Comfort is easy, but costly. Unbridled minds choose the road less travelled. Voltaire was once made an inmate at the Bastille prison where many intellectuals were kept over the years. Rousseau once went into exile. And Socrates, the brightest philosopher of all, the conceptor of the cardinal virtues, was sentenced to death for having supposedly corrupted the Athenian youths.
Today, thanks in part to Voltaire, we uphold religious tolerance; and thanks in part to Rousseau, humanity has made much progress in the area of social justice – although much more remains to be done in this field. As for Socrates, Plato’s Republic, which was inspired by Socrates’ work and teachings has contributed to the building of many western ideals and to the maturation of the field of philosophy.
Free speech allows a society to develop itself. Without it, a society remains captive in a circle of reaction and of underdevelopment. On the other hand it does have casualties. It is unpleasant to read a nasty article that insults one’s own ideals. It is irritating to see one’s own country mocked in a cartoon drawn in another country. And it is gruesome to make a joke that refers to a woman’s death by drug overdose. But we need to protect free speech in general, in order to protect good and constructive speech, in particular.
Yes, Trevor Noah’s jokes do not fall under the category of constructive speech. Such speech is hurtful to its audience. When propagated in a society, such a practice of heartless sarcasm surely has a negative impact on the values of respect and love. We witness everyday the destructive effect of gangsta rap and of exposure to violent movies on Uncle Sam’s country, just as we have been witnessing how hateful speech has helped Daesh recruit jihadists right in the heart of Europe.
Free speech is necessary because freedom is necessary. Speech – or expression in general – may be either constructive or destructive. Those who sentenced Socrates to death mistook his constructive speech for destructive speech. Had they upheld freedom of expression, they wouldn’t have sentenced him, even-though they considered his speech to be destructive. The example of the hateful speech used by the Daesh recruiters is indeed extreme. Here we are in the face of speech that is in itself an aggression. It is hence condemnable, not as free speech but as incitement to terrorism. We shouldn’t let such an example limit our perceptions.
On the other hand, Trevor Noah’s jokes and South Park’s indecency fall under a different category, that of hurtful speech. Such speech does not lead to terrorism. It leads to temporarily hurt souls. And it can simply be dealt with by switching off the TV or flipping the channel. Likewise, defamation should not be treated as speech. It is a malign insult which aims at hurting others. It might, actually, hurt someone more badly than a physical attack would.
Definitions are key in philosophy and in law. No limits should be set on free speech; no matter how disconcerting what some people say, write, or draw. Condemning people for defamation or for incitement to violence does not mean that a society sets limits on free speech. It simply means that it upholds the value of respect and that it does not allow aggression.
Setting limits on free speech would lead to arbitrary judgements as to what should be considered indecent and what shouldn’t be. We wouldn’t lose much if limits were to be set on Trevor Noah’s freedom of expression. But losing the next Socrates would lead to a pitiful waste. And a society that allows itself to curb down Noah’s freedom of expression might one day curb down that of the next Socrates.
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