Author: George Kitsaras
Editor-in-chief / Psychologist / Doctoral Researcher
Words are powerful. Words can actually physically hurt as research on brain responses in the mere sound of the word “pain” by Richter (2010) has shown. Moreover, words can unleash tremendous forces that shape beliefs, ideologies and thoughts leading to short and long-term consequences for many. Still, freedom of speech represents one of the most important human rights as manifested in numerous documents and declarations stretching from the first amendment of the United States Constitution to the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights in article 19.
In the West, discussion on freedom of speech and its limits often draws information from bigotry and discriminating narratives generated and shared from politicians as well as everyday people. But look no further than a stone’s throw from the Greek islands in the east Aegean Sea, the mighty economies of Asia and the relatively newly independent nations in Africa and a different picture emerges. In those countries, freedom of speech is something much more than a simple debate; it is a matter of life and death. In Russia, Turkey, China, the Middle East and many more places people risk and lose their lives in an on-going battle against dark, backwards thinking, conservative yet powerful forces that demand total control on information channels with full suppression of challenging voices and opposition.
In the case of the West, some might say that simply confronting bigotry and extreme narratives will act as a de facto recognition leading to subsequent legitimisation. Despite its original point, this argument seems trivial in today’s world order where a vast network of nationalist, neo-Nazi, ultra-right and populist views are amplified with cataclysmic effects on normality and liberal, progressive values. But while all these extreme narratives gain momentum in our societies by utilising their freedom of speech, in other parts of the world people spill blood, tears and suffer for that same fundamental human right. It appears as if humanity is faced with a devastating contradiction where on one part of the world people are dying for the right to speak their minds while on other parts people are questioning the sheer necessity and are considering limits on freedom of speech!
Instead of a conclusion, just consider the following:
As Amnesty International notes: “limits and restriction can be imposed on freedom of speech under specific, well-defined, circumstances such as when freedom of speech harms other human rights (e.g. incitement to murder etc.)”. But in the arena of real life events and daily interactions, what are or should be the tangible limitations on the freedom to speak one’s mind? What will happen once you start imposing such limitations? What is the thin line dividing censorship and protection of the wider public? How can we call out racist, derogatory and hateful rhetoric without compromising free speech and constructive debate in its core? What should all of us, in our roles as small yet important elements in the vast field of information sharing, human interaction and shaping of beliefs and attitudes, do when someone verbally discriminates, stigmatises and attacks others?
Finally, what is today’s true meaning and real life implications of the famous, yet often misattributed to Voltaire, phrase of Evelyn Beatrice Hall (also known as S.G. Tallentyre) “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it”?
Maria Richter, T. W. (February 2010). Do words hurt? Brain activation during the processing of pain-related words PAIN, 148(2): 198-205.