Why do I care about free speech?

I think it’s a fair question to ask: why do I care about free speech? I live a live of great privilege – I don’t have many unpopular political beliefs, I am not discriminated against in any major way, there are no great social causes that I have to fight for on a daily basis – what does it matter to me? My day-to-day life doesn’t really put me up against the forces of the police or the government (to the contrary, I actually get my paycheques from a government agency). This is, I suspect, the state of affairs for most of you reading this blog. Our lives are very rarely touched by infringements of our rights (save for those who were in Toronto during the G20 protests).

So why talk about it? Why do I care?

As I’ve said several times previously, free speech is one of the core principles of a free society. Freedom is important because it allows us to make decisions that benefit people, not simply ones that correspond to whatever the prevailing prejudice of the day is. Free speech allows unpopular ideas to flourish, and as we’ve seen throughout history, some unpopular ideas are the ones that are the most needed. Allowing all ideas to come to the table and receive equal scrutiny ensures that bad ideas can be abandoned and good ones adopted.

Cracking down on free speech only hurts the progress of society, as the people of Tibet are learning first-hand:

International observers have called for action following accusations that China has been arresting leading Tibetan writers, poets and musicians in a crackdown on cultural figures, as The World Tonight’s Paul Moss reports.

I am a musician, so I must declare my bias towards art and artists. As someone with a sprinkling of knowledge about the history of music, drama, art and world history, I know that you cannot separate the progress and change of a society without looking at its artistic expression. Art is not only used to capture the essence of what is happening in the current cultural landscape, but to express the things that the culture wants and strives for. It is also often used to express dissent against forces that are oppressing the artist, and by extension the society at large. All of these things are true for the artists of Tibet. Silencing artists accomplishes only one thing – takes away any access you might have to solve the problem.

This is why I want racists and bigots and Holocaust deniers to have a platform – not because I agree with their ideas, but because shutting them down doesn’t solve the underlying problems they represent, and only makes it harder to keep track of where unpopular ideas are coming from.

What’s interesting about this story is that apparently it is not the Chinese government (who, as you will recall, is no great fan of free speech) that is responsible for these jailings:

But despite clear challenges to Beijing’s authority, Robbie Barnett, director of Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies programme, said the Chinese government itself may not be behind the arrests and prison sentences. He believes that over-zealous local officials were the more likely instigators: “Local officials make their own minds up about who they’re going to crack down on.”

It is for this reason that I care. Free speech is a fundamental right that is opposed not only to governmental tyranny, but the tyranny that average people inflict on each other. There are any number of people I disagree with, but even if I had the power to I would not silence them. However, because we live in a (comparatively) free society, we take our freedom for granted. It is this complacency that worries me, as I see people telling others that their ideas are better off not expressed. If an idea lacks validity, by all means demonstrate that. If someone has shown your idea to be incorrect, then maybe you should stop talking about it. But don’t ever let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t speak simply because your idea is unpopular. Free speech is something we should all care about, and it’s something I’m going to keep writing about.

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