists to enrich the lives of its individuals, as defined by those very individuals (government "of, by and for the people.")   It is individuals that are held to have primacy, not the society to which they may belong.   For it is individuals who live, suffer, hope and dream.   It is individuals who "feel" existence.   This is not to dismiss societal structure as unnecessary, else anarchy reigns, but to hold that "society should come first" is to imbue it with its own "life", feelings, desires and willfulness.   These are things it cannot possess.   A society can have no "will" except as an expression of its (necessarily) free-thinking and freely-contributing individuals.

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In a strictly theocratic society, where the "word" is final and given by the "one book", the notion of a "right to free speech", which implies respecting a diverging viewpoint, is (quite literally) antithetical.   Differing views are at best a waste of time, and at worst dangerously subversive.   Tolerance for dissent is tantamount to embracing insanity.   This is doubly so, when the promoted theology holds promise of an infinite afterlife, whose blessings and glory may only be attained through "right action" here in this very brief and insignificant physical life.   For such theologies, there is no physical suffering or sacrifice too great to endure, if it may grant you eternal access to the promised land.   Where the religion holds that "tolerance of the heretic or infidel" may suffice to ban you forever from heaven, and such theological "law" is also the civil authority, laws protecting diverse viewpoints and their free expression will be hard to come by.

A core democratic principle is the belief that every person's opinion, no matter how objectionable to many, holds potential merit.   "Right action" is not fixed a-priori, but is defined jointly by society and may thereafter be redefined as time and situation change.   If no one, not even the majority, can be held up as having attained "immutable truth", then anyone may come forward in the future and offer a "better truth" for consideration - even the heretic.   Of course, highly objectionable speech will engender vocal condemnation from other free-speaking individuals, even the majority of individuals - and so be it.    But even this majority may not pass laws to curtail objectionable speech, or else they will ultimately undermine the very principle by which they exercise their right to self-governance - namely, that their individual opinions have validity, independent of any external (or collective) authority.

 

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Cyber Security Researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory since 1990. MS Mathematics Oregon State University, 1987.
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