The significance of freedom of expression or freedom of speech (both will be used interchangeably throughout today’s discussion) as a valuable and fundamental aspect of any democratic society cannot be downplayed. One of the hurdles that can be rightly experienced by the intelligentsia, while discussing the nuances of free and uncensored expression, is that it includes the paradoxical component too. The classical elucidation of this paradox of freedom was lucidly illustrated by noted English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) in the historic essay named On Liberty:
… there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it might be considered.
To put it in another way; unless the opponents of freedom have the liberties they are eager to misuse, then the essence of what people ultimately represent is denied, and so are no holier than those individuals to whom they are opposed.
Famous French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) beautifully paraphrased this discourse:
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
The corollary states that the words and the actions of those who are opposing freedom of speech must be exhaustively examined in public debates; and precisely this is where the proponents of a utopian society, which does not restrict anything and everything expressed by an individual, happens to fail miserably.
Freedom of expression can be regarded as the sine qua non of a liberal society; and on a more pragmatic or practical space, it fulfills many objectives, the most crucial ones will soon be touched upon.
Importance of freedom of expression
Safeguards values, ideas, morals, ethics, etc.
Freedom of expression offers a baseline, impeccable support for the candidacy of any single idea as well as all of them. And in order to genuinely admire the defense of these beliefs, one has to think of a time when people never had them. During The Great Terror (1936-1938), also known as The Great Purge, all voices of dissent from the citizens of former Soviet Russia were suppressed mercilessly. From death camps to purges, anyone who dared to disagree with Stalin was promptly silenced and brutally punished.
By virtue of freedom of speech, one need not succumb to this fear. A person can criticise the government in power and its actors. Freedom of expression provides an individual with the proverbial podium to share one’s views and opinions; no matter how much controversial, offensive or preposterous they may sound; to anybody and everybody keen to listen. Free speech gives everyone a priceless chance to not live in a state of constant fear; being afraid of persecution for the very ideas, ethics, values, morals, or any given belief system they espouse. And subsequently, it allows other people to argue and bust any beliefs, which may be construed as nefarious or illogical.
Shields from government tyranny
Freedom of expression prevents the government from silencing the views of opposition and suppressing the tones of disagreement. With the help of this democratic instrument, members of the civil society can publicly debate about all the things the people in power do, and that the citizens choose not to agree with. People living in a free society can truly afford to point out when the ruling government resorts to falsehoods.
The ordinary people were indoctrinated with a system of beliefs since the ages of early schooling in Mao’s China. They never were introduced to alternative viewpoints, and that is why never were capable of challenging the narratives of the then government. From Mao to Xi Jinping, nothing changed really, and this tradition of evil indoctrination continues to be in practice in the twenty-first century’s People’s Republic of China.
However, a free society will never allow this to happen. For instance; a person questioning the authenticity of the teaching material provided by the government could quickly look up all the necessary information by accessing the internet and can spot the errors if any. Hence, they will be able to discern that the people in power are also human, may not be honest or sound all the times on specific topics, and they are not without their fair share of limitation and fault.
Now, it would have really been incredibly difficult to implement in a society that restricts the freedom of thought through censoring certain websites, such as that of aforementioned China, a country particularly infamous for interfering with the free functioning of the information super-highway.
Right to stay silent and not get involved
One of the less-talked advantages of freedom of expression is the liberty not to speak. In a nation like authoritarian North Korea; all citizens must praise and speak for the government, and if they fail to abide, nobody hears them again. But freedom of speech saves one from being vacuumed into an involuntary conversion program, and anybody can afford to be actively vocal against it.
Right to question and refute bad ideas
The beliefs and ideas preached and followed by some fringe elements in the human society, such as the Genesis-believing radical Christians and the white supremacists, those with a political ideology that is so unapologetically far-left; are controversial, terrifying, or outright evil. These minority groups can appear daunting, and one might envisage that it is not fair that they too are offered a platform to talk.
However, there is an inherent advantage with this approach. As those elements are being allowed to speak; one can view their arguments, tactics, and the fallacies as well. Now, those beliefs can be isolated and dissected, only to substantiate that they are irrational or unjust.
In the absence of an environment favoring free voice, anyone having a dissenting opinion or thought could very well become radicalized; because their belief structures are never subjected to open debates. And it would potentially result in a lot of polarization for sure. Hence, it is much wise to elaborately know the cases of one’s enemies, which can be gathered through the unobstructed discourse of free expression. That way; when an individual does require to prove it wrong; that person will be having all the pre-requisite facts, information, and logical connections that are going to validate one’s case.
Freedom of speech permits the crème de la crème of the society to discover the flaws and aberrations in the weakest instances of beliefs of that very society. Those faulty belief sets can then only be segregated and entirely debunked, thus, leaving the enemies with a significantly weaker platform to propagate their agenda any further. It reduces the likelihood of other people absorbing those wrong beliefs and spreading them soon thereafter. And it can be performed for any sensitive opinion. It need not be monitored, as freedom of expression does an excellent task of promoting only the very best of ideas while discarding the rest.
Freedom of expression also offers an entire gamut of ideas to select from. People are not restricted to a short list of staff that is permitted to be thought. Any individual can research and choose any idea! And one need not have to comply with a rigid political platform. The civilians can include views from all such sources. A person can even conceive or conceptualize anything remotely intrinsic and original before subjecting it to rigorous testing.
Right to amend the record
Freedom of expression also allows people to update factually incorrect information. For instance, when a people’s representative in the arena of politics says anything someone disagrees with, one can research on the World Wide Web, and discover what is right. One need not blindly believe what a political candidate has to say and can always mine the raw data for reference and review. This hypothetical scenario can be extrapolated to other possible test cases also and can be held true for any as well as all kinds of communication.
If anyone, even a government official, says anything that is not correct; one can instantly retaliate with knowledge. The ability to deny can be attributed to the protection of freedom of expression. And the wealth of first-hand, mined information is contributed by the open-ended discourse that freedom of speech allows.
The single most significant aspect of a broad-minded, open, and candid society is freedom of expression. It offers a multitude of legal protections and privileges for people from any social strata and provides the civilization with a steady supply of free thinkers to save the dying breed of humanity.
It allows unjustified claims and rogue beliefs to be painstakingly dismantled so that none are misguided by them. Also, it permits people to remain silent on issues they do not want to get engaged with, from an ethical or moral standpoint.
Freedom of speech offers every single person the inspiration, encouragement, and also the ability to argue all belief sets. Every other human right is derived from it. And for this very reason the matter of freely expressing oneself, which was vigorously contended for so many centuries, continues to remain such an imperative subject in the contemporary society.
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.