An Essay on Speech

It is certain that in the west, secularism has prevailed; Well, at least in Europe, replacing religious ethics with cultural hedonism that is paradoxically more restrictive than religion ever was. Hedonism, rather then being the construct of a divine text, is directly derived from the individual. This creates something of a more limiting environment. The west has embraced this pleasure-seeking ideal, but not without a few strings attached. The west’s hedonistic culture has in itself created artificial walls of conduct that has proved to be more restraining than dogma at times, because it is a product of something much more fundamental; one’s own mind; and we must cherish this right and not let it be dwarfed in the name of “protection from offense.” This is where I fear most of all that the west, especially Europe, might relinquish their Voltairean principle of free speech.

In January of 2012, France passed the ‘Armenian Genocide Bill’ which criminalized the denial of it happening. Although noble in writing and true in its intent, this type of legislation is particularly dangerous. Why are we constructing a society free of offending? The real purpose of free speech, as espoused in the age of Enlightenment, is for the protection of unpopular speech; popular speech has little to be protected from. It is this dilemma from which I fear the subtle censorship that is present in European society, which is done in the name of protection from offense. As Christopher Hitchens, the prominent journalist, eloquently put it in this video“don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus” simply because you are in majority. If one person disagrees, and says so, then there should be special protection bestowed to that individual because what that person has to say is intrinsically more important. Now, this is not because that person has something more of substance to say; it is because what that person has to say is vital to reverifying truths that may be taken for granted. It refreshes the principles of the majority, in this case the recognition of the Armenian genocide. And moreover, if your opinion is truly the correct one you should not fear the dissenting opinion of one mere individual to the point where you have to resort to censorship.

Furthermore, who is going to protect you from the offensive language? When you empower the state to censor your society, to decide who is the harmful speaker, you have relinquished your right to dissent; and pity you when you need that right of speech, if you ever do.

The largest threat to limiting our fundamental right of speech, it seems, is those claiming to be protecting in the name of religion. Islam, especially, in European society feels it is entitled to special protection under the law. In the case of the Danish cartoon controversy of 2005, where pictures of Muhammad were drawn and printed in a newspaper, they were said to be “offensive” by some Muslims in the community. They protested the cartoon, and there was a global movement where they called for the Danish government to bring it down. Self-censorship ensued. Is this the society we’ve grown into, where it’s forbidden to offend and exercise one’s right to say what he or she wishes? Retrospectively this is offensive to us, those who follow the Enlightenment, to have to see our rights of speech slandered for the religious. No creed deserves to special protection under the law, for then it becomes tyranny to all those not under the that umbrella of “tolerance.”

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