Ashton J. Barwick | USA
The topic of free speech has once again reentered the public debate arena. However, it is not a debate that operates on an established consensus of natural rights. Groups on the right and the left have devolved into using their identity as a means of achieving their respective goals. Those that don’t utilize their immutable characteristics to advance their positions are then concerned about the motivations hidden within these identitarian movements. Rational people ought to remain concerned with the preservation of individual liberty because it will ensure that everyone is free from coercion. Negative rights are contingent on the notion that individuals own themselves. Humans have negative rights because all people have contrasting ideas and unique desires. Individuals are sovereign and not tools for an arbitrary greater good.
Governments throughout history have attempted to legislate against ideas they found distasteful. The printing press was first invented in China, and then the famous Gutenberg printing press was introduced in Europe in the 15th century. Consequently, the proliferation of knowledge and ideas resulted in an explosion of scientific discovery. Institutions such as the church would seek to utilize the state to ensure their ideas remained infallible, and they prohibited the use of the printing press by those not approved by the state. Subsequently, philosophers and thinkers published their work in countries that had liberal speech and printing regulations. Rene Descartes had his philosophical writings published in Holland anonymously to ensure his own safety. The ideas of the enlightenment influenced governments across Europe to finally ensure the protection of speech because the consequences of doing otherwise resulted in anguish and stagnation.
Freedom of the press was prohibited in Germany until the early 20th century, and it seems to be evident that this inhibited their ability to have a civil discussion. The national socialists and the communists frequently engaged in street fighting prior to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Thus, this marked the beginning of the “anti-fascists,” and their violent tactics are still utilized today in order to silence those that they disagree with. They justify violence by obfuscating the political identity of their dissenters and claiming that they are fascists.
European countries are again legislating against speech that is abhorrent. In Britain, saying something the government determines to be offensive can result in a six-month prison term or a fine of up to £5000. China’s communist party has maintained its hegemony over the media since it assumed power. State officials are contemplating implementing a system that monitors an individual’s social development and removes or adds points depending on what course of action was chosen. The state then becomes the arbiter of morality and enforces it with the threat of social ostracization.
Once prominent universities and institutions were committed to engendering critical thinking and promoting free and open dialogue between competing ideas. UC Berkeley was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. In a rather ironic twist, the hostility towards freedom of expression erupted there when the conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak. Members of Antifa and other leftist students organized to protest the speaker. Their intentions were not to debate or have civil discourse, but to create a volatile environment where it was not safe to have an open dialogue. Antifa uses “whatever means necessary” to achieve their collective goals even if the “means” are violating rights of individuals. They form what they call “black blocks” where they shroud their personal identities with black clothes and masks. They act as a collective unit in order to cause enough destruction to render the environment too dangerous for an event to take place. They feel that debate can be won by simply shouting louder than the opposition, and people have to be protected from certain ideas as if they are infectious diseases.
There is a strong correlation between a thriving society and individual liberty. When certain ideas warrant a use of violence or state sanction then any idea that someone finds atrocious can be prohibited if the power to do so is available. Arguments compete in a peaceful and productive manner to benefit humanity with the truth. If you introduce force into the process, truth becomes irrelevant. Ideas do not have to be right; they just have to have power over the opposition.