Republica Repost–Freedom of (Which) Speech?

Freedom of Speech The title of an article in an American newspaper reads: “Last Week French Officials Stood Up for Offensive Speech. This Week They’re Arresting People for It.” The understandably complicated response of French government to the terrorist attack in Paris last month is an interesting case from which we can learn how seemingly universal principles and values—such as the “freedom of speech” in this case—are actually contingent on specific cultures and complex sociopolitical issues.

Full article here (Jan 4, 2015)

I was glad to see writers in our national media and social networks showing solidarity with the French people on their terrible loss: that is one thing we should do to be part of the global village. Beyond solidarity, however, our discourse seemed to lack nuance. Even the most educated among us tend to believe that our society, being a “developing” one, lags behind the developed world in terms of our social values, by default. This assumption is usually counterproductive and often dangerous.

Freedom of speech is a universally popular principle, and as such, people consider it essential for democracy. But in practice, cultural/religious, historical, and political forces always reshape and rewrite it. For instance, while a Hindu-majority society may not legally ban religiously offensive speech (Muslim societies are more likely to), it may ban libelous speech instead. While a person would get in legal trouble for denying the Holocaust in Europe, most people would ignore such a person in Asia. Racially hateful speech is illegal in many Western European countries, while we don’t even have a good definition of “race” in Nepal.

The US has its own exceptions to free speech, such as “yelling fire in a crowded theater,” a concept that seems easy to understand, but is not. In South Korea, the second album of the singer of “Gangnam Style” was banned from national TV because the singer kicks a traffic cone in the video (the government deemed it a bad example for young people). That would be a case of “protected speech” in the US, where, interestingly, you can’t utter obscenity in public media.

Yes, it would be wonderful if all nations and societies constitutionally embraced and legally enforced the general principle as a fundamental right for all citizens. But it also makes no sense to expect every society to do so in the same way. In his book The First Amendment in Cross-Cultural Perspective (where the amendment refers to the US Constitution, which added the provision of right to freedom of speech), Ronald Krotoszynski shows how this concept is quite different in its implementation in different countries: the text/wording, theory/explanation, practice/laws, and exceptions/protections are widely different for this popular liberty. He also shows that societies differ in terms of objective/purpose: is it a “natural” or “god-given” right, a necessary condition for the advancement of knowledge, a lubricant for effective democracy, and/or just a way to mark the society as “advanced”?

There are many interesting and complex extensions of the debate about freedom of speech in different societies. Some societies debate whether organizations and corporations should have this right and if they can invoke it to defend themselves when they’re caught lying in their advertisements. Others debate due process: can the government determine the deviations, as needed? The US made some after 9/11 and France is making some now. Yet others focus on protection: Can the majority affect the voice of minorities through the democratic voting system, or should the minorities instead be protected with constitutional and legal provisions? As we see from the questions themselves, they cannot be addressed without considering history, social context, cultural values, and political and legal debates and precedents of particular nations/societies.

There is also an irony in the tragic situation in France now. Many people are arguing that the principle of free speech is “non-negotiable” and also “universal,” but then they are unwilling to “negotiate” when it comes to preserving their own other values and ideals (such as privacy, public interest, social harmony, protection of minority, and especially “hate” against certain groups). They just can’t be flexible about values of other cultures. That is self-serving and narrow-minded in a globalized world, if not hypocritical. What if people can add one more issue to the list of exceptions? What if it is just a matter of rhetoric and the situation can be turned into an opportunity to rise above hateful and violent people instead of seriously considering them as enemies? So, universalism can end up making such conflicts a matter of winning and losing, leading to a situation where horrible, violent people can claim to have achieved their goal.

Of course, the increasingly globalized, multi-cultural context of debates like this makes it hard to find solutions even for local application. For instance, in any diverse society, we may want to argue that people should learn to tolerate, ignore, or understand when a few crazy people can’t be tolerant of their neighbors. But we could also argue that those who are so tickled to do exactly what their neighbors cannot manage to tolerate are bullies in the global village (not so terrible as those who commit violence but still not worth celebrating as heroes and freedom fighters either). So, there is no right or wrong position there, only a discussion and, if we are optimistic, an opportunity to become more open-minded.

Why do the current situation in France and the underlying debate matter to us in Nepal? There are many lessons. For instance, from the debate there, we can learn to stop trying to blindly embrace “universal” ideals and engage in futile social experiments (and even policy discourse). We can also learn to develop and refine our own social policies, professional systems, and educational practices with better appreciation of our local realities and complexities. Even at the level of social network conversations, introduction of some nuance would enhance the discourse. We can learn how to avoid being mimic men in the global village.

We certainly want certain values to be simple and universal. But especially when we consider global instead of local contexts, we have to recognize that those values are complicated not just by ideological pluralism based on cross-contextual contingencies but also by ideological conflicts among incompatible worldviews. What we should seek when different value systems clash is compromise and balance.

Compromise is not a dirty word: in fact, very often, it leads to richer and better understanding and to a better mode of living together in a diverse, complex world.

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