Thursday, 28 November 2013

Speak No Evil

Just in case you didn't guess, I intend to write on the topic of freedom in more than one blog. I'm very grateful for the comments I received yesterday both here and on Facebook. Today's piece goes back to the last time I covered this, some years ago.

One of the biggest freedoms in the west is Freedom of Speech. Especially in English speaking countries there's quite a history here, and it's a right held very dear. The problem I am thinking of  is that one I mentioned yesterday, of the difference between legal freedom and actual freedom.

Legally, in most democracies, you can say what you want, in public, and the law will protect you. Certain individuals and groups take advantage of this to say things that the vast majority of people oppose. The religious right, particularly the extreme fringe of it, are notorious for this. As much as their hate speech is despised by anyone with half a brain, the general opinion is that they must be given the right to say it, because of how precious free speech is. Apart from anything else, it allows them to "show their true colours."

Here again, we see two freedoms hitting head on. The freedom to be obnoxious, and the freedom not to be subjected to it.

For the sake of this blog we'll assume that speech includes anything written, not just spoken out loud.

In practice, if you shoot your mouth off there are consequences, and we tend to fall back on that. But a lot of time is taken up by people using Freedom of Speech for their own purposes, to criticize or verbally persecute minorities or anyone they don't approve of, or to push their own agenda. There will always be those who take advantage of freedom.

But is Freedom of Speech real? There are quite a few examples of where speaking out will get you into trouble. We call these people whistleblowers. Of course it tends to depend on what it is they are making public, and there are unquestionably occasions where it would make no sense to share sensitive information.

We cannot have complete transparency of all activity of governments and their agencies. If military plans were freely available, there would be no military strategy. If police operations were freely available, they simply wouldn't be able to function. Businesses need to be able to play their cards fairly close to survive.

Imagine you had a soup factory. You are obliged to list the ingredients on the label, but that's all. The recipe is a closely guarded secret. If an ex-employee were to publish it on the internet it could ruin you. For this reason contracts of non-disclosure are often signed prior to being privy to this sort of information, and you effectively waive your rights of free speech.

I once signed documents pertaining to the Official Secrets Act in Britain. I was working on a military base, and although I didn't actually have access to sensitive information, I was free to come and go in areas where there was equipment that the Army really didn't want discussed "outside" and therefore, just to make sure, all staff, even those like me who wouldn't have known what I was looking at, had to sign. I had no problem with that. If I HAD been able to give away secrets, I could potentially have allowed a group like the I.R.A. to make it easier to kill a British soldier on patrol in Belfast. And you never knew when a civilian employee could be an I.R.A. sympathizer.

Of course, signing those documents didn't guarantee that such a person would keep their mouth shut. What it meant was that if they gave away sensitive information and got found out, they were in breach of a very serious contract, and could be prosecuted, in fact they'd throw the book at them. Not quite treason, but damn near.

So free speech with regard to classified data is limited, based on other agreements made, and the real intent behind Freedom of Speech is freedom of opinion. So that you can say "The President is an idiot!" without fear. You still can't say he did something that he didn't, because there are also laws of slander and libel, but in practice these are rarely used for elected officials. Having people tell lies about you, if you are a politician, just goes with the job, and everyone just shrugs it off, not least because politicians tell enough lies about themselves.

The reason we value this is because in certain authoritarian systems, I could not say that elected officials tell lies. Some little snoop somewhere would see it, report me, and at the very least the blog would be removed. I could get a visit from men in suits or uniforms and get told to stop saying such things. Etc. Authoritarian regimes fear such truths being public. Because, you know, if nobody says it, it's not happening.

Those who cling to every shred of Freedom of Speech do so because they are fully aware of what a luxury and a priviledge is to have your opinion protected by law. In so many situations around the world, and through history, it is quite different.

It makes me extremely angry then, when people claim freedom of speech just to be complete arseholes online. These laws simply don't apply on social media. Facebook or whatever other site you use have terms of use policies, which you sign before using them. Rules are not always implemented fairly, sometimes they are arbitrary or even bizarre (Facebook's censrship is extremely hit and miss) but it's their website and they can do as they please. You are not obliged to use it.

But if you visit a person's blog or wall or whatever, say something offensive, and get yourself deleted, your rights of Freedom of Speech have got nothing to do with it. It is disingenuous to claim that you have any rights whatsoever in that situation.

And then there's this.

It is fair to say that the choice between telling the truth, and being tactful/polite/kind/helpful can be tricky. It's something I personally find very hard, very often. I choose therefore to curtail my speech, despite freedom within the law to speak my mind. Good old fashioned good manners are what stop me instead.

I have met, as I'm sure you have, those who say whatever they are thinking, and hang the consequences. It may just be your neighbour, it may be a relative, or co-worker, or it may be a TV personality. The impact of their outspoken views will therefore vary. Sometimes it creates a starting point for discussion, and can be helpful. More often than not it causes arguments, upsets somebody unnecessarily, and leads to them getting a reputation as unpleasant, so the consequences follow quite naturally.

As I said, we are in an area now which has nothing to do with law, but everything to do with etiquette and common sense.

It has led to an entire discipline - diplomacy. I'm a great fan of diplomacy. I am, I freely admit, an opinionated person. But I also desire, with every fibre of my being, to be kind. The practice (in both senses) of diplomacy allows me to be authentic without hurting anyone's feelings, at least most of the time.

I am convinced that the urge to be diplomatic for its own sake is on the wane. Rudeness and speech with ulterior motives is most definitely greater than it was 30 years ago. This is despite political correctness, you understand. I can't do anything about this disturbing trend, so I shall have to continue with my unilateral efforts to state my case while trying to avoid unnecessary harm.

And to that end:

1 comment:

  1. I have much to say on this. Nothing I type seems to come out correctly here, now. I will revisit this later.