November 2020 Pulse

One of the freedoms that Western democratic societies cherish and are determined to defend is the freedom of speech or expression. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights articulates the right to the freedom of expression thus:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The right to the freedom to hold a view and to express it is without question important if society were to remain open and if a discursive form of democracy were to be allowed to mature and flourish.

The freedom of expression is so important that some have argued that the society that inordinately suppresses it would be greatly impoverished. This is because it is in an environment where the free discussion of views is encouraged that the truth is most likely to emerge, recognised and embraced.

In his 1859 classic entitled On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argues as follows:

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

It is in a sense true to say that if a society were to mature and become more resilient, it has to respect the freedom of speech and widen public discourse. In fact, as many modern liberals have argued, the wider the discourse, the stronger the society that permits it will become. Such a society, they maintain, will be better able to weather social conflicts and crises.

However, it is important to note that for Mill and others, freedom of expression must always be understood in relation to the search for the truth. And the truth will always in some ways liberate speech and in other ways also discipline (i.e., restrict) it.

The idea of truth implies the existence of ‘untruth’. And although in an open society, people must be allowed to articulate viewpoints that are simply not true, these viewpoints should always be contested and corrected. Truth therefore should guide the way in which we think and speak.

This emphasis on truth is at the heart of the Christian understanding of the freedom of expression, for without truth there can be no real freedom (John 8:31-32). This point is especially pressing in our postmodern climate, where the idea of objective truth has been eclipsed and where what is true has become radically relativized.

Without an enduring belief in the truth and the desire to attain it, speech is robbed of its substance and is reduced to babble. When this happens, the very freedom of expression that society wants so jealously to protect will be lost.

If we believe that truth does not exist or that it cannot be known, then free speech can only produce ‘noise’, a ramble of different opinions and viewpoints that are alienated from reality.

More worryingly, in the absence of truth or where it is not taken seriously, the ideology that wins the jostle for public attention will do so on the basis of arbitrary might. When truth in public discourse is marginalised, power takes its place.

We see this already instantiated in some circles, where public discourse is steered in one particular direction by powerful actors, and where dissenting voices are often silenced, shouted down or demonised.

When truth is pushed to the margins, public discourse will be driven by ruthless power, and the noble ideal of the freedom of expression will itself become something of a sham, a vacuous rhetoric. For when might instead of the truth controls public discourse in any society, the liberties of its members are duly threatened.

However, as I have already alluded to, if truth is taken seriously and if it is to be regarded as the goal of public discourse, then certain kinds of speech, especially those that promote falsehoods and those that are slanderous, should not be tolerated.

This means that if truth is really taken seriously, certain kinds of freedom must be checked. This must be done in the interest of truth, but also in the interest of society because falsehoods, unlike truth, can be and often are harmful to the community.

‘Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the freedom and full development of his own personality is possible’, declares Article 29 of the UDHR. To protect the community from harmful and polarising falsehoods is in some ways to protect one’s own liberties.

The Bible clearly emphasises that speech should be truthful. The Apostle Paul exhorts the Christians in Ephesus to ‘put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour’ (Ephesians 4:25).

Commenting on the Eighth Commandment in the Decalogue (‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour’), the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. This moral prescription flows from the vocation of the holy people to bear witness to their God who is the truth and wills the truth. Offenses against the truth express by word or deed a refusal to commit oneself to moral uprightness: they are fundamental infidelities to God and, in this sense, they undermine the foundations of the covenant.

The discussion on the freedom of expression must therefore give equal attention to the question of duties and responsibilities as it does to liberties. Speech must always be responsible if it is to protect the freedoms of the speaker and the community to which he belongs.

Speech has the responsibility towards the truth. It must be truthful. In fact, it is when speech is truthful that it liberates the speaker and his hearers from the distortions of falsehood and the unfreedom that results.

For speech to be truly free, it must be truthful.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.