Martin Mulvenna, Contributor.
In Fionnbharr Rodgers’s opinion piece entitled ‘Freedom of Speech is Not a Blank Cheque,’ he makes some legitimate observations, particularly that there has been a “breakdown in dialogue” which consequently has caused this period of political polarisation that we now find ourselves in. However, there are some fundamental points of his argument that I disagree with.
The first is, as Mr. Rodgers insists that rights include responsibilities, the conception of our fundamental rights in such a manner is dangerous, as it places prerequisites in order for us to access our rights were none have never existed before, therefore to use our rights it seems that we may have to jump through a series of hoops. The reason, quite simply why rights don’t include responsibilities is that there are fundamental, innate in all of us, ergo are natural. To assign rights with responsibilities is to them is to make them unnatural and mere concessions from the government or judges, thus our right to the freedom of speech becomes the right to freedom of approved speech. As Mick Hume states “Nobody has to pass an ethics test or gain a licence in logical argument in order to qualify for freedom of expression. If we have a responsibility it only to speak what we believe to be the truth – and leave others free to disagree.”
Mr. Rodgers furthermore appeals to the social contact as validation of his argument, however I believe the application of this theory seems strenuous. As the Social Contact is an agreement made by a collective that they forgo the more violent aspects of their nature and in return the collective is granted security thus enabling them to work together. However, to protect the sovereignty of this collective the freedoms of each individual must be protected, basic freedoms like those of speech and expression etc. The importance of protecting these freedoms is thus paramount to the upholding of the social contact, even if these freedoms conflict with the security of the collective, and thus leaves us open to dangerous situations, hence Rousseau statement “Better freedom with danger, then peace with slavery.” By placing responsibilities upon rights then, you are limiting access to these rights and thus infringing on the collective sovereignty and consequently the social contact.
In his last argument, Mr. Rodgers bemoaned the media obsession with ‘balance’ (a unbias media then) which has led to a “pretence that all opinions are of equal worth.” True, some opinions may have more merit behind them then others, but who is to decide which opinions are better than others? Surely, I would argue that it is entirely up to the individual to figure out for themselves. Although it is here that we see the deeply elitist sentiment that underlines Mr. Rodger’s argument, it is a belief that the general public are in other words stupid, this is seen when he states upon Michael Gove’s infamous people are “sick of experts” line that “a lot of people who have very strong views, based upon no evidence at all, but will not allow an estranged relationship with reality to stop them from rambling on to their fellow patrons down the pub, in between swigs of ale, mouthful of peanuts, and casual sexism.” We all know what the social group that this jab is referencing; the working class of course who are all cranks and sexist, that if they hear Katie Hopkins on the radio they all become instantly racist, nonsense! It is exactly this demeaning attitude, that the general public should not talk out of turn, that we shouldn’t stick our noses where they don’t belong, leave it all to and don’t question the superior race of academics because let’s face it you all can’t take care of yourselves, that I would argue led to the Leave vote during the EU Referendum and is the main contributor to the political unrest that we are witnessing. It’s shocking I know that people don’t like being condescended to, who would have guessed?
If we are to, as Mr. Rodgers insists “raise the bar” it must be done, not through restricting our basic right to speech nor sneeringly dismissing the qualms of the general public, but through unrestricted access to our right to speech, even if such speech is ignorant at times, to paraphrase Thomas Paine, Free Speech must be as free as a bird, able to soar as high or as a low as it wants, not free range, like some chicken steadily waiting the executioner block while mellowing in the dirt. Progress can only be achieved dialectically by hearing as wide range of opinions as is possible, and through reasoned argument hoping to establish a synthesis of truth.