The Confused Question of Free Speech

By |2019-07-27T11:02:17+00:00July 27th, 2019|Comment|

The following is an excerpt of an article by Bournbrook co-editor Jake Scott. This features in our fourth print issue, available NOW.

Find out how to get your own copy of the issue here.

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If there is a deeper question underlying the political issues of today, it is the fundamental question of free speech, and the polarisation between ‘free-speech fundamentalism’ and ‘PC culture’.

This polarisation seems to have turned the question into one of binary oppositionalism, that you either believe there are no limits to free speech at all, or any limits are justifiable based on ‘offense’. But it misses the fundamentals of the free speech debate, what we mean by free speech, and where the lines can be drawn.

The Metaphysical Freedom of Speech

The concept of free speech is primarily, not political or social, but metaphysical. We, as human beings, are the only species in the world with a complex language structure, capable of expressing thoughts, emotions and information systematically to one another. Some animals or insects might possess language in a fashion, such as dolphins or bees, and they might be sophisticated, but they do not have the complexity or systematicity of human language.

Consequently, when we discuss ‘free speech’, we have to begin with the basic principle of that metaphysical freedom; that humans possess an unrivalled freedom in the animal kingdom to say whatever they can think. Indeed, this is the core paradox of the free-speech debate, that if someone comments ‘you can’t say that!’ they aren’t making a philosophical statement because, quite clearly, you can.

However, this is part of what George Orwell was so concerned about: the co-constitutive relationship between language and thought.

george-orwell

Photo by Levan Ramishvili on Flickr.

That we can only speak what we can think – but more importantly, we can only think that which is communicable, and therefore speech reveals the limits of thought, as well as defining it. Because of this, the metaphysical freedom to speak ought to be preserved at all costs, as it is only in the ability to think and re-think our every thought that the limits of knowledge can be pushed, as well as preserved. And this preservation is central; knowledge is one of the most fundamental building blocks of identity, both of the individual and the community. The persistence of self-knowledge allows identity to persist also, and the same is true of community, that communal identity can only continue with communal self-knowledge.

This is the metaphysical freedom of speech, but of course the curious thing about speech is that it offers both individual expression, but is only possible in the setting of society. So, speech cannot be considered entirely on the individual basis.

The Moral Duty of Respect

‘Liberty, too, must be limited in order to be possessed.’

– Edmund Burke.

So now, we must consider that which I put aside at the beginning of this article: the social dimension of free speech.

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Read the rest of this article in the print issue, information on which can be found HERE.

Photo by Cory Doctorow on Flickr.

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