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Thought For The Day
Mandy Evans Ewing
Transcript of Thought For the World's thought for the day
9th February 2009
We’ve just had another spate of controversies over free speech, censorship, and political correctness. This is a problem that keeps recurring in our society and it needs clearing up: we need to give ourselves some general guidance on what we can say.
The central point is that free speech is a fundamental without which society would be constrained and stultified. Without free speech we can’t assert or defend other liberties and rights; we couldn’t have democracy, which depends on debate and challenge; we couldn’t have worthwhile education, which depends on exchanging information; we could only have formulaic literature and art. Without free speech our lives would be as closed as our lips.
But we know that for all its huge importance, free speech is not an absolute. It has to be responsibly used, given its potential for misuse.
So where’s the line? In fact it’s not hard to draw. To speak insultingly or act discriminatorily with respect to other people’s race, sex, sexuality, age, or disability, is unacceptable. These are things over which individuals have no choice. Regarding what people can choose, such as their political or religious commitments, say what you like: people must bear the consequences of their choices, including the disagreement, even the contempt, of others. “Feeling offended” is no defence against attack on your opinions by those who don’t share them.
Harsh things are often said in such debates, but here too there is a justification. Aristotle said that it’s proper to express anger of the right kind in the right circumstances, for example against injustice and cruelty. Of course it would be better if disagreements were always peacefully debated, but that’s to hope too much.
So the rule is this: never asperse people for what they physically cannot help being. By all means attack what they choose to think or be; but even here it is better to attack ideas rather than individuals. Best of all, don’t attack anyone for anything until you have given them a proper hearing. But if, having done so, you think they speak falsehood, folly or malice, you shouldn’t be afraid to say so as eloquently and determinedly as you can.
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