Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Real Trouble With Free Speech

In his excellent book, "Worse Than War" (2009, Public Affairs, New York), Daniel Jonah Goldhagen explores the issues of "genocide, elimination, and the on-going assault on humanity". At the end of Chapter 9 he makes the comment "actual minds create actual worlds". His point is that what we think about other people and what we believe should be "our" world eventually becomes the "actual world" for us. When an opportunity then arises where we can bring that world into being, we tend to grab it with both hands. If our thinking is around the exclusiveness of our family, our group, our race, etc then, when given the opportunity we will try to ensure everyone else acknowledges this and yields to our wishes. "We are in control". The result is often "worse than war".

I've been thinking about this a lot lately as the issue of free speech has been debated in the Australian media. In an earlier blog, talking about the incidence which started this latest discussion on free speech, I said:
"Before I proceed, let me make some things clear. First in relation to free speech. In my new book "Third Generation Leadership and the Locus of Control: knowledge, change and neuroscience" (2012, Gower Publications, UK), I make the following statement:
I have spent my life believing in the power of a democratic society where the rule of law ensures that people will not be imprisoned without trial; that habeas corpus is a vital component of a free society; that secret police and interrogation without legal representation is wrong and an abuse of power; that freedom of faith, speech and association are inalienable rights – even if I disagree totally with what you say, believe or with whom you associate, you have an absolute right to say what you want, follow the faith or non-faith of your choice, and associate with whoever you wish."

There are many people in every society who don't think critically about what they hear on the radio, see on TV or in the movies, or read in the newspaper. People who specialise in propaganda (from Goebbels down) have known and do know this. The result is that they are fully aware that if you say something often enough and authoritatively enough, eventually many people will believe it even if it is palpably untrue. For this reason every person and/or party pushing a particular agenda seeks to ensure that their message is propounded strongly and often. The role of "shock jocks" in the media is often critical in this.

Some would argue that this then becomes an abuse of "freedom of speech". I disagree. The real trouble with freedom of speech is that, all too often, the right to speak out is too seldom used by those of us who do apply our critical faculties to what we hear, what we see, and what we read. This failure by us to speak out ultimately runs the risk of letting "the inmates run the asylum". If that happens then, as Goldhagen makes very clear, the following words by Pastor Martin Niemoller (which originally applied to Nazi Germany) could have increasing relevance in today’s society no matter where that society may be:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

What sort of "actual world" do you want? If we are concerned about the messages promulgated by radio, TV, films and/or newspapers our response should not be to advocate some form of censorship. Rather our response should be to ensure that our voices are heard along with the others. But let's make sure we do this in an acceptable and respectful manner. A mark of true leadership is that we ensure all voices are heard - not just those who promote bigotry and discrimination.

What do you think?

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