Protect freedom of speech at all costs - Businesslive

12 August 2019 - Contesting opinion is the nitty gritty of it, the only reason for cleaving to free speech – “thought that we hate”, in the phrasing of one of its greatest defences.

Michael Morris

Every principle risks running into difficulties at the extremes, free speech especially so. It can be too much of a good thing. Or so we are tempted to believe.

Respected journalist Ferial Haffajee wrote with feeling last week about social media’s “rising threat to media freedom”: the juggernaut of untrammelled public opinion that she felt reduced her to “roadkill” in its tracks.

Reflecting on the invasive threats and hateful sentiments of her detractors, she wrote: “I have realised that when hate comes to you packaged and delivered on to your phone and into your palm, it gets into you”.

That’s not be taken lightly. The personal cost is amply reflected in Haffajee’s creditably frank testimony that “when reporting, I walk with a stoop now, bent from the world as if to protect myself”, and that, “at news events such as EFF media conferences, I make myself small and will ask questions in a way that sounds to me, as I reflect, almost obsequious. It’s definitely not like me.” She wrote that “I want the spotlight to turn away because the insults sear at me”, one of the effects being that she had begun “to second-guess myself”.

But Haffajee goes on to identify a larger risk; the “rising threat to media freedom” – singled out, she noted, by the UN and other global free-media advocates – posed by popular use of the “internet and powerful social media platforms” as a means of conducting “the worst forms of violence against journalists”.

And here is the critical, even worrying, question for defenders of free speech: is less freedom better? By extension, should we defer to global media giants the choice of what we might read and see and, perhaps, be affronted by? And, of course, contest.

Contesting opinion is the nitty gritty of it, the only reason for cleaving to free speech – “thought that we hate”, in the phrasing of one of its greatest defences. Haffajee describes women journalists in particular as targeted “in a trend now called cyber-misogyny”.

Well, the same is true for white people. The same is true for black people. And for gays, farmers, Jews, Muslims. In fact, the same is true for any category named by those who insist humans are not individuals but confined in our identity to being members of one group or another.

This, not free speech, is the real menace, whose proliferation has been actively abetted by supposedly progressive thinking. The problem is less that “we” are being attacked, but that, too often, our counterattack is fainthearted, lacking conviction and therefore unconvincing. And as long as that’s true, curbing freedom will not protect us better, but only undermine us.

It may be true that, as Haffajee concludes, when Twitter says hateful words “do not violate Twitter rules”, this is “the digital equivalent of telling women journalists like me to go and cover easier beats than investigative and political journalism that do not generate hate. That outcome … is just what the online merchants of hate want.” That is indeed what they want and is exactly why conceding is the greatest risk. 

One of liberalism’s most influential thinkers, John Stuart Mill, addressed the question head-on when he wrote: “Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free speech but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’, not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.”

Applying the principle at the extreme is where it counts most.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.