Pitfalls to Freedom of Speech

In the 16th Century, Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus published a controversial scientific theory suggesting the earth revolved around the sun. This was not a smart thing to do given that the age’s two powerful Abrahamic religions – Christianity and Islam – staunchly believed it was the other way around.

It took a hundred years and personal sacrifices from scientists like Galileo before Copernicus’ ideas were finally accepted. Centuries later, Albert Einstein put forward an even more provocative concept – that time and space were similar, among other things – but his ideas were far easily accepted into modern scientific thinking.

Why the different reaction the second time around?

A little thing called freedom of speech. Freedom of speech does not have pitfalls, but it can be made to look like it does. It can be debased and taken advantage off. Every ones in a while revolutionaries and radicals materialize, by exploiting new technology, to try and throw cold water on the mighty sweltering fire of freedom of speech, and thus democracy.

The concept of democracy may have existed since the time of the Greeks, but freedom of speech is relatively recent. It is said to have emerged during the Middle Ages, probably around the time the Renaissance started to flourish. The Renaissance – an age advocating science and rationality – held individuality in the highest of regards. It was the understanding of Renaissance thinkers that to ensure individuality, man should be able to speak his mind.

This way of thinking did not emerge overnight. In fact, they probably did not even know what they were unleashing. Something uncontrolled, something frantic. It was obvious it would be controversial; it was understandable that kings and priests would never take lightly to the concept. It meant some compelling figure standing on an alter asking what right an unelected man has to rule over a nation, or a priest over a religion’s subjects. Freedom of speech is more dangerous than either money or a sword. Both of the latter, for a long time, existed almost exclusively in the hands of the nobility, who were not about to easily give up a greater weapon to the people.

Let me be excused for the following piece of amateur philosophy.

Why did democracy never work for the Greeks? Or the Romans, who came so close? Is it perhaps because they had no concept of freedom of speech, was it the magic bullet, the secret ingredient that was missing to launch a successful democratic system?

Now – being a young democracy and all – I believe there is so much we could learn from Western democracies, especially the United States.

After the drawing of the constitution of that country, several amendments were made. The first one – called simply the First Amendment Right – ensured among many things the freedom of speech and the press.

But it did not end there. The amendment had to be defined.

Anyone can say whatever he feels like saying, but what if doing so incites violence, or undermines national security?

Over the decades and centuries, certain alterations were made. For instance, the act of shouting fire inside a theater, thereby spreading immediate fear and terror as to get people injured, is not protected under the First Amendment. But spouting communist or fascist (not that these things are the same) ideas, especially during peace time, is only democratic.

The problem with history is that it is history. Time only goes forward, and with it, so does technology. The shortcoming of democratic institutions is that they work at a snail’s pace, never adjusting to major changes in society in time.

The right to publish anything has been the foundation of democracy, but what happens when falsity outnumbers truth?

I am talking about social media: a game changer to the entire idea of freedom of speech. I have already said that the right to say or write anything is the only real power a citizen has. The government owns all the weapons, and the billions (sometimes trillions) of dollars collected in taxes. All the people have is the supreme authority over speech and the press.

That power has grown exponentially since the ascendancy of the social media. And social media, to be perfectly honest, is freedom of speech at its ugliest. It is miraculous that it was serious journalism – espousing truth and accountability – that flourished with the emergence of freedom of speech, even after the proliferation of TV. But social media is a different beast. Never have so many people had the platform to express their ideas.

Idea is not a bad thing, but sometimes there are bad ideas. I have always believed that in a rational world, propped up by facts, a narrow-minded world view is no much for a reasonable one. But this could only happen where facts are meaningful. It has been confirmed that false views and fake news go viral faster than real, sober ones. Social media is turning into a hub for “alternative facts” in which true discourse becomes a joke. This fact, more than any other, is the biggest threat to freedom of speech, constantly eating away at its legitimacy.

Shutting down social media sites – as a number of African countries have been doing, including this one – is not the answer. In fact, I am convinced doing so is a form of human rights violation. A government should be able to fight idea with idea, not stifle dialogue.

The right solution would be to launch a major offensive against falsehood. (Facebook has already started putting safeguards against the wild fire that is fake news.) And major news organizations need to embrace the new technology, setting the scene before internet parasites do so. Otherwise, freedom of speech is a goner.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a regular contributor to Fortune. He could be reached at christian.tesfaye@yahoo.com

Published on Mar 18,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 880]



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