Fri | Jan 22, 2021

Kristen Gyles | ‘Free speech for me, but not for thee’

Published:Wednesday | January 13, 2021 | 12:12 AM
Li Wenliang’s false comments have apparently been validated with the coronavirus being purported to have caused the death of nearly two million people.
Li Wenliang’s false comments have apparently been validated with the coronavirus being purported to have caused the death of nearly two million people.
Kristen Gyles
Kristen Gyles
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Occasionally, whenever I watch cartoons, there is a genie somewhere in the show that pops out the bottle and tells its captor that they have three wishes.

I’ve always wondered why the boy or girl doesn’t simply use one of the wishes to wish for more wishes. Maybe 500 more or so.

In like manner, since it seems the concept of free speech is becoming more and more offensive, and hence coming under greater threat, before my diminishing supply of ‘free speech’ articles runs out, I’ll use this one to explain why the free speech so glibly regarded by some is held in the high esteem that it is, by others who are guided by history. This may or may not help to secure a longer shelf life for my written opinions, so it’s a worth a shot.

The principle of free speech is that individuals reserve the right to freely express and articulate their ideas without punishment. Free speech is in every moment, something we use and abuse. We abuse it every time we share fake news on social media and every time we go to our fences to pick arguments with our neighbours. We also abuse it every time we say things that hurt others and cause pain.

So if free speech can be so terrible, why are we so fussy about upholding it?

During the dark ages, the Roman Church would forcibly take dissenters, tie them on tree stumps and burn them alive because they dared to ‘express’ that they thought the church was wrong.

Galileo Galilei, notable astronomer of the 16th century, was forced to kneel and recant his ‘heresy’ of the earth moving around the sun. After recanting for fear of torture, he is rumoured to have muttered under his breath while exiting the courtroom, “All the same, it moves…”.

SILENCED BY POLICE

Li Wenliang, a Chinese ophthalmologist, was silenced by police just before the outbreak of the coronavirus and was forced to sign a declaration saying he had severely disrupted social order by “making false comments” warning people about the potential outbreak of a virus, which was still at the time unknown and unidentified. The doctor is said to have contracted COVID-19 and died shortly after.

In all three of these instances, the authorities of the day felt the views being expressed were heretical and dangerous. So heretical and dangerous, that their proponents must be silenced. What was the result? In every case, the promulgation of the very dogma the authorities tried to suppress.

Following the dark day of religious persecution, Protestantism sprung up and flourished. Today, Galilei’s heresy of a revolving earth is now accepted as scientific fact and Li Wenliang’s false comments have apparently been validated with the virus being purported to have caused the death of nearly two million people.

Censorship is a brilliant way of sparking curiosity, and if you really want to get people to buy into unverified theories, forcibly shut the people up who produce them.

History tells us that silencing people simply propagates their ideology once people start seeking them out like Nicodemus in the night to hear their ‘gospel’. After all, it must be some form of gospel if it can generate so much interest and opposition.

Beyond this, censorship leads to widespread public distrust. When people have a basis for feeling that information is being hidden from them and that the government is trying to silence dissenting views, all that happens is that the people become more and more distrustful. This is precisely what we are seeing today. Perhaps every other person and their grandma now think COVID-19 is a hoax and governments around the world are colluding on one big lie.

This is the phenomena that make censorship ironically ineffective. It does the very opposite of what is intended.

Inefficiency aside, censorship is simply not right – for the simple and solemn reason that we are all equal. I would prefer to think we still believe that. The erosion of free speech is always the first step down the path to totalitarian leadership because it assumes that some have the moral or other authority to speak while others don’t. Some have top-class education and a breadth of experience that makes them more worthy of getting to air an opinion. The airheads who can’t as much as think for themselves, on the other hand, mustn’t try to think for others, and therefore don’t need to posit an opinion.

IRONIC

But frankly, if we are honest, many of the ‘truths’ we hold today were considered falsehoods at some point, which is the irony of the logic that says censorship is somehow in the best interest of the people.

At the outset of this pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated unreservedly that only COVID-19 patients and their caregivers should wear masks, and in fact seemed to have had reasonable arguments to support this. Today, governments are being urged to mandate that everyone wears a mask. I wonder what would have been the fate of doctors who at the very beginning had dared to disagree with the WHO.

If some people were to have their way, we would have never heard their ‘pseudoscience’ in the first place, frankly. Mainstream media platforms would have shunned them, and would have sidestepped their contributions in the name of protecting the people.

Intolerance is really just a measure of how insecure we are about our own positions. Rather than try to shut the rest of the world up, persons need to learn to simply improve their arguments. Somewhere along the line, the truth will prevail.

The growth trajectory of the world’s pitiful intolerance has reminded me of why one of the most important sectors that need protection from monopoly is the media industry. It is always dangerous to have state-owned media as the only media outlet in any country. Thankfully, that is not the case here, as in a few other countries.

When I see newspaper opinion articles suggesting that other newspaper opinion articles should not be aired, it reminds me that in the minds of many, it’s “Free speech for me, but not for thee”. But again, this is the very notion that would make one seek to promote wanton and arbitrary censorship and silencing.

Kristen Gyles is a mathematics educator. Email feedback to kristengyles@gmail.com and columns@gleanerjm.com