Free speech is a core pillar of our modern society, and it is the one essential value which allows us to uphold all other rights. Modern social reform like equal rights under the law for all genders and ethnicities would have never been possible if past generations had been unable to demand these reforms. Many protesters were injured or even killed for their unwillingness to be silent, and we resent these losses to this day.
Australians, along with most other developed nations seem to understand that freedom of speech is a “must-have”. This should not take further convincing, but if you are still unsure, dear reader, look at popular fiction, where oppressive governments that censor free speech are a popular antagonist. Similarly, one need only look at immigration patterns to realise that people almost exclusively move to countries with robust free speech laws.
We live in a world in which political activists from both ends of the political spectrum routinely attempt to block, de-platform, censor, or otherwise stop individuals with opposing viewpoints from speaking.
The two major reasons given for silencing opponents are: firstly, concern for offence suffered by the “victims” of speech, and secondly, a fear that more bystanders could be convinced by these “wrong” opinions. Although I understand why people think this way, here is why they are wrong.
Although being offended is uncomfortable, this should not be a valid cause for censorship, since it is impossible to find an objective definition for who can be offended. If any offence at all for any reason by anyone is enough to justify censorship, then obviously no one would be able to say anything of importance at all. If however, only one group can be offended over one topic at a time, then whoever decides what this group is will be able to control the discourse.
One should stand against censorship out of rational self-interest alone. Consider a politically charged topic like the right to have an abortion. If you were to insist that anyone who criticised the pro-choice position should be unable to speak at Australian universities or equivalent, then you would lay the groundwork for yourself to be censored. If public opinion were to shift against you, the same rules could be used to silence you.
This, of course, might be a risk worth taking if you think that with censorship you can stop bad ideas from spreading, but alas, it has the exact opposite effect. How often do you think shouting “bigot” at your ideological opponent changed anyone’s mind in your favour? All it accomplishes is that people will no longer share their views honestly, where they can be discussed, debated, or corrected. Combine this with the echo chambers of Facebook and YouTube, and you get different groups that never talk with one another, and instead become increasingly radical. Perhaps the odd extremist could be convinced to soften their stances, if they could only see the damage they are doing, by preventing them from speaking this can never be possible.
Not convinced yet? Consider any issue you feel strongly about. You, dear reader, are of course correct in your opinion about this topic, and the other side can only ever counter with fallacious arguments and can barely string coherent sentences together. Would it not be best if everybody heard both sides of the argument so that he or she can see how your opinion is the correct one? Aren’t you, by shutting down your opponent’s chances to speak, admitting that your arguments can’t hold up to rational discourse?
I believe that over time reason and logic will prevail, and that good arguments will trump bad ones. I think that the only effective antidote to bad speech is more and better speech. It is the only way to improve our society. That is why I urge everyone to support more free speech, not trade it in for a nebulous notion of being less offended at the world.