Opinion: the Paradox of freedom of speech

POSTED: 01/15/15 2:35 PM

Freedom of expression is a weird animal. Trouw-columnist Ger Groot describes how he experienced this phenomenon after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.

“It was the first tweet I received on my time line, immediately after the press releases about the attack at Charlie Hebdo: “Let those who wonder what CH may have done to call this upon itself keep their mouths shut now, and probably for always.”

It is strange how the most rabidly defenders of the free word time and again appear to be the first once to deny others the word. That is not only a matter of fanaticism. It has something to do with the free word itself. That is much more paradoxical than it appears at first sight.

The French president Hollande gave an example of this on the evening of the attack. “We have to be united as a community,” he said. Wise words, or so it seemed. Standing together against those who want to smother the freedom – who would be against that?

But exactly then the free word comes along to disturb the unity. Because when it is really free, it divides as well as it unites. People have different opinions and they express them as well. If they were not allowed to do that, politics and freedom would be in bad shape. And if they all thought the same, the freedom in their own hearts would be in bad shape.

The modern society had a solution for this. Everybody is free to express himself about everything that moves him. But those who want to muzzle that freedom will not be free. Not only are they a threat to the liberal order, they also use it inappropriately by wanting to undermine it.

Such a point of departure sounds rather solid and it is repeated ad nauseam. But is it really that solid? Is it really possible to make such a sharp distinction between the formal requirements of the freedom and its practical execution?

The heated tweet from the beginning of this column cannot be taken completely serious, no matter in how many ways it has been repeated. It became more serious when in France the Front National was excluded from the large manifestation against terrorist violence. You could come up with arguments for and against this, but the unity President Hollande spoke of, was immediately gone, if only because it is apparently possible to fight over this – with words.

It is therefore not so clear where the formal threat to the freedom crosses over to a factual one, whereby no longer the requirement of the expression of opinion, but its execution is at stake. As soon as she begins to play a role, that limit itself becomes the topic of discussion. Discord is what characterizes the free society, not unity, not even with regard to its own principles.

The real problem is therefore how to shape that discord in a peaceful manner. Formal rules do not offer a decisive foundation for this. It is therefore up to the citizen, his ability to judge and his decency – and something that is still rather old-fashioned called courage.

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