Originally written in April 2013
I regard society more highly than an individual and social interests to be more important than individual interests. (This post explains why.) Freedom of expression is a right pertaining to an individual. If this right costs social harmony then that would make it difficult for me to stand for it. At the same time, I also see the importance of freedom of expression and the harm it would entail if suppressed.
Freedom of expression is not an absolute right. No right is. However, it should not be impinged on just because what one says offends someone else or hurts their sentiments. Even if it offends or hurts the sentiments of the majority, still that is not a good reason for a mature society to bar freedom expression.
If what one expresses is in itself immoral regardless of how it affects someone else’s mood then it can be checked. For example, one has a right to say that God does not exist or even that God is evil. One also has a right to express one’s criticism of certain religion. One’s doing so is not harmful to the society except for creating unrest in some people’s minds who hold different opinions. As against that, if an “artist” composes a sexually explicit song which is vulgar then I would say that the artist’s freedom of expression can be checked for the objectionable expression. In this case the song may offend someone or it may not. I am not deriving the conclusion based on whether or not it offends others. I would favor banning the song and taking away the freedom of expression of the artist because the song is indecent and thus unhealthy for the society.
Disregarding its effects on temperaments of other people if certain expression is harmful to the society then such expression should be considered as abuse of the right to free expression and should be checked.
This is the rule I have found to be helpful.
Following are a couple of scenarios which I personally would consider abuse of the right to free expression. The first one should be obvious, but I suspect I might find disagreements on the second one.
- Divulging information about national security. One’s freedom of speech or expression is not more important than lives of thousands of people. If one happens to have any information that if gone public may jeopardize national security then one does not have a right to disseminate it.
- Any song or film which serves such content for enjoyment which would not pass the test of morality. Example: Nudity in certain art and commercial films can be morally justified under certain conditions, but porn films can not be.
My stance on validity of a particular expression might change with time depending on how I perceive the moral harm resulting from the expression, but the rule derived from the analysis remains good.
Is it okay to offend people with free speech?
Freedom of expression can’t be impinged on for the reason that the expression offends other people. For it to be checked the expression has to be morally objectionable regardless of its effect on other people’s temperament. Saying swearwords is not bad because it would offend people but because it is bad in itself.
Is offending people not bad in itself? I don’t think so. There is a difference between just offending people and offending them with expressions which are bad regardless of whether they offend people.
Generally, it is not okay to cause unrest in the society. We should always strive for harmony. But unfortunately, we don’t live in the perfect world, and sometimes offence to other people is a cost that a just society has to bear to get its citizens a good right. There would be more harm than benefit if the right to free expression is taken away. If one just considers the ratio of intelligent to fools in the world, one would see the need for the right to free expression!
In the world full of people with myriad different beliefs, opinions, and agenda, someone somewhere is very likely to get offended by whatever one says. That in itself isn’t a good reason to not be able to express it.