Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Freedom of Speech as Residual Ethic

I must admit I had reservations about using this image on my blog. Two stereotypical Muslim men, I imagine at a rally about the infamous Prophet Muhammed cartoons, in the background of a regressive demand. I know enough Critical Theory not to want to promulgate images showing 'scary Muslims' which get more than enough airtime. Media images are not truth, so much as an angle on it. I spent many formative years growing up in Islamic States and know that this is not your run of the mill Muslim. I have no interest in participating in fear mongering and I believe the media with its words and images often takes this posture. So why have I put it up? Well I thought it helped illustrate my relationship to freedom of speech (FoS).
I love FoS, I love the fact that I could put that image up, that I can write this blog, that I can express myself. But I did not throw this image up without thinking about what it might say, how it says it, about who, and what response it might create in them. In essence I was reflecting on my behaviour as it effects others, above and beyond my legally sanctioned responsibilities to others...now that sounds suspiciously like ethics! (Surprise!)  While I think FoS is a key consideration, I also want to say that in my eyes it is something of a residual ethic or value. It hedges around or creates the boundaries of what we expect a minimally decent society to be. A brief discussion of what FoS might be could illustrate my point.
When I come upon the claim of a right by someone, I find it useful to consider what responsibility such right claims place on others. Such a test can help gauge whether it is a legitimate rights claim, and what the claim entails. FoS cannot be the right to be listened to when you speak. I would never get anything done in a day if I had to listen to every person who wished to speak. It cannot be that I will not speak against something another says if I do not like it, that would result in an absurdity. In fact I don't think it places any claims upon me directly as a private citizen. As the Philosopher Fish states FoS "is not an independent value but a political prize." I would argue that fundamentally FoS is a moral claim by individuals against state power. FoS is a limitation of state power over individuals, creating the onus on those who wish to limit individual freedom with a high burden of proof as to why it should be limited. This comes in the form of a rights claim. In western democracies this moral claim is translated and expressed in terms of a legal framework. To me this is the only way it could be expressed, because outside of our historical and societal context FoS would have no meaning. FoS is one form of operationalising the core moral value of respecting individuals and their flourishing. In another sort of world, time or place which was not like our post-industrial nation state this operationalisation could be configured differently. That is very briefly why I call FoS a residual ethic.
This understanding of FoS is why I do not think all limitations placed on speech are 'censorship'. It is not censorship to teach age appropriate sex education in schools, and there are certainly guidelines and speech limitations placed around it. It is not censorship if I sign a contract as a public servant not to divulge sensitive information. More controversially perhaps it is also why I do not think it is censorship if a corporation or other business entity fires an employee for speech acts performed while on the job.
And I guess this is my main point;  FoS debates tend to eclipse a swathe of interesting moral dialogue. When events occur that are just as much about how we treat others, fairness, balance, role morality, journalistic integrity, cultural sensitivity and the like we should not let them be trumped or dumbed down to FoS debates. These are times where we can ask questions of and try and hear the feelings of those who are upset. It is where we can have real engagement with other human beings. If someone says your actions are upsetting to me and you reply I have freedom of speech, you're not really hearing them. Focussing endlessly about FoS in a demonstrably open society such as ours is to vacate this potentially rich field of moral attunement and cultivation; a missed opportunity to come closer to being respectful and understanding of one another. Unless of course, you don't actually care about how you treat others.