Monday, July 21, 2008

Freedom of Speech

“If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” On Liberty, John Stuart Mill.

We in Pakistan don’t like to be contradicted. Fathers scold their children for correcting them; rulers forbid the press from criticizing them; teachers punish students who question them; religious leaders threaten those who challenge them; and the religious majority lynches or hangs those who contradict their beliefs.

All because of the deep-seated intellectual stupidity prevalent in our society.

Free speech does not harm anyone (except when used to instigate people to violence). It does, however, inconvenience those who do not like to think, who have passively received ideas and beliefs from their family or their society. Their intellectual laziness runs so deep that they would rather riot, burn things and murder than pause to think and respond to words with words.

Ideas should be challenged; people should be inconvenienced. The state should not protect ideas and beliefs from criticism but it should protect the critics from any physical danger that their critique puts them in.

Progress is only possible through the dissemination of new ideas and we as a society must learn to tolerate them, even if they challenge everything our society stands for. We do not need to accept the ideas, we do not even need to like them, but we cannot quash the ideas just because we disagree with them. It is not for the state or society to censor or privilege ideas and beliefs. Every individual must be allowed to decide the matter for his or herself.

Besides, if we believe that what we hold to be true is in fact absolutely true, we should not shrink from letting people challenge it. The truth by its very nature must stand up to all criticism. But if we do doubt ourselves, is it not better to listen to those who claim to have some answers? The only thing we could lose is our doubt.

Endnote: I strongly recommend J.S. Mill’s On Liberty to anyone who has not read it. At the very least read the first and second chapters. His arguments for free speech are excellent. Here is a link to the book if you are interested:

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