Hate speech for free?
The capacity for speech and the power it gives to express and receive ideas differentiate the human person from fellow creatures and privileges freedom of expression as a basic human right deserving of constitutional protection. But this fundamental right provides no license to shout “Fire” in a crowded movie theater.
Can purveyors of hate speech directed against people of different ethnic origin, language, religion, political persuasion, or sexual orientation escape culpability for the violence they provoke by invoking their right to free speech? Or should government subject them to the penalties prescribed for the provocateur in the movie theater? What if government agents themselves indulge in hate speech? One study claimed 65-77 percent more killings in Rwandan villages reached by a radio station urging the extermination of the Tutsis it dehumanized as “cockroaches.”
These questions, at a time of more violent civilizational clashes, demonstrate that much work remains for Ifex (International Freedom of Expression Exchange). Celebrating its 25th anniversary, Ifex convened in Montreal last week a panel of international resource speakers led by Agnes Callamard and Oxford University professor Timothy Garton Ash to explore the global challenges facing free speech and human rights.
Callamard served nine years as executive director of Article 19, the international NGO named after the article on freedom of expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her mission continues as director of Columbia University’s initiative for Global Freedom of Expression. But Callamard became better known in the Philippines as UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, especially after critical comments on the Duterte war on drugs at a human rights conference in Manila last month triggered a pro-Duterte troll attack.
Filipinos should know more about Professor Ash and his recent book, “Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World.” Ash argues that globalizing forces have made critically urgent a global consensus on the principles to govern the exercise of this right, as immigration constructs increasingly more physically connected but more culturally diverse communities. More people now live, not in small homogenous villages, but in global megacities for which Ash has coined the term “cosmopolis.”
Over 50 percent of Toronto’s population are foreign-born (Filipinos make up the third largest immigrant group.) The third most spoken foreign language in Montreal is Arabic.
In the cosmopolis, ethnically distinct communities, empowered by different languages and comforted by different deities, share common national frontiers and submit to a common political governance system. By collapsing the boundaries of both space and time, the internet has made it possible for immigrants to maintain their connections to the homeland and preserve their cultural identity, thus sharpening and strengthening the differences between them and their host communities.
Some governments would restrain public discussion and debate over religious or racial issues that have historically provoked protracted, violent conflict. But the attempt in the United States to kill legislators, apparently because they belonged to the Republican Party, demonstrates how political color and identities can produce as much violence as skin color and ethnic identities.
Despite the dangers posed by the diversity in the cosmopolis, selectively suppressing dialogue on contentious issues will not promote its long-term health and survival. Ash argues that all human beings, whatever their community, must be free and able to express themselves and “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.” The majority of the world’s countries that have signed on to Article 19 should similarly respond to the question of “how free should speech be.”
But the effective practice of Article 19 depends also on the response to a second question: “how free speech should be.” How should people exercise the right of free speech? The conduct and the quality of the political discourse, in social media and among government leaders, can raise or reduce the risk of partisan violence. The right of free speech does not demand a duty to be crudely, discreditably disagreeable.
The leaders of the cosmopolis must model the practice of vigorous disagreement without vicious offensiveness.
Edilberto C. de Jesus (edcdejesus@ gmail.com) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management. Prof. Rofel Brion’s Tagalog translation of this column and others earlier published, together with other commentaries, are in http://secondthoughts.ph.
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