Free Speech Bites: Nigel Warburton, Host of Philosophy Bites, Creates a Spin Off Podcast Dedicated to Freedom of Expression

free speech bites

In osten­si­bly lib­er­al democ­ra­cies in the West, atti­tudes towards free speech vary wide­ly giv­en dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal con­texts, and can shift dra­mat­i­cal­ly over time. We’re liv­ing in the midst of a gen­er­a­tional shift on the issue in the U.S.; a recent Pew sur­vey found that 40 per­cent of millennials—18–34 year olds—favor gov­ern­ment bans on offen­sive speech. The usu­al caveats apply when read­ing this data; New York magazine’s Sci­ence of Us blog breaks down the demo­graph­ics and points out prob­lems with def­i­n­i­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly with that of the word “offen­sive.” They write, “plen­ty of folks freak out about anti-cop sen­ti­ments but are fine with racial­ly loaded language—or insert your own exam­ples.” As com­men­ta­tors note almost dai­ly, var­i­ous free speech advo­cates show all man­ner of par­tial­i­ty when it comes to whose speech they choose to defend and whose they, unwit­ting­ly per­haps, sup­press.

Euro­pean coun­tries, of course, already have all sorts of laws that curb offen­sive speech and impose harsh penal­ties, from large fines to jail time. Those laws are extend­ing to the inter­net as well, a speech domain long cen­sored by Chi­nese author­i­ties.

Whether Euro­pean mea­sures against racist and xeno­pho­bic speech actu­al­ly lessen racism and xeno­pho­bia is an open ques­tion, as is the prob­lem of excep­tions to the laws that seem to allow cer­tain kinds of prej­u­dices as they strong­ly cen­sor oth­ers. Much more extreme exam­ples of the sup­pres­sion of free speech have recent­ly come to light under auto­crat­ic regimes in the Mid­dle East. In Syr­ia, soft­ware devel­op­er and free speech advo­cate Bas­sel Kharta­bil has been held in prison since 2012 for his activism. In Sau­di Ara­bia, artist, poet, and Pales­tin­ian refugee Ashraf Fayadh has been sen­tenced to death for “renounc­ing Islam.”

We could add to all of these exam­ples hun­dreds of oth­ers, from all over the world, but in addi­tion to the sta­tis­tics and the dis­turb­ing indi­vid­ual cas­es, it is worth ask­ing broad­er, more philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions about free speech as we draw our own con­clu­sions about the issues. What exact­ly do we mean by “free speech”? Should all speech be pro­tect­ed, even that meant to libel indi­vid­u­als or whole groups or to delib­er­ate­ly incite vio­lence? Should we tol­er­ate a pub­lic dis­course made up of lies, mis­in­for­ma­tion, prej­u­di­cial invec­tive, and per­son­al attacks? Should cit­i­zens and the press have the right to ques­tion offi­cial gov­ern­ment nar­ra­tives and to demand trans­paren­cy?

To help us think through these polit­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly fraught dis­cus­sions, we could lis­ten to Free Speech Bites, a pod­cast spon­sored by the Index on Cen­sor­ship and host­ed by free­lance philoso­pher Nigel War­bur­ton, who also hosts the pop­u­lar pod­cast Phi­los­o­phy Bites. The for­mat is iden­ti­cal to that long-stand­ing show, but instead of short con­ver­sa­tions with philoso­phers, War­bur­ton has brief, live­ly dis­cus­sions with free speech advo­cates, includ­ing authors, artists, politi­cians, jour­nal­ists, come­di­ans, car­toon­ists, and aca­d­e­mics. In the episode above, War­bur­ton talks with DJ Tay­lor, biog­ra­ph­er of the man con­sid­ered almost a saint of free speech, George Orwell.

Of his sub­ject, Tay­lor remarks, “I think it’s true to say that most of Orwell’s pro­fes­sion­al life, large amounts of the things that he wrote, are to do with the sup­pres­sion of the indi­vid­ual voice.” At the same time, he points out that Orwell’s “view of free speech is by no means clear cut.” The “whole free speech issue became much more del­i­cate­ly shad­ed than it would oth­er­wise have been” dur­ing the extra­or­di­nary times of the Span­ish Civ­il War and World War II. Tay­lor refers to the “clas­sic lib­er­al dilem­ma: how far do we tol­er­ate some­thing that, if tol­er­at­ed, will cease to tol­er­ate us…. If you are liv­ing in a democ­ra­cy and somebody’s putting out fas­cist pam­phlets encour­ag­ing the end of that democ­ra­cy, how much rope do you give them?”

In anoth­er episode, Irshad Manji—feminist, self-described “Mus­lim refusenik,” and author of The Trou­ble with Islam Today—talks free speech and reli­gion, and offers a very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive than what we’re used to hear­ing report­ed from Islam­ic thinkers. When War­bur­ton says that Islam and free expres­sion sound “like two incom­pat­i­ble things,” Man­ji coun­ters that as a “per­son of faith” she believes “free expres­sion is as much a reli­gious oblig­a­tion as it is a human right.” In her esti­ma­tion, “no human being can legit­i­mate­ly behave as if he or she owns a monop­oly on truth.” Any­thing less than a soci­ety that tol­er­ates civ­il dis­agree­ment, she says, means that “we’re play­ing God with one anoth­er.” In her reli­gious per­spec­tive, “devot­ing your­self to one god means that you must defend human lib­er­ty.” Man­ji sounds much more like Enlight­en­ment Chris­t­ian reform­ers like John Locke than she does many inter­preters of Islam, and she is well aware of the unpop­u­lar­i­ty of her point of view in much of the Islam­ic world.

Address­ing the ques­tion of why free speech mat­ters, broad­cast­er and writer Jonathan Dimbleby—former chair of the Index on Censorship—inaugurated the pod­cast in 2012 with a more clas­si­cal­ly philo­soph­i­cal dis­cus­sion of John Stu­art Mill’s On Lib­er­ty and the lib­er­al argu­ment against cen­sor­ship Mill and oth­ers artic­u­lat­ed. For Dim­ble­by, “free­dom of expres­sion [is] not only a right but a defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of what it means to be a civ­i­lized indi­vid­ual.” It’s a view he holds “very strong­ly,” but he admits that the valid excep­tions to the rule are “where the dif­fi­cult ter­ri­to­ry starts.” Dim­ble­by points to “very obvi­ous cir­cum­stances when you don’t have free­dom of expres­sion and should not have free­dom of expres­sion.” One of the excep­tions involves “laws that say that if you express your­self freely, you are direct­ly putting some­one else’s life at risk.” This is not as clear-cut as it seems. The “dan­ger­ous ter­ri­to­ry,” he argues, begins with cir­cum­scrib­ing lan­guage that incites anger or offense in oth­ers. We are back to the ques­tion of offense, and it is not a uncom­pli­cat­ed one. Although activists very often need to be unciv­il to be heard at all, there’s also a nec­es­sary place for pub­lic dis­cus­sions that are as thought­ful and care­ful as we can man­age. And for that rea­son, I’m grate­ful for the inter­ven­tion of Free Speech Bites and the inter­na­tion­al vari­ety of views it rep­re­sents.

For more of those views, see the Index on Censorship’s web­site to stream or down­load sev­en more Free Speech Bites pod­casts.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What “Orwellian” Real­ly Means: An Ani­mat­ed Les­son About the Use & Abuse of the Term

George Orwell’s Final Warn­ing: Don’t Let This Night­mare Sit­u­a­tion Hap­pen. It Depends on You!

Intro­duc­tion to Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy: A Free Yale Course

Great Writ­ers on Free Speech and the Envi­ron­ment

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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