What is freedom of expression and why is it important?
First, let's have a look at the most obvious answers.
Without free flow of information and critique the society doesn't function – or it functions very badly. A closed, censored society will soon become somethig like an autocracy with corruption and frightened servants instead of citizens. Whether they like it or not, the people in power in the long run need critique and open information. As lord Acton put it: «Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutly».
But some heads of states, for example in China – and not only those, but also leading politicians in the West – argue that freedom of speech is not so important: look instead at all those people who have been lifted out of poverty and therefore have a better life. But those using this argument close their eyes to the fact that freedom of speech is not a derivative right. It is a right that guarantees all the other rights. It is a right that makes the rest possible, also the social rights. Looking at China and India in the 1950's we see countries ravaged by famine. In China, it led to millions of deaths. In India, the deaths were minimal. In China, there were no channels for information. Hence hardly any assistance came to disaster areas. In India even the smallest local paper reported what was about to happen, and the central government intervened.
Also business suffers without free flow of information. How is it possible to built trust between business partners when nobody is certain that what you hear is right? Therefore, if the businessmen understood their real, long term interests, they should support the struggle for freedom of expression. This is not always the case – as you know.
Then, let's look at some more profound answers and problems related to the above questions.
It is said that freedom of speech is not just a human right, but the fundamental human right. Without this right all other rights are in jeopardy. Is that correct? If so why? And why should we have freedom of speech when it continually insults, hurts and stirs up groups in society. The question is particularly urgent at a time when "society" is not limited by national boundaries, but has become global. Therefore we might ask: Do we not need a freedom of speech with limits, limits that are adapted to our time?
Freedom of speech is intensely present at the intersection between law and ethics – this is at the core of the problems it creates. Even if something is ethically correct, it isn't necessarily legally guaranteed. Something that is within the legal framework, may not be very ethical.
As I mentioned, we live in communities that are not limited by national borders. In an instant information may be conveyed to the world, something that is especially problematic when it comes to pictures. While messages clothed in words retain their context and convey the sender's intent even when translated or transmitted – if conveyed correctly – pictures are not in the same way self-explanatory. The recipient must put the pictures into a context where they can be understood, and naturally they are understood in the cultural context of the beholder.
This became only too clear with the controversy over the Danish cartoons some eleven years ago.
It is obviously easier to break the taboos of others than one's own, particularly if one has barely any taboos left. But should one do this, in the name of freedom of expression and speech?
'No,' concluded amongst others The Muslim Council of Britain and the Anglican Church. These two bodies tried in 2005 and 2006 to add defamation of religion to the legal prohibition of racist speech. The British Labour party agreed and the then Prime Minister Tony Blair was so confident of victory that he left the parliament before the vote. But the British PEN and the comedian Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) were at the forefront of a protest movement. PEN published the book “Free Expression is no Offence” with contributions by Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi among others. Atkinson believed he could lose his job if the act was passed. It was not. It lacked one vote. If Blair had not left parliament his casting vote would have passed the act. This happened in the country that once led the European struggle for freedom of speech.
A somewhat milder version of the act was passed in 2007. It prohibits threats and intended hatred of a religion and its followers. Under the guise of this act the police acted against UK Channel Four because the TV company produced a program where reporters with a hidden camera and microphone revealed that imams in a specific mosque used hate rhetoric against "Jews, women, homosexuals and so-called adulterers." Note that it was not the Imams who were investigated, but the journalists. It took nine months for them to clear themselves.
Both the draft legislation and the final act must be seen in connection with the Organization of Islamic Conference's longstanding efforts to establish a ban on "defamation of religion" in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
Is this not OK? Shouldn`t believers be protected? We will conclude later by returning to the question on broader grounds. First I will consider one of the measures used to protect minorities against abuses in the name of freedom of speech, The legislation against "hate speech", as it is expressed in the Norwegian penal code section 135a. Here we have a ban against presenting hateful or discriminatory remarks against someone on the basis of religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
The provision is rarely used, on the ground that it is better that frustration, bitterness and hatred come to light, so that, as the Norwegian phrase has it, "trolls burst in the light of day”. Even the most venomous claims must be met with justifiable and rational arguments in public. It is far better that we know what we are facing, and it is also better that such views are openly expressed than if they were to ferment in closed rooms, in echo-chambres.
The position has its merits, but is also problematic. I will give you some arguments pro et contra Firstly the comparison with "trolls who burst in the light" is a rather condescending attitude, condescending not to hateful cries, but to the arguments of others that may seem harsh but at the same time may point to serious problems with specific minorities, for example.
Secondly, the relationship between hate speech and the arguments we meet it with, is not simple. Hatred may well lead to more hatred, no matter how it is met at the rational level. Arguments do not necessarily lead to rational reflection. And groups that are constantly discussed in negative terms, can develop contempt for the greater society and turn against it.
And perhaps most importantly: The relationship between thoughts, words and actions is a dynamic relationship. To shout out fire in a crowded theater when there is no danger, is an obvious example of an utterance that leads to disastrous practical consequences. Calling people names or by objectifying them in other ways, paves the way for assaulting the same groups. Lenin used words like "beetles and pests" when he spoke of alleged enemies of the new Soviet state. They were to be cleaned out and destroyed. In Rwanda, on official radio channels, Tutsis were called "cockroaches", which clearly signaled that they should be destroyed – and this was attempted.
In Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses the two main characters Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta are brought to a strange hospital in London. All admissions are non-Western, but transformed into half wolf, half human, to creatures with skins of glass or grotesque assemblages of plants and people: "But how do they do it?" Chamcha wanted to know. "They describe us," whispered the other solemnly. "Nothing more. They have the ability to describe us, and we now succumb to the pictures they construct."
It is no coincidence that most philosophical systems let a moral teaching be the result of an epistemology: An action plan follows the philosophical investigation of a problem. “Behind every action is a thought, even if it not always is the one acting, that has thought it," says an aphorism. Equally true is that every thought seeks to be realized, it will lead to action.
Who is responsible for an action taken? The person who puts the idea into action, or the one who provides the ideological justification for it? – This is one of the fundamental questions in Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov – and for that matter, the relationship between «Fjordman» and Anders Behring Breivik.
We are not, however, talking about legal responsibility, but moral. This does not reduce the dilemma with regard to freedom of speech. As we know, the right is characterized precisely by its existence in the intersection between law and ethics.
This becomes evident in the case of critique of religion. What is legitimate criticism of religion? How is satire to be practiced, if it does not ridicule anyone?
A tentative solution is to claim that only those who are within a group, can criticize it. Only Muslims can criticize Islam and other Muslims. This is an intriguing thought, for with what legitimacy can I criticize the customs of others? How do I know what the problem is and how it best might be adressed, if I'm an outsider? Is it not better to allow those with taboos the time to break them themselves.
Such reasoning is seductive: But if we scratch the surface, we discover that this argument leads to absurdities. In his article "Pressure on Press Freedom" Frederik Stjernfelt refers to the debate surrounding the Mohammed cartoons and quotes one Ian Buruma who argues that only those who are within can criticize Islam. Even Ayaan Hirsi Ali is stripped of the right to speak – because she is no longer a Muslim. The consequence is that only those who agree with a point of view or a worldview can criticize it – which is meaningless. It also implies that all with a particular ethnicity, or who follow the same religion are the same.
They belong to their group more than to themselves.
If criticism of traditional customs cannot come from outside or from "apostates," then it is hard to get rid of old traditions that oppress the individual in the name of culture, such as female genital mutilation or forced marriage. Then your culture might look like a celebratory costume, but it is a straitjacket. And you loose your individual rights.
We are closing in on the question «Why freedom of expression»
In the mid-1990s I was in St. Petersburg with the former chairman of the Norwegian Freedom of Speech Commission, Francis Sejersted. He had been invited to a televised debate with Governor Vladimir Jakovlev. The theme was freedom of speech.
After the recording, I asked Sejersted how it had turned out. "You know," he replied, "Jakovlev opened by declaring that certainly we shall have freedom of speech. But what is expressed must be true. And then I had him! "
The reason is obvious. Jakovlev – and others who think like him – knows what «the truth» is. Their position implies that truth is something that comes to one from the outside, that truth is imparted by an authority, a priest, a scribe or a party official, or that it is something you can collect like a package at the post office. But, as Bob Dylan puts it: «There are no truths outside the gates of Eden» When man had eaten from the tree of knowledge, the given truth disappeared. Each and one of us has to find his or her truth.
And as John Stuart Mill put it: «We need freedom of expression to find the truth», not to uncover it. Truth is a very personal and intimate concept. It can only be achieved by the individual, all the while all these individual truths must confront each other in the public sphere.
Freedom of speech is necessary so that each and every one of us should be able to develop and maintain both independence and dignity.
Therefore, it is such an irreplaceable value.
But what about violations of minorities, and what about their freedom of speech?
In the case of violations, we must be aware of how easy it is to confuse an individual’s dignity with a group's dignity. Nationalism systematizes this confusion and lives by it. It turns the individual into a kind of species, more close to the animal kingdom than to human existence.
So-called multiculturalism carries the same threat. It is not the prefix "multi" there is something wrong with - diversity is a stimulating reality - but the rest of the word: it implies that culture is superior to the individual. Culture, not the individual, has rights. But can culture have rights? Would not such a collective right be damaging to the individual who identifies with the group? Are you so sure that a Muslim, Sikh or Christian must agree with everything that other Muslims, Sikhs or Christians say and do? With such an idea of rights we risk letting the most dogmatic and reactionary in each group define the guidelines that apply to the other members.
Originally multiculturalism was an anthropological approach called "cultural relativism." As a method it made good sense. All phenomena must be understood on their own terms. Cultural relativism is this insight used in the cultural field. But the method was elevated to a description of reality. The result was that it became an ideology named multiculturalism: Cultures must be preserved, not individuals.
A group cannot have rights. A group - or a mass - cannot collectively be said to have dignity or cognitive ability. These are qualities only individuals can possess. Each individual must be allowed to join any religion or ideological grouping. But religion as such cannot have any rights. If so, members are forced to be subordinate to their group affiliation. Then the individual is dressed in a celebratory costume that turns out to be a straitjacket. Then each individual must be subordinate to what tradition and culture prescribes. Women in traditional societies become culturally destined to play second fiddle and to entrust the management of their lives to others.
But hold on!
Is not freedom of speech the child of a particular culture? Does it not have specific western assumptions that are strangers in other cultural contexts?
Freedom of speech was perhaps born in one culture group, but I argue that it has universal validity. Antibiotics also come from the West. None would still refuse to export or import it.
Freedom of expression is also a necessity in our times, beause it liberates the individual and teaches him or her to think outside the traditional values. In our modern world everything is changing and everybody is moving, even if it looks like one is standing still. The reality around us is changing so fast that hardly any traditional solution is good enough. Therefore it is a crime to argue that one culture, one religion or some other tradition is more sacred than the single individual. This deprives the people living within the culture in question the possibility of finding their bearing in a modern world. The ability to make decisions independently of tradition is a must in a reality where all cultures and religions so to speak meet in each stairway. The ability to stand independently and courageously facing life is needed in a world where even what once was absolutely certain, like the boundaries between life and death, have become variable and uncertain. A child born so premature it is almost an abortion can be saved, but at what cost to the child? A very old man can be kept alive, but at what cost to society and himself? A child may be born with several mothers and one or more unknown fathers. Who makes the decision? You and I.
Before I conclude, I'll make a small detour to an often overlooked prerequisite for both the individual and for independence. It's called the rule of law.
I do not think that today's so-called conflict between Islam and the West only is a conflict between a religious and a secular society. I think it is a conflict between people who live within reasonably functioning constitutional state and people who do not. And remember: Very few have the privilege to be able to trust an independent superior authority to take care of one's rights. The vast majority of the world's population lives in a reality where one must resort to one’s own for protection and security, to clan, family, religious community. And if you have to do that, it is very difficult to oppose those who provide protection. One does not bite the hand that provides food. In this case it is easiest to believe in authority, that truth is passed from above, that one is not a free individual but a spearhead for family, relatives and traditions.
Those that have been lucky enough to be born under the rule of law can seek shelter – in the same rule of law. Then it is far easier to be independent and oppose tradition, religion or whatever.
Freedom of speech can call attention to this. Where there previously was only one authority, there are suddenly many. Then you must think for yourself. Then you have to find your own truth. But if freedom of speech in the West is predominantly used, for example, to mock what Muslims consider to be holy, then Muslims living in a European constitutional state will easily be pushed from state and society and join the ranks. Authority again becomes one: Their own traditions.
I further believe that the horrors we in the West are experiencing from Muslim fundamentalists are not directed mainly against the West. They are side-effects of a struggle within the Islamic world itself, for and against modernization, for and against the idea that each individual has an independent thinking ability, for and against the idea that authority is one.
The more threats of violence, or real attacks, the more important it is to hold high the banner of freedom of speech. It is the only banner for human cohabitation in a complex world.
What about the often used argument that we should show both tolerance and respect? Of course! But they have to be directed towards diferent targets. Respect is something that applies to people, not ideas or beliefs. Tolerance is an attitude I exhibit to opinions I do not agree with. Of course, the border between the believer and the belief is sometimes hard to see, especially for the believer himself: Whatever religion, non-religion or ideology a person feels at home with, he or she will look upon it as a part of one's identity, as a part of oneself. But, I have identities – as a man or woman, a believer or non-believer, as a member of a nation and a language community – still, I am not my identies. Therefore, we should learn to respect the person and tolerate the ideas, even those we wildly disagree with and critizise. They should not be prohibited, but – cririzised.
The believers of all denominations are entitled to protection. Belief as such has no right to protection, in the sense of protection from criticism.
Although I agree that both harassing, malicious and hate speech - that targets ideas, not human beings - must be accepted in the name of freedom of speech, I harbor a persistent hope that honesty and seriousness will take first place.
The arrogant attitude towards others comes in many forms. The most common, but often overlooked, expresses itself through medias' one-eyed fascination with fury and intolerance in Muslim countries, rather than to present the champions of liberal values and free speech in the same countries. Thus these heros are isolated between two walls: the authoriterian attitides in their own countries, and disregard from a West that lives in the belief that "all" Muslims are savages who yearn to burn down embassies. This has serious consequences.
The development towards understanding of free speech and the dignity of the individual must be led by people within a religion or a culture. In this sense it is true that only those who are "inside" know what the problem is and which roads lead forward. This is why International PEN and ICORN's work is so important. They help freedom fighters who are «inside and within».
I also hope that those in the West who demand and see the necessity to publish cartoons of Muhammad or insist on how wonderful it is to depict him as a dog, do something for those Muslims who have been displaced or imprisoned in their homelands for their utterances. To what degree this hope is fulfilled I cannot tell. But when it happens, this type of criticism will also be accompanied by respect for the individual.
Freedom of speech raises more ethical than legal issues, but the legal framework must be as wide as possible. Otherwise it becomes a pseudo right.
Ethically freedom of speech can create both trouble and dramatic situations. This is not something that can be regulated by law. Here utterances must be balanced and considered by the individual himself. To the extent that this occurs with ethical seriousness and through reflection about one self and about those who believe that they are offended by utterances, the ethical problems might be solved. The solutions can only be found when we turn to the foundation of free speech: The dignity of the individual – both our own and others.
 In the following I'll mostly examples from the Muslim communities. That does not mean that I find them «worse» than other ideologies or religions, but the respond on critical utterances and cartoons is best known in the West.