On Freedom of Expression and Disrespect

​It has come to my attention that, despite all the prattle regarding freedom of speech and open-mindedness, even those with the most authority among us have no idea what either word means. Given the emphasis put on these terms, one would assume that they would be defined and made unambiguous – this is quite blatantly not the case; these words have instead been rendered nothing but an incoherent jumble of letters. But even more perhaps than that, these words have become repugnant, and in a community where honesty is censored if it offends the crowd, how can they not be. It is not enough after all to speak these words, they are values that must be lived. Alas, no one has dared honor these ideals enough to live them – oh no, the powers that be have much preferred to place limits on freedom of expression and take away the only thing that makes it a freedom: the license to offend. The ability to be honest, the ability to speak what is on your mind even if you are a minority of one, has been stripped away. Lo! Where go open-mindedness and freethought, when the only tool used to express them is taken away?!

It is Salman Rushdie who posed the question, “What is freedom of expression, without the license to offend?” And he was quite justified in asking that. For the moment you say, “freedom of expression, but…”, that is, the moment you begin adding caveats to freedom of expression, it ceases to exist. To claim that a bird is free when you have freed it from a cage only to to ban it from flying in certain areas, is to claim that freedom must always be ornamented with chains – that we cannot be unfettered and unbridled. If freedom of expression comes with restraints, it is not freedom of expression; I had thought that such a simple and tautological statement would be easy for the authorities to understand, but now suppose I was wrong. Those who are tyrannous, and usually those pushing for an agenda tend to disagree; they believe instead that in the name of decorum freedom of expression should be undermined. Such a parochial view, I argue, cannot be endorsed by any thinking person, for a person with any hint of cerebral prowess knows that the slope of censorship is a slippery one. It also brings up many unanswerable questions such as, whose definition of offense do we take? Who do we censor and who do we not? These questions continue ad nauseum, and the truth is there can be no truly valid reason for censoring one over another. If we only censor that which is offensive to the majority, then the democracy we so cherish devolves into a mere tyranny of the majority. This, considering the fact that we are living in an epoch where minority rights are being emphasized more than ever, and that we are still only on our way to ending the oppression of the largest minority in the world, should trouble you. Ultimately, if people are censored because they offend someone, then we might as well all shut up and retire to our homes, because nothing ever said will not be offensive to at least one person.

​The words open-mindedness and censorship cannot be spoken in the same breath. For if one thrives in a society, the other must automatically be effaced. I have discussed in a past article what open-mindedness truly means, and it is giving every opinion the chance to be at least voiced, if not heard. Given this definition, a community where censorship is justified, cannot claim in any sense to be truly open-minded. Sadly, ​it is in fact often claimed by authorities that they advocate open-mindedness, and yet in the name of reputation (and often behind the guise of offense-taking), people are silenced.​ The “I am offended” excuse is constantly manipulated to shut people up. But really, what does this statement amount to? Well, it’s not an argument, no doubt, and it’s definitely not a point of any academic worth…but then what is it? I think Stephen Fry got it right when he said that, “​it’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase.” Today many people would disagree with this, but if we are being academically honest and maintaining our integrity, then we cannot avoid such a conclusion. The statement “I am offended​” is vacuous, and should not be respected in an everyday argument or a conversation any more than it would be respected in a formal debate. It is certainly not a reason to shut people up, and the sooner we realize this, the sooner we evolve.

​In order to progress as a species we must grow beyond offense-taking and deal with questions more maturely. A claim should be evaluated at face value for its validity or lack thereof, whether it offends many, few, or none at all is irrelevant to its truth. We cannot afford to continue letting things like decorum vitiate scientific and moral progress any longer. So I call upon anyone who reads this article, to not care about being respectful insofar as that respect will hinder the expression of ideas. As the late Christopher Hitchens put it, it is not only the person who expresses his/her opinion’s right to do so, but the right of everyone else to listen. Authorities must be questioned, tested and rebelled against; only the ability to do this will lead the human race to true emancipation. Do not let any external authority whether embodied in a human or an ideology constrain you, instead speak your mind. Do not fear being accused of arrogance, for that too is a statement of no worth; it is merely an attack on the person rather than his/her argument: a fallacy of reasoning. It has fallen upon us, the students, sadly to teach those who flaunt the banners of open-mindedness and freedom, that defiling those terms cannot be taken lightly. If what they truly want is to censor opposition and to create a chasm into which all offensive opinions are pulled, then they should be honest about it. Instead of masquerading behind such noble ideas, they should admit that all they want is an indentured, unquestioning flock of sheep, of which there is already a growing number. But if they continue, let them censor us all then! When the facade of silent complicity prevails, all that will be there for the authorities to listen to…will be the raging tinnitus, left behind as the aftermath of our expression.