When free speech is truly free

Freedom is a theme which is going to come up again and again through this election. It is a term, like truth, that has globally become extremely important today. But it is not an easy concept to understand, especially in a public political discourse. First of all, there are many kinds of freedom: freedom to speak, to write, to think, to imagine, to live our lives, to eat what we want, and so on. Since this term is invoked so quickly and so easily — witness little children saying they want their freedom to have ice cream! — it is important that we understand its diverse meanings in our everyday use of this term. Here I want to understand what one of the most important expressions of freedom, free speech, could mean.

Freedom to hold forth?

We often tend to think that among the main elements of democracy are the holding of elections and a free media. Both elections and free media are important because they stand, among other things, for the notions of free speech and free expression. Casting a vote anonymously, of one’s own free will, is an example of free expression and is broader than just ‘free speech’. Similarly, when the media has the freedom to air all kinds of views, it is seen to be an example of free speech. But is free speech really the essence of democracy? Is it really so important for an effective democracy?

Paradoxically, there is an inherent tension between free speech and democracy. If free speech is understood merely as the freedom to say what one wants, then that is obviously not conducive to meaningful social behaviour. For example, one can spread falsehood about another in the name of free speech. One can insult, lie, create harm and hatred through free speech. In these cases, free speech should rightfully be called rumour and gossip. Rumour, gossip, fake news and deliberate lying can be hidden under the guise of free speech. It is speech with an ulterior motive. To call these as free speech is a mistake.

The answer to the problem of defining what really constitutes free speech lies in understanding the meaning of ‘free’ in free speech. What is really free in free speech? The freedom to say what one wants? We can’t really say what we want all the time since all speech is constrained. We are constrained by language, words, concepts and grammar, and even by the physical contours of our mouth. We are constrained by the biological and cognitive structures related to thought and its expression through language. Socially, we are not fully free to say what we want. We cannot make certain utterances in certain places. A commentator, commenting on a game of cricket, cannot suddenly give a lecture on philosophy saying that he is protected by free speech!

In addition to constraints, all speech also has a cost. When we utter something, good or bad, there is a price to pay. Even in personal relations with family and friends, we cannot say what we want. If we do so — that is, if we are honest and outspoken — there is a price to pay. Relationships get broken, wars are declared between people because somebody spoke ‘freely’.

Thus, the essence of free speech is not really about the freedom to say what we want. It is more about speech which is free, which comes with no cost. Free speech is actually speech for which you don’t pay a price. But paying a price is not in the hands of the speaker. When I say or write something, I do not know who will take offence at it. People get upset and take offence very easily these days! Free speech is nothing but the conditions under which the hearer is not allowed to take offence and intimidate the speaker.

The real freedom in ‘free speech’ lies not in the freedom of the speaker to say what she wants but in the constraint on hearers to allow the speaker to say what she wants. Thus, when we demand the right to free speech, we are essentially demanding the right to stop others from not letting us speak. The most important consequence of the idea of free speech is that it shifts the responsibility of free speech from the speaker to the hearer. But does this mean that anybody can say what they want? Can they slander a person through falsehood in the name of free speech? Is slandering a person the same as criticising the government or the nation? After all, our governments, independent of which party is in power, have effectively used the charge of sedition to stop certain utterances in public.

Criticism as a duty

It is not free speech to purposefully slander a person. But criticising the government or nation is not the same as slandering an individual. Such criticism is not just a right, it is more a duty of democratic societies. In a true democracy, there is nothing that can be considered as slandering the government, even if a criticism may be wrong and unjustified. That is because free speech is a tool to make democracy workable and it is not really about the individual freedom to say what one wants.

Democracy is about governance for others and on behalf of others. It is a social and public system of responsibility of governance. The very foundation of democracy is collective action and the real freedom in a democracy is the freedom of choosing who will govern on our behalf. The ideal of democracy is that we are all potential rulers — any one of us can be the Prime Minister of our country. When we elect somebody, we are only putting a group of people to govern on behalf of us. Free speech is the mechanism to make sure that they govern correctly and on our behalf. It is only free speech, defined in this manner, that makes democracy workable.

The true power of free speech lies in its capacity to make those in power accountable to those who do not have power. It is a means to control those in power and is not really about freedom of individuals. The price we demand for making somebody govern on our behalf (the elected leaders) is to allow us to say what we want about them, not as individuals but as political leaders.

The power equation

Thus, true free speech covers only those acts of speech which speak against power, and keep those in power accountable. It thus safeguards the most cherished democratic principle. Free speech by itself is not the essence of democracy but is the means by which any democracy can be sustained. Anybody who doesn’t like to hear criticism of government or government representatives is being undemocratic. We dilute the importance of free speech when we use it to derive personal benefit or cause harm or do so in situations which are not about power. Speech, in the task of keeping check on power, has to be subsidised and made free by those in power.

Sundar Sarukkai is a philosopher based in Bengaluru

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Printable version | Oct 14, 2021 7:54:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/when-free-speech-is-truly-free/article26601160.ece

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