Freedom of Speech (and the Concept of Agreeing to Disagree)

Oct 16, 2013 in ,

In conjunction with Blog Action Day, I will be writing today on this year's issue, human rights.

There are 30 articles listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN, and whilst they are all extremely important in protecting human lives and ensuring equality, the right to freedom of speech is one that is especially important. It is also one that, despite having supposedly been granted in many countries a long time ago, still often comes up in debate, and is an issue that echos especially with many Malaysians these last few days. There is a constant inflow of stories on violations of this basic right - even in the U.S., generally considered one of the most open countries, people, especially students, experience such violations. Then, of course, are cases where certain terms are banned, and issues forbidden from public discussion.

The reason given for such prohibitions is generally that they serve to protect public order, and in some instances, that can be true. However, abuse of anything can lead to public discontent - a person who flaunts his riches can aggravate others, but no one bans the accumulation of wealth. There is also a great difference between when something should not be done, and when something cannot be done. To put it simply, just because it seems strange to put noodles in milk and eat it does not mean that the action should be banned. Just because one group of people believe that something should not be done or that a view is wrong does not mean that everyone else should be banned from expression such views.

Acceptance of the basic human right of freedom of speech is essential to ensure a peaceful and progressive society. If Copernicus and Galileo were forbidden from expressing their view that our solar system is heliocentric and does not revolve around Earth, as commonly believed in their time, where would we be in science? We certainly wouldn't be where we are today, and it would be hard for human consciousness to progress as well, especially if conservatives had their way and refused to allow the spread of new ideas and ways of thinking.

Extending the freedom of speech to all does not mean that everyone has to approve of others' opinions. Everyone should be entitled to have their own views on the world, and it is only inevitable that everyone thinks differently, or we might as well be computer-programmed. Even if we strongly disagree with others, we can still agree to disagree - the world world be in chaos if everybody tried to censor dissenting views or even go as far as to impose their own views on others. The point is not whether what we say or think is right, or if we agree with others - the point is that everyone must have the right to express their views.

"I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
- Evelyn Beatrice Hall (usually credited to Voltaire)