Sunday, March 12, 2006


Susan T. Gardner
Philosophy Professor
Capilano College,
North Vancouver, BC
March, 2006

John Stewart Mill, in his famous monograph On Liberty made the foundational argument for the freedom of speech by arguing that ultimately exposure to varying and opposing positions will promote truth. In Utilitarianism he also famously argued that we all ought to act so as to “promote the greatest good for the greatest number” (and he thought access to truth would do that). For Mill, the default value ought to be freedom of speech and that, therefore, the onus lies with those who want to curtail freedom of speech to make an argument for why there should be an exception. Mill summarily dismissed “offensiveness” as grounds for censorship as most people find opposing views offensive yet it is precisely the presence of opposing views that fuels movement toward truth.

The most powerful arguments for exceptions to freedom of speech find their anchor in Utilitarianism itself. That is, if there is an instance in which speech dramatically and obviously threatens the “greatest good for the greatest number,” it ought to be curtailed. The example of yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre is obvious and crude but it can be used as a touchstone for measuring the legitimacy of any call for censorship. Yelling “fire” when there is no fire obviously prompts behaviour that will be destructive. Any other kind of speech that promotes obviously destructive behaviour, e.g. racist propaganda, likewise can be legitimately curtailed. The important point here is whether or not the speech actually condones or promotes unacceptable behaviour. Thus, Schindler’s List talks about racism, it does not condone it, the nightly news talks about violence, it does not condone, and hence neither of these is legitimately curtailed. (Note: There is merit in the recent punishment of a “Holocaust denier” as an instance in which freedom of speech was not legitimate since knowledge that the Holocaust actually took place may be the only thing that will prevent its reoccurrence.)

There are, of course, some notoriously tricky grey areas, such as violent and degrading heterosexual pornography. Many civil libertarians tend to side with the view that hard-core porn is mere entertainment and may actually decrease violent tendencies by providing an outlet. Others side with the “advertising model” that it promotes a less-than-optimal attitude toward women that results in society’s inability to get a handle on the violence that women chronically suffer at the hands of men. This latter view can be furthered nuanced by making it “contextual.” That is, it can be argued that violent and degrading pornography finds its power in the context of women already occupying an “oppressed position.” If this were not the case, if we lived in a society in which genders were genuinely equal, violent and degrading porn would/could result in no real harm (which is why it can be argued that homosexual porn that is consumed by homosexuals who generally approach one another in relative equality is a different case).

The recent publication of “obscene” Muslim and Christian cartoons fulfill no criterion for legitimate censorship. Neither condones violent and destructive behaviour. In fact their message is quite the reverse. On the one hand, the bomb image suggests to Muslims that they ought to work hard to curtail violence if they don’t want their religion viewed as a violent one. On the other, the Christian/capitalist/sex comic suggests that Christians ought to look seriously at the odd connection between capitalist wealth and Christian fundamentalism. If this were a world in which “the point” of freedom of speech was cherished, both comics would provoke at least some individuals to take a good look at the disturbing distortions that their respective religions may be undergoing. If that happened, these comics would be doing precisely what Mill argued was the benefit of freedom of speech. It would be prodding people out of their complacency and putting them in a position to have to analyze whether or not there might be “some truth in them there hill.”

It may be that confusions abound with regard to what should and should not be considered legitimate exceptions to the default value of freedom of speech because we have lost sight of the value of freedom of speech, and hence few can make a coherent defence in its name. There is no value in freedom of speech per se. If we all find opposing viewpoints just so much background noise, and if everyone only listens to those with whom they already agree (note a recent study that found that the internet is actually solidifying intolerance because people only access cites that mirror what they already believe), then the value of freedom of speech will have lost. Freedom of speech has value only insofar as it prompts the reanalysis of positions with the view to acquiring a more accurate and unbiased view of any given situation.

The long and the short of it is that while a free press may not be as strong an impetus as it should be in promoting truth and democracy because of the tunnel vision of its readers, nonetheless, it remains a beacon of hope—perhaps the last real beacon of hope—that truth will ultimately prevail and, with it, “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

These comics ought not to be censored because, though “obscene” and “insulting” to many, they do not advocate harm in any way. On the contrary, they may not only shock some of the participants of the respective religions to have a look at the disturbing trends that are growing within their midst and to thus save the ideologies that they cherish, they may also prompt all of us to look at the disturbing trends that are growing in our limping democracies and thus prompt all of us to the save the way of life that we love by reinvigorating our allegiance to the value of the freedom of speech.


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