Benjamin Bestgen: Power and public discourse (Free Speech III)

Benjamin Bestgen: Power and public discourse (Free Speech III)

Benjamin Bestgen

In the third of his articles on free speech, Benjamin Bestgen stresses that freedom of expression must be examined in context. See his last piece here.

In many societies worldwide, people need to be cautious with their personal expressions, be it through speech, fashion, lifestyle choices, hobbies or association. There are limits to a person’s or group’s ability to bring forward their ideas, concerns or needs – or even to have their identity and rights acknowledged. Government censorship, legal prohibitions, informational scarcity, propaganda, economic and educational inequalities or societal taboos all limit freedom of expression – sometimes justifiably so, sometimes not.

While some argue that censorship is generally bad, many also note that largely unlimited freedom of expression could likewise be detrimental to social cohesion and a peaceful living-together: it could permit the open expression of racist or sexist ideas, help political manipulations through misinformation campaigns, incite violence and public disorder and further exclude or prosecute already marginalised groups in society.

But who gets to decide what can be expressed and in what manner?

Grounding the debate

Freedom of expression is not something to be discussed abstractly. Philosopher Anthony Leaker asserts that any debate about free speech should be situated in its social, political and historical context. Thinkers like John Stuart Mill or Joel Feinberg delivered abstract thoughts under idealised, theoretical conditions. In reality, there is no such thing as Mill’s “marketplace of ideas” where all proposals get equal rational attention and are examined for their merit to society.

Leaker notes that when we discuss free speech, we need to look at the society we are talking about and ask practical questions: who holds political, social or economic power enabling or suppressing expression? Who sets the discursive norms by which we judge whether an expression is acceptable to us, correctly argued, palatably presented? Are the mediums and societal structures we use for freedom of expression – various public media, laws, universities, parliaments etc. – fair and equal or tilted to favour certain interest groups?

Macro-level power

The scope of this article does not include “micro” situations where freedom of expression is also restricted and monitored, such as employment, political parties or religious communities. For sake of space, we will stick to states for now.

We sometimes look with dismay at countries like China, Egypt, Singapore, Saudi Arabia or Cuba, where freedom of expression is quite restricted and stiff penalties can await those daring to express unapproved positions.

But Leaker points out that historically and politically speaking, our Western liberal democracies too are, and have always been, selectively liberal and democratic only. Democracies are not free from hierarchical, exclusionary and selective tendencies. They are also not above punishing dissenters.

Consider debates around immigration, racial discrimination, LGBTQI+ rights, poverty, legal aid or access to quality education: they demonstrate daily which members of society get actively suppressed, ignored, fobbed off or ridiculed. They also indicate the preferences and prejudices of those who make laws, inform and educate us or have their hands on the purse-strings.

Power infrastructures regulating freedom of expression differ, of course:

In ‘authoritarian’ China or Cuba the power to censor or endorse subjects of interest is largely centralized and politically controlled. Civil servants and powerful party members decide on policy, censorship and punishments. Punishments can include imprisonment, state harassment, house arrest, torture, even death.

In the ‘liberal’ UK or USA, such power is more decentralised and diffuse. There is not one person or office overseeing what goes and what doesn’t in public discourse. Instead, the educational backgrounds and economic, social and political beliefs and interests of various influential individuals, political factions, lobbies, religious organisations and businesses often align. This contributes to the endorsement of similar messages and joint attempts to discredit or suppress others. Personal and professional connections, social status and wealth grant the power that in other societies is rooted in political appointment, military rank or religious influence.

Punishments also tend to be more subtle. Instead of torture or imprisonment, offenders will suffer character assassination, exhausting litigation, social and professional ostracism, unemployability or marginalisation.

It is worth remembering that “liberal” and “authoritarian”, “permissive” and “censorious” are not separate categories in any society – they are a matter of degree and context.

Keeping a good balance

As discussed in previous articles, not all restrictions on freedom of expression are bad. Some are needed for a reasonably peaceful co-existence.

But the question of who can legitimately make decisions on matters of public expression or censorship is even more important in a liberal society than in one where power is more centralised. The billionaire owners of newspapers and TV stations enjoy arguably even less legitimacy to shape public opinion than a civil servant apparatchik tasked with censoring public expressions.

The challenge and privilege for us all is to renegotiate in good faith regularly what freedom of expression means to us and what it should cover in the society we wish to live in.

Benjamin Bestgen is a solicitor and notary public (qualified in Scotland). He also holds a Master of Arts degree in philosophy and tutored in practical philosophy and jurisprudence at the Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main and the University of Edinburgh.

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